The birth of a new career

New programs help low-income women train to become doulas and birthing assistants.

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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Good afternoon Journey and others! This is remarkable being a Doula myself and participating in over 100 births that were teen mothers! This is such an awesome calling and soul filling role as a Doula. Teens would make awesome Doulas! Especially if they can understand the role and the denial of self in fulfilling this role. We believe in peer to peer model here at HealthConnectOne. Seeing their peers being pregnant and would love to look out at the face of their peer giving them emotional support. Every woman deserves a Doula. We are with Dalia and making sure every woman has one as well! Happy New Years !

This is wonderful news.

I know some amazing young women, seniors in high school, who are interested in becoming doulas. They are on a path of psycho-spiritual development, and I consider them to be more grounded and wise than many of us are at 30. But still, they are young. Thoughts?

Thank you for shining a light on community-based doulas! At HealthConnect One, we are incredibly encouraged by the federal government’s growing interest in the role of community-based doulas during pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and early parenting – a truly transformative time in a family’s life.

The first federal funding stream dedicated to community-based doula programs was established in December 2007, after years of tireless advocacy on the part of community-based doulas and program supervisors such as those featured here on Marketplace. These programs are powerful. These women are local heroes. And the work itself is life-changing for doulas and clients alike.

For a brief history of federal funding for community-based doula programs, or to connect with other community-based doulas around the country, we invite you to visit our website at http://www.healthconnectone.org/pages/overview/100.php

Congratulations to BirthWell Partners, and your sister-doulas around the globe, for making a difference in the lives of new families every day.

We wish you, Gigi, and all your readers/listeners a very Happy New Year!

Thank you Gigi for this great story. Our goal is for every woman to be able to have a doula at her birth if she wants one. This will definitely help!!!

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