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005. What Is the Difference Between a Midwife and a Doula?

a new mother nursing her newborn

Hey there! I'm guessing that if you’ve found yourself on my page, you’re either: an expecting parent, or planning to be an expectant parent soon. Congratulations! I’m sure your brain is being flooded with questions, fears, and hopefully a ton of excitement too. I’m here to help you through your doubts, even if this blog is the only thing that connects us.


I’m Jess Smith and I’ve been a doula for over 6 years now. I still receive many questions about what I do as a doula. Many of these questions and assumptions make me chuckle. The funniest assumption I receive is that because I’m a doula, I must not need a doula or midwife for my own births. “Surely Jess, you can give birth on your own. You know so much about it after all.” They’re right that I do know a lot about birth 😉. It’s also true that some people give birth on their own (google freebirth if you want to know more about that!). 


But just like I would never do my own dental work if I were a dentist or adjust my own back if I was a chiropractor, I would also never try to be my own doula during birth either. Hiring a doula is all about support; about not having to rely only on yourself during some of your most vulnerable moments if you don’t want to. The very reason anyone hires a doula is because they don’t want to do it alone.


That’s the first thing I want you to know. You’re not alone in your pregnancy and birth journey. Pregnancy and birth can bring so many fears and questions to the surface. I’m so glad you’re here because it means you’ve already broken through the lie that you're alone in this journey. You’re doing amazing. You’re researching, and learning about what is available to you in your parenthood journey. 


What you’ll learn in this blog:

✨The simple difference between a midwife and doula

✨What a doula is

✨The different types of doulas

✨What a midwife is

✨The different types of midwives

✨How to choose which is right for you (it might not be what you think)


This blog will help you think through your questions surrounding doulas and midwives. I’m excited that you’re going to walk away more informed and hopefully closer to deciding whether a doula is right for your birth. So…let’s dive in!



What Is the Difference Between a Midwife and a Doula in Short


Midwives and doulas both provide care to expecting mothers and families. And that’s why things get so confusing. When trying to understand the difference between the two, there is one main thing that sets them apart–  Midwives are most commonly professional medical support providers, while doulas are professional non-medical support providers. So, the main difference between the two is the type of support they provide for you through your pregnancy and birth. Doulas provide emotional, physical, and informational support to expecting families. And midwives support expecting families through trained, medical support. Wondering what that looks like? Let’s jump into that because I’m sure you still have some questions. First, let’s look at how these two support providers work together to serve you during your pregnancy and birth.


What Is a Doula?


a doula supporting a laboring mother in the bathtub

The original word for doula helps explain what a doula is. Doula is a derivative of the Greek word “doulē” which means “female servant.” The role of a doula has been around for centuries and dates back to ancient Greece. It was common for women to help other women through the process of birth. And the beautiful partnership between doulas and families began to form.


What we know a doula to be today was born (pun intended!) in the 1970’s. Families in this time began to appreciate the positive impact that birth support can have on the outcome of a birth. Families saw how valuable it was to have someone in the birth space there purely to support the mother and family in this powerful process. Doctors and midwives are there to attend to medical events that can occur during the birth. Doulas are there simply to help the family have a birth experience they can look back on with joy. 


Today there are several types of doulas that support the pregnancy, birth, and postpartum process. 


Birth Doula


Your birth doula starts providing support from a few months before birth to right after birth. Their specific support often includes:


  • Brainstorming and solidifying an ideal birth plan

  • Providing reassurance about what is normal during labor

  • Teaching breathing techniques and helpful positioning

  • Equipping the spouse/father to support the expecting mama

  • Providing massage and counter pressure during birth

  • Aromatherapy techniques

  • Natural pain relief methods

  • Communication with medical staff and helping you advocate for your planned medical choices

  • Management of the environment and space around the birth

  • Being a resource for you when questions surrounding your pregnancy and birth pop up

Isn’t this list incredible? Everything on that list is support you deserve to have during this huge moment in your life. Imagine the impact of having someone at your birth dedicated to honoring and valuing you, your experience, and your needs as you go through this beautiful transition into parenthood. They are experts on the support parents need the most during birth, but what about after birth?


Postpartum Doula


Your postpartum doula provides support for the first few days to weeks after birth. This time is full of huge transitions and learning curves. Doulas are there to help you navigate those with more wisdom and experience. Their support is often through:


  • Breastfeeding support

  • Emotional and physical recovery 

  • Light housework

  • Providing nourishing meals

  • Support with newborn care 

Another list of incredible things that are going to make postpartum all the sweeter. Often, people get both a birth doula and a postpartum doula (sometimes the same person). Before, during, and after birth are all very precious and sensitive times. It’s important that you are well supported. Being supported with nonmedical support is important, but so is medical support. Knowing someone is there who knows the ins and outs of what to do in case something goes differently than planned can provide you with a lot of peace. So, let’s talk about midwives.


What Is a Midwife?


a midwife listening to a pregnant woman's belly with a fetoscope

Most of the time the word midwife refers to a medically trained professional that assists women through birth. Midwives provide an extra measure of peace for many families. Since they are trained to address medical issues, you can be sure that you’re supported in that way too. Midwives vary in levels of education. And this is where the confusion between midwife and doula comes from. 


Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)

Certified nurse midwives are the most medically trained. They have their Master’s degree in nurse-midwifery and have passed their certification exam through the American Midwifery Certification Board. They are medical professionals who specialize in providing care to women during pregnancy and birth. But unlike certified midwives, they are Advanced Practice Registered Nurses too. 


Certified Midwife (CN) 

A certified midwife is a non-nurse midwife who has a masters in a midwife program and has passed their exam through the American Midwifery Certification Board. These midwives are just like CNMs except they have not gone through a nursing program. These midwives are still very knowledgeable and skilled. When it comes to deciding between a CNM or CN, you just have to ask yourself if it’s important to you that your midwife also be a registered nurse. 


Certified Professional Midwife (CPM)

Certified professional midwives aren’t required to have a graduate-level degree. They must go through a formal accreditation process but have more freedom and flexibility in how they go about this. Some go the route of apprenticeships, while others take certification exams. While CPMs go the less formal education route, they are still held to a high competency standard and must practice with a certification. Again, it’s totally your choice to decide what is the right fit for you.


Direct-Entry Midwives, Lay Midwives

Direct-entry midwives and lay midwives are often confused with doulas. This is most likely because these midwives have no formal medical training. While this might sound like an instant negative, it really isn’t in most cases. These midwives gain skills through years of hands-on experience attending births. The wisdom gained from hands-on learning can prepare a midwife as much or more than studying formally. As with every other choice, if you're considering this route, it's good to ask questions before committing. Ask questions until you know if you're comfortable with the unique experience level of each midwife you’re considering. Remember, you don't necessarily need a licensed midwife for a positive experience; what matters most is that the midwife you choose helps you feel empowered for your birth. 


silhouette of a pregnant woman standing in front of a window cradling her belly

So…Should I Hire a Midwife or a Doula?


There is a lot of information here that maybe you’ve never heard before. That’s ok.


As you think through how you want to build your birth support team this is the most important thing to remember when it comes to doulas and midwives– Doulas and midwives work together to serve you and your family during pregnancy and birth.


They actually don’t compete in their services at all!


If you’re considering one, you probably want to consider the other too. A trusted doula and midwife often make the best team to accompany you and your spouse in this journey.


Conclusion


To quickly recap for you, understanding the distinct roles of a midwife and doula is key. Midwives offer medical expertise, while doulas offer emotional and informational support during pregnancy and childbirth. Opting for both a midwife and a doula creates a dynamic and powerful support system for you and your spouse during pregnancy and birth. This collaborative approach creates a well-rounded, empowering journey into parenthood and blends medical care with emotional guidance for a support-filled experience.


I’m cheering you on as you approach parenthood. You’ve got this. There are so many decisions to make and things to learn but there is even more joy to be had in this process. If you’d like more information like this, sign up for my newsletter here, or reach out to schedule a “get-to-know-me chat!” I am so excited to see how I can come alongside you in your journey.


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