By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Jul 22, 2003 at 5:25 AM

Coral Slavin started in the "birth business" eight years ago as an instructor for Lamaze-alternative birth classes called The Bradley Method. One of the couples in her class asked her to attend their birth, and after this exhilarating experience, she was hooked.

Later, Slavin found out assisting mothers during births was a legitimate profession, called a "doula," meaning servant or helper in Greek. Today, she is a certified doula who has attended more than 115 births (she is also currently working as my doula).

"Women assisting women in birth is one of the oldest vocations, but as a certifiable profession it has really been gaining in popularity in the last 10 years," says Slavin, who also holds a Ph.D. in health education.

The role of the doula is to provide physical, emotional and informational support to the mother during her pregnancy, birth and sometimes, postpartum. Whereas a midwife or doctor performs medical tasks, including the delivery of the baby, the doula's job is to empower and soothe the woman, and to help her manage pain.

"With my first birth, Coral helped me stay somewhat calm," says Maria Schmitt, who hired Slavin for both of her hospital births. "I didn't realize that I would be so scared and nervous and her presence alone made me feel better. The nurses were very good but I liked that fact that Coral was there for me alone and didn't have to go check on anyone else."

Doulas assist in both medicated and unmedicated births, although most women who hire a doula plan to attempt a natural childbirth. According to the findings of six different studies, mothers were 30 percent less likely to request pain medication and 60 percent less likely to ask for an epidural when in the care of a doula.

Slavin, who delivered two children without drugs, uses a combination of techniques to help women manage their labor pain naturally, including massage, position changes, water therapy, relaxation, words of comfort, hugs, pressure points and Reiki.

Slavin believes there are instances when intervention is necessary. "Medical technology, including pain medication, is a blessing to have, when it's needed, but not for every birth," says Slavin.

In many cases, however, pain medications and epidurals have the tendency to slow labor down and can lead to painful interventions such as forceps or vacuum deliveries and cesarean sections. Also, Slavin believes that pain actually serves a purpose in childbirth.

"Pain is a biofeedback tool that tells a woman that she needs to do something different, such as change position," she says. "The stress hormones that an unmedicated mother releases also help protect the unborn baby from lack of oxygen that can occur from fetal distress."

The presence of a doula may also reduce the need for episiotomies and cesarean sections by 50 percent, according to studies. C-sections are major surgeries requiring weeks -- even months -- of recovery time, yet are occurring at a record high rate in the United States. Almost one in four women undergo the knife during birth, many of whom would have been able to deliver naturally given enough time and support.

Diana Gaertner of Whitefish Bay had a c-section for her first baby after receiving two epidurals and two spinals that left her with a massive spinal headache for a week after the birth. When she became pregnant with her second child last year, she hired Slavin hoping to have a better experience and to attempt to have a vaginal birth even though her doctor was leery.

"I felt like my doctor didn't have any faith in me," she says. "But Coral really did, which is exactly what I needed. She stuck by me the whole time and I delivered a 9 lb. 14-ounce baby boy without another c-section or medication."

Moms-to-be (and their partners) usually hire doulas early in their pregnancy and meet with them to discuss their plans and aspirations for their births. They also work together on relaxation techiniques, which are the key to staying calm during delivery. The doula is available for information and support throughout the pregnancy and is called to action when contractions start. Consequently, like a doctor, a doula is on call 24-7, but unlike a doctor, they receive $300-$800 per birth.

Slavin, who is married, admits that it would be difficult to survive on a doula's salary, but feels she is paid enough to make it worthwhile, especially considering how fulfilling she finds the work to be. Plus, personal experience fuels her passion for her work.

" I am convinced that my first birth would have gone so much better if I had a doula," says Slavin.

Most fathers feel relief knowing a doula will be present at the birth. Jennifer Graham, a Milwaukee-based doula for three years, believes doulas makes the dad's job easier.

"When a family has a doula the father can relax and does not have to worry about all the medical mumbo jumbo," she says. "He can enjoy the experience knowing that his wife is in good hands."

Plus, with another person completely focused on his wife, the father has less pressure and can concentrate on being loving and supportive. A doula can also assure the father that his wife's reactions to pain are normal, and the laboring mom is less-likely to lash out at the floundering father if she has someone taking care of her.

Both Graham and Slavin are members of the C.A.R.E. Network, a group of Milwaukee doulas united to support each other and continue education. They also sponsor activities, like the recent lecture at Alverno College by midwife maven, Ina May Gaskin.

There are 11 doulas listed on DONA's (Doulas of North America) Web site for the Milwaukee area, but there are quite a few more who were certified by other organizations. Slavin says the demand is still higher than the availability, and that she sometimes has to turn down clients. She usually books two births a month to ensure her attendance.

"The most rewarding aspect of being a doula is seeing a new mother holding her baby and knowing that I was able to help her achieve her birth goals," says Graham.

"For me, the best part of being a doula is the knowledge that the birth outcomes for so many of my clients was improved with my help," says Slavin. "To help a woman achieve her goals for her birth helps to empower her as a person that can affect her for the rest of her life. A gentler birth experience for the mother and child can start their relationship off better as well."

For more information about Milwaukee doulas, go to

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.