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Sarah Burns, a 24-year-old doula, explains what it takes to get started, and stay in business, as a doula.

  • First, please define “doula” for me. What does a doula do?
  • A birth doula provides emotional and physical support to a laboring woman and her family. She also assists the mother with getting information to make informed decisions during the process. The role of a doula varies depending on the needs of her client. My goal is to help the family have a positive birth experience. I spend time prenatally with each couple, getting to know them better so that I can see what they envision for a positive birth experience.
  • You are a young for a doula, aren’t you? Can you tell me how you came into this line of work?
  • Yes, I am fairly young to be a doula. I became interested in being a doula after seeing a homebirth while I was a nanny. Having the opportunity to witness the process of birth undisturbed, with a woman surrounded by love and support of family and friends was really moving. It was empowering. Shortly after that, while chatting with a woman at a hospital, she asked me, “Are you a doula?” Puzzled, I asked her what a doula was. I’d had the experience of supporting families with little ones, and having just attended a birth, I immediately loved the idea of supporting women during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum. A few months later, I was attending births as a doula.
  • Tell me about the training. How does one become a doula?
  • The experience and training of each doula varies. Many are certified through Doulas of North America (DONA). DONA certification involves a 16 hour workshop; 5 books required reading; attendance of a 12 hour childbirth education series; completion of breastfeeding workshop; attendance at three births with good evaluations from a nurse, the midwife or doctor, and the mother; written essays about the births attended, as well as an essay about the benefits of labor support. There are many specifics about each of these requirements. DONA’s website www.dona.org is the best place to see exactly what is involved in the process. Also, it should be noted that not all doulas are certified and this is not a requirement. The benefit of being certified, however, is that clients tend to trust doulas who have taken the time to complete this training. It assures them that their doula abides by specific standards of practice and code of ethics. There are many doulas who are not certified who are excellent doulas. Experience attending a number of births is usually the key, in this case.
  • What kind of financial sacrifices did you have to make to get started? And when were you able to start making money?
  • The largest sacrifice I had to make in order to become a doula was not financial, but rather of time. I chose to begin through UCSD’s Hearts and Hands volunteer doula program for about a year before really taking on paying clients. Although I did take on some clients in the meantime, my business started to pick up after about a year, and after two years it was more dependable. Now in 4th year of attending births, I’ve really been able to see my business grow. I even have the privilege to attend births for the same families I was with a few years ago now having their second pregnancies with me as their doula.
  • So, give me the details. What kind of money are you making today?
  • The average doula makes $700 - $1,000 per client. My doula service fee is $800, paid in two payments. Ethically, a doula must limit how many births she will take on during a month to avoid 2 clients going into labor at the same time. I choose to take on 2-3 clients a month. Taking into consideration fuel, doula bag items, membership and certification fees, along with taxes, it’s not a full-time income for most doulas. However, for part-time work it can be very rewarding,
  • And what about your schedule? It must be fairly erratic, yes?
  • Doula work is unpredictable by nature. I’m on-call for each mom two weeks before and after her estimated due date (I’ve not had one mom have her baby on her due date). I have my phone on me and my doula bag in the car packed with clothes and snacks at all times. Along with never knowing when you are going to “get the call,” you also do not know how long each mom will be in labor. Sometimes for a couple hours, and others for a couple days! A doula has a commitment to stay with the mom as long as she needs, and also should have a back-up doula who can give her breaks or fill-in if she is not available.
  • What do you think are the special qualities it takes to be a doula?
  • That’s the interesting thing about being a doula - each mom is looking for something different. When a mom goes to hire a doula she usually interviews a few before choosing who she feels is the right fit for her family. So there are many different personalities among doulas. I would say one constant among doulas is patience and trust in the ability of women to give birth and the desire to support them during the process.
  • Do you have any additional advice for those interested in pursuing this kind of work?
  • Get as much information as possible about doula work and birth, and get involved in the community. There are non-profit groups such as San Diego Birth Network that have monthly meetings and in-services where you can learn about a variety of topics, meet other professionals in the field, and connect with San Diego moms.
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