The Cochrane Collaboration updated their doula research review this year. They added four, only FOUR new studies – and none of them advanced our research conclusions in any significant way. Birth doulas have the potential to be the most influential factor in lowering negative birth outcomes and optimizing positive ones for mothers and babies. We’ve known that for over THIRTY YEARS – that’s a whole generation of people who could have benefitted but didn’t.
No one, and I’m pointing my finger at academics and medical careproviders and political women’s organizations, has bothered to do any significant research or insist that it be done. Instead the established power systems are hoping doulas will just go away. They want to keep us small and bickering amongst ourselves, which happens to any group when they experience some success. The established power structures don’t want to change and any good doula research would show that hospital systems have to change in order to get better results. I’m angry, and I rarely get angry.
Here are the research questions I expected to see answered in the past 37 years since the first (Sosa, Kennell, & Klaus et al., 1980) doula study was published:
- In a randomized control study or a matched pair study of people who did and didn’t have a doula, do we see consistent outcomes in perception of pain, length of labor, intervention rates, breastfeeding initiation and longevity, birth satisfaction, partner satisfaction, postpartum wellness, and the feeling that ‘my baby is better than other babies’?
- What factors interfere with the doula’s ability to affect obstetrical outcomes?
- Does partner involvement with labor support (not the birth itself) make a difference in outcomes?
- How do doulas benefit partners and/or have an influence on parenting relationships and partner/marital relationships?
- Do prenatal visits make a difference in obstetrical, birth satisfaction, maternal and infant outcomes? The way most birth doulas practice is 2-3 prenatal visits, continuous labor support at the birth, and one to two postpartum visits. But we have no data on whether that is the best way to practice or not. Are labors still shorter? Do laboring people have less pain or use less pain meds? Are people more satisfied with each other or with their doctors or midwives when they have a doula?
- Does having a birth doula affect a pregnant person with a perinatal anxiety or mood disorder? When someone is supported by a doula during labor are they less likely to have postpartum depression? How about with a postpartum doula?
- Under what circumstances does it make financial sense to fund doulas or doula programs? Rather than spending money on other labor interventions, is it more economical to pay for the doula? Along with Drs. Will Chapple and Dongmei Lee, I published a study in the Wisconsin Medical Journal exploring this question. Katy Kozhimannil co-authored a study on Medicare costs for doulas. Where are the rest?
- In 2010, I published a study on birth doula’s emotional support strategies. Four were the same as those in the nursing literature, but the other five were sophisticated counseling or therapy techniques. The doulas in my study were never formally taught those strategies, they arose spontaneously from the doula. Why hasn’t anyone actually observed doulas to see what they actually DO at a birth that makes a difference?
- Where are all the research reports on hospital based (HB) doula programs, where the doula is a paid member of the hospital staff? What are their outcomes? Who benefits from the doula program? What models are more effective at getting which outcomes? I’ve interviewed 15 HB doulas from four different programs. Why am I the only one? (Why that data is not published is in the next blog post.)
- Are doula programs staffed by volunteers effective?
- What are successful models of doulas and nurses working alongside one another that increase both job satisfaction and positive patient outcomes?
- There are no studies on physicians and doulas, exploring how people in each role perceives the other, how they can optimally work together, or any models of doulas working for doctors. Why not?
- Does continuous care matter? The only reason we know that is from two meta-analyses that are both twenty years old. Is that enough?
These are all of the things that I thought we would know in thirty years. Each time a research review on doula support is published, I’m eager to discover any articles I might have missed. But there aren’t any. In my next posts, I’ll explore why we don’t have the research I thought we’d have. My conclusions? There are few doula research studies because of obstacles from medical politics; outmoded beliefs; difficulty in approvals, funding and publishing access; and yes, the priorities of the U.S. women’s movement. Look for it in your inbox in the next few days.
Chapple, W., Gilliland, A.L., Li, D., Shier, E., Wright, E.. (2013) An economic model of the benefits of professional doula labor support in Wisconsin births. Wisconsin Medical Journal, 112(2), 58-64.
Gilliland, A.L. (2011) After praise and encouragement: Emotional support strategies used by birth doulas in the USA and Canada. Midwifery, 27(4), 525-531.
Kozhimannil, K.B., Hardeman, R.R., Alarid-Escudero, F., Vogelsang, C.A., Blauer-Peterson, C. & Howell, E.A. (2016a) Modeling the Cost-Effectiveness of Doula Care Associated with Reductions in Preterm Birth and Cesarean Delivery. Birth-Issues in Perinatal Care, 43(1), 20-27.
Kozhimannil, K.B., Hardeman, R. R., Attanasio, L. B., Blauer-Peterson, C., O’Brien, M. (2013) Doula care, birth outcomes, and costs among medicaid beneficiaries. American Journal of Public Health, 103(4).
Sosa, R., Kennell, J., Klaus, M., Robertson, S. & Urrutia, J. (1980) The effect of a supportive companion on perinatal problems, length of labor, and mother-infant interaction. New England Journal of Medicine, 303(11), 597-600.