A brief history of childbirth

It’s World Doula Week! Who knew? I didn’t and I am a practicing doula and have been for nearly 14 years.  The idea of hiring a trained birth attendant may seem like some strange new hipster idea, but actually women have had doulas present at their births for generations. A lot of people are confused about the role of a doula and so to help with that confusion let me present:

BABY READY’s a brief history of childbirth featuring the doula!


ANCIENT GREECE – the word doula comes from the Greek work for female slave. But even slaves had a hierarchy and could advance to positions of power and influence.   The slave who rose to be the chief lady in waiting to the woman of the house had the privilege of attending her during childbirth. This stone relief from Isola Dell’ Sacra, Ostia, 1st century CE shows a woman labouring with a midwife at her feet and an attendant (a doula?) supporting her from behind.

MEDIEVAL – in medieval times fertility was greatly prized and women were encouraged to have as many babies as possible. The upper class were marrying off their girls as young as 12 as long as they had started puberty. Noble women used wet nurses rather than breast feeding their own offspring so that they could regain their fertility sooner and churn out a few more sons for the crown. Women would be attended in labour by their household staff if they had them and by their friends and neighbours.medieval

This medieval woodcut is called Der Swangern Frawen und hebammen roszgarten, by Eucharius Rösslin, 1513. It shows a remarkably similar scene to the one above. A midwife at a labouring woman’s feet, an attendant (a doula?) supporting her from behind.  My German is non-existent, but google helpfully tells me that this translates to The Swangern Frawen and Midwife Rosengarten. Maybe another day I will try and find out a bit more about her!



REGENCY/EARLY VICTORIAN.  This lucky woman seems to have her husband supporting her while she gives birth! Even though most of the time childbirth was seen to be a lapbirth.0woman’s only event some men did stay around to support their partners. Here the midwife and birthing mother have the support of two attendants (doulas?) It is also possible that the man pictured is an accoucher – a male midwife or forerunner to the obstetrician. It is during the Victorian era that Doctors (male) started to invade the midwives domain and in the early years they often worked together.




THE RISE OF HOSPITAL BIRTHvictorian hospital

This image from the early half of the 20th century shows nurses with babies in the hospital nursery.  Childbirth in the early 20th century was a nasty experience. Women were shackled to the bed, drugged unconscious, verbally abused and left alone for hours. No wonder there has been a massive kickback. With the rise of feminism in the 60’s and 70’s women began taking back their childbirth rights, and the term ‘doula’ meaning a trained birth attendant was coined at this time. Doulas are hired by pregnant women and their families to support them in having the childbirth experience that they want. In some institutions this set up the doula in an adversarial position with the hospital staff, which is unfortunate as there have been many studies indicating that constant support during labour improves outcomes for both mother and child. Since Nurses are unable to provide that constant support due to cutbacks and overwork, doulas have stepped into the gap.

So there you have it: A very very brief history of doulas! If you are pregnant and live in Toronto, contact me here for more information about how having a doula can help you have the birth you deserve!


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