A doula is someone who mothers the mother. She offers support before, during and after birth. Her presence can be calming and reassuring. For much of recorded history, women have been attended by other females in labor. Sisters, aunts, neighbors and friends would be helpers at a birth. Their training was simply their previous experience doing this for others in the community.
Now there are doula training organizations that teach women the skills needed to be an effective doula. DONA, CAPPA, ICEA, ALACE and Intuitive Doula are some of the organizations that offer doula training. Doula's who have experienced natural childbirth have their own life experiences, as well.
A doula is not a medical person. She holds your hand, applies warm or cool compresses, coaches you through tough contractions. She can inform, instruct, educate and explain hospital jargon. She cannot negotiate with the doctor for you, but you can consult with her when making a decision about your care. She will help you change positions in labor, help with communication with your birth team and be like an older, wiser sister to encourage and help during the birth.
Another role of the doula is to support your partner. She can get him some food or drink, take over coaching while he catches a nap, talk with the family in the waiting room, take pictures so your partner can focus on you and the baby, etc.
A good doula will honor your wishes, and support you as a strong, capable birthing woman. She will honor your partners place at the birth and view her role as supportive of the two of you. Interview a few doula's and think about which one you feel at home with. She will be with you during your most vulnerable moments.
The decision to hire a doula is personal. Many women find it comforting to have the emotional support of another woman in labor. Consider your own birthing philosophy and look for a doula who supports your choices.