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The birth of a new career

Gigi Douban Dec 23, 2011

Bob Moon: I’ve never heard about a “doula” being present in any of the stories I’ve come across about that famous birth in Bethlehem. But doulas have been around for centuries. In recent years, in fact, there’s been tremendous growth in the number of doula training programs across the country, especially for those who can least afford it.

From Birmingham, Ala., Gigi Douban reports having a doula is a way to ensure a little comfort with the joy of a newborn.

Gigi Douban: Dalia Abrams is jamming a fake baby’s head through what seems like a really narrow mock pelvis. A few of the girls in class cringe. After all, most of them will be going through this in a matter of months, if not weeks. These are teen moms at Birmingham’s Jackson-Olin High School.

So what’s the key to a pain-free birth? Drugs? Not according to Abrams. It’s a doula — someone paid to support a woman through labor. In a hospital, the doula lets the staff know what the mom wants. She might offer a massage or lip balm for chapped lips. These little things add up, Abrams says.

Dalia Abrams: To me a doula is a way to get a lot of bang for your buck. In a short period of time you can have a large impact.

Abrams is head of a new nonprofit called BirthWell Partners. She trains low-income women to become doulas for other women in poverty. It’s part of a growing trend: doula training programs are sprouting all over the country.

Besides teen moms, BirthWell Partners pairs doulas with pregnant recovering addicts and homeless women.

Abrams: The benefit is a couple of different things. First of all, a teen mom who is being cared for by a woman who was a teen mom, she feels like she has a connection, you understand where I’m coming from, you get me.

Doula training normally costs around $1,200. But doulas here get trained for free.

There’s a push nationwide to fund doulas through the health care reform bill, and a number of states are working to secure Medicaid reimbursement for doulas. The American Pregnancy Association says referrals to doulas are up 30 percent over a similar period last year. That makes newly trained doulas like Martha Williams, hopeful.

Martha Williams: My personal experience with childbirth was very scary and very lonesome.

She was 16 when she had her first child, and completely alone. And now she remembers how even things like the fetal heart rate monitor can seem so jarring.

Williams: It sounded like BaBOOMbaBOOMbaBOOM. It just was really loud. I learned the other day in a meeting that you could turn the fetal monitor down — I didn’t know that.

In exchange for the BirthWell Partners training, Williams will volunteer her services to at least five women. She works at various shelters and as a seamstress, and she isn’t even sure what she’ll charge for her doula services. But whether it’s $200, or maybe even $50, she says every little bit helps these days. That extra money can go toward gas or utilities.

Really, though, she says she’s not in it for the money. And neither are most doulas, says Brad Imler, president of the American Pregnancy Association.

Brad Imler: A doula usually does one to two births a month, a more active doula might do three or four, but really that’s pushing the limit.

And, Imler says, it’s usually not enough to make a living.

Imler: So most doulas then are looking at…doing something else whether it’s childbirth education classes through the hospital, belly molds, photography.

Still, Imler says, word is spreading. And with rising demand for doulas and other birth services, some new hope for these women getting back on their feet.

In Birmingham, I’m Gigi Douban for Marketplace.

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