Here is a sampling of the research available about the role and effect of doulas in the birth experience:

A randomized controlled trial of continuous labor support for middle-class couples: effect on cesarean delivery rates

McGrath SK, Kennell JH (2008) Birth (Berkeley, Calif) Vol 35(2):92-97

BACKGROUND: Previous randomized controlled studies in several different settings demonstrated the positive effects of continuous labor support by an experienced woman (doula) for low-income women laboring without the support of family members. The objective of this randomized controlled trial was to examine the perinatal effects of doula support for nulliparous middle-income women accompanied by a male partner during labor and delivery.

METHODS: Nulliparous women in the third trimester of an uncomplicated pregnancy were enrolled at childbirth education classes in Cleveland, Ohio, from 1988 through 1992. Of the 686 prenatal women recruited, 420 met enrollment criteria and completed the intervention. For the 224 women randomly assigned to the experimental group, a doula arrived shortly after hospital admission and remained throughout labor and delivery. Doula support included close physical proximity, touch, and eye contact with the laboring woman, and teaching, reassurance, and encouragement of the woman and her male partner.

RESULTS: The doula group had a significantly lower cesarean delivery rate than the control group (13.4% vs 25.0%, p = 0.002), and fewer women in the doula group received epidural analgesia (64.7% vs 76.0%, p = 0.008). Among women with induced labor, those supported by a doula had a lower rate of cesarean delivery than those in the control group (12.5% vs 58.8%, p = 0.007). On questionnaires the day after delivery, 100 percent of couples with doula support rated their experience with the doula positively.

CONCLUSIONS: For middle-class women laboring with the support of their male partner, the continuous presence of a doula during labor significantly decreased the likelihood of cesarean delivery and reduced the need for epidural analgesia. Women and their male partners were unequivocal in their positive opinions about laboring with the support of a doula.

Postpartum Depression: Bridging the Gap Between Medicalized Birth and Social Support

Goldbort, J (2002) International Journal of Childbirth Education Vol 17(4):11-17

ABSTRACT:  Having a baby is generally considered one of the happiest times in a woman's life.  However, approximately 10% of women experience a downward spiraling event known as Postpartum Depression. Research demonstrates that early screening, intervention, and treatment can prevent this malady from having a devastating effect on the woman, her family and the community. Social support is one of the many key contributing factors in how a woman interprets her birthing experience, with adverse birthing experiences contributing to postpartum depression. In this paper, the author examines the role of the doula, and how her support during the perinatal period may contribute to a positive outcome in a medicalized birthing arena, and as a consequence of a doula's support, postpartum depression may be minimized or prevented. 

Benefits of Massage Therapy and Use of a Doula During Labour and Childbirth

Keenan P, Altern Ther Health Med 2000 Jan;6(1):66-74 Potomac Massage Training Institute, USA

This article reviews the most recent literature on touch support and one-to-one support during labor and childbirth. The positive and negative aspects of the traditional birth attendant are presented. Research in one-to-one care and touch support during labor is examined with respect to husband/partner, nurses, nurse-midwives, and doulas (trained labor attendants). According to recent studies, women supported by doulas or midwives benefit by experiencing shorter labors and lower rates of epidural anesthesia and cesarean section deliveries. Also, a smaller percentage of their newborns experience fetal distress and/or are admitted to neonatal intensive care units. Women whose husbands or partners massage them during labor experience shorter labors. Nursing one-to-one support results in no significant obstetric outcomes. Antenatal perineal massage was found to reduce the rates of tears, cesarean section, and instrumental deliveries. Research in perineal massage during labor has shown no benefit.

The Obstetrical and Postpartum Benefits of Continuous Support During Childbirth

Scott KD, Klaus PH, Klaus MH.  J Womens Health Gend Based Med 1999 Dec;8(10):1257-64 Division of Public Health, County of Sonoma Department of Health Services, Santa Rosa, California 95404, USA

The purpose of this article is to review the evidence regarding the effectiveness of continuous support provided by a trained laywoman (doula) during childbirth on obstetrical and postpartum outcomes. Twelve individual randomized trials have compared obstetrical and postpartum outcomes between doula-supported women and women who did not receive doula support during childbirth.

Three meta-analyses, which used different approaches, have been performed on the results of the clinical trials. Emotional and physical support significantly shortens labor and decreases the need for cesarean deliveries, forceps and vacuum extraction, oxytocin augmentation, and analgesia. Doula-supported mothers also rate childbirth as less difficult and painful than do women not supported by a doula. Labor support by fathers does not appear to produce similar obstetrical benefits. Eight of the 12 trials report early or late psychosocial benefits of doula support. Early benefits include reductions in state anxiety scores, positive feelings about the birth experience, and increased rates of breastfeeding initiation. Later postpartum benefits include decreased symptoms of depression, improved self-esteem, exclusive breastfeeding, and increased sensitivity of the mother to her child's needs. The results of these 12 trials strongly suggest that doula support is an essential component of childbirth. A thorough reorganization of current birth practices is in order to ensure that every woman has access to continuous emotional and physical support during labor. 

Effect of Psychosocial Support During Labour and Childbirth on Breastfeeding Medical Interventions and Mothers' Wellbeing in a Mexican Public Hospital: A Randomized Clinical Trial

Langer A, Campero L, Garcia C, Reynoso S. Br J Obstet Gynaecol 1998 Oct;105(10):1056-63 The Population Council, Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, Colonia Coyoacan, Mexico DF, Mexico

OBJECT: To evaluate the effects of psychosocial support during labour, delivery and the immediate postpartum period provided by a female companion (doula).
DESIGN: The effects of the intervention were assessed by means of a randomised clinical trial. Social support by a doula was provided to women in the intervention group, while women in the control arm received routine care.
SETTING: A large social security hospital in Mexico City.
PARTICIPANTS: Seven hundred and twenty-four women with a single fetus, no previous vaginal delivery, < 6 cm of cervical dilatation, and no indications for an elective caesarean section were randomly assigned to be accompanied by a doula, or to receive routine care.
OUTCOME MEASURES: Breastfeeding practices, duration of labour, medical interventions, mother's emotional conditions, and newborn's health.
METHODS: Blinded interviewers obtained data from the clinical records, during encounters with women in the immediate postpartum period, and at their homes 40 days after birth. Relative risks and confidence intervals were estimated for all relevant outcomes.
RESULTS: The frequency of exclusive breastfeeding one month after birth was significantly higher in the intervention group (RR 1.64; I-C: 1.01-2.64), as were the behaviours that promote breastfeeding. However, the programme did not achieve a significant effect on full breastfeeding. More women in the intervention group perceived a high degree of control over the delivery experience, and the duration of labour was shorter than in the control group (4.56 hours vs 5.58 hours; RR 1.07 CI (95%) = 1.52 to -0.51). There were no effects either on medical interventions, mothers' anxiety, self-esteem, perception of pain and satisfaction, or in newborns' conditions.
CONCLUSIONS: Psychosocial support by doulas had a positive effect on breastfeeding and duration of labour. It had a more limited impact on medical interventions, perhaps because of the strict routine in hospital procedures, the cultural background of the women, the short duration of the intervention, and the profile of the doulas. It is important to include psychosocial support as a component of breastfeeding promotion strategies.

Continuous Emotional Support During Labour in a US Hospital. A Randomized Controlled Trial

Kennell J, Klaus M, McGrath S, Robertson S, Hinkley C. JAMA 1991 May 1;265(17):2197-201 Department of Pediatrics, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH

The continuous presence of a supportive companion (doula) during labor and delivery in two studies in Guatemala shortened labor and reduced the need for cesarean section and other interventions.

In a US hospital with modern obstetric practices, 412 healthy nulliparous women in labor were randomly assigned to a supported group (n = 212) that received the continuous support of a doula or an observed group (n = 200) that was monitored by an inconspicuous observer. Two hundred four women were assigned to a control group after delivery. Continuous labor support significantly reduced the rate of cesarean section deliveries (supported group, 8%; observed group, 13%; and control group, 18%) and forceps deliveries. Epidural anesthesia for spontaneous vaginal deliveries varied across the three groups (supported group, 7.8%; observed group, 22.6%; and control group, 55.3%).

Oxytocin use, duration of labor, prolonged infant hospitalization, and maternal fever followed a similar pattern. The beneficial effects of labor support underscore the need for a review of current obstetric practices.

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