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Milwaukee doulas work for kinder, gentler births

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.

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