How do you go about becoming a certified birth or postpartum doula? Here’s what you need to know about various different training pathways and certifying organizations.
Since we no longer routinely help sisters, aunts, cousins and neighbors during labor and birth, people who wish to make this their life’s work typically enroll in a training program to learn the craft of being a doula. And in recent years, more and more expectant and birthing parents have begun turning to these professionals for the information, advocacy and support that can make their birth experience a positive one.
At the same time, research demonstrating that care delivered by a trained doula improves outcomes for both mothers and newborns is finally being recognized by groups ranging from the World Health Organization to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
In fact, the US government is working on increasing the doula workforce to reduce the number of women who die due to childbirth-related complications, particularly those who are Black and Indigenous, since maternal death rates are two to three times higher in these communities.
Understanding Doula Training
Doula training usually involves a combination of readings, classes or workshops, and working with clients to gain hands-on experience. Following training, student doulas who wish to do so can complete an additional list of requirements to become officially certified.
Why go to the trouble of pursuing formal training and certification? While it’s possible to gain knowledge and skills required to provide doula care by other means, such as an informal apprenticeship, the more formal route has distinct advantages. First of all, it reassures prospective clients that you’ve met a minimum set of standards. It can also be seen as proof of your commitment and professionalism.
As well, many organizations that offer doula training and certification will list graduates in a searchable directory. This means when potential clients go to a trusted source for a list of doulas in their area, you’ll pop up in the search. According to DONA International, a leader in doula training and certification, this alone can end up generating up to 50 percent of a doula’s client base.
Training Programs for Different Doula Types
The title ‘doula’ is now being used by several different categories of non-medical professionals. Death doulas, for example, help guide families through a loved one’s last days. Here, however, we’re going to limit the discussion to the two most common categories of doulas in the pregnancy and childbirth space.
Labor and Birth Doula
Birth doulas (also known as labor doulas or labor and birth doulas) are the type that people are most likely to have heard of. These non-medical professionals provide informational, emotional and physical support during pregnancy, labor and birth, and the first few days or weeks afterward. You can find a more detailed description of what birth doulas do here.
There are many different organizations that offer birth doula training. But as an aspiring doula, you may want to consider the most widely recognized programs first.
Why? Because your training will count towards the specific certification requirements of the organization you choose. And clients who are seeking doula care, and their care providers, are most likely to be familiar with, and trust these long-standing institutions. Plus, most hospitals and insurance companies will only accept the credentials of doulas who have been certified by one of these leaders in the field.
Three of the top names in doula training and certification are:
- DONA International. Founded by one of the researchers who first studied the effects of doula care, DONA (Doulas of North America) International is the world’s first, largest doula training and certifying organization.
- ICEA (International Childbirth Education Association). First established more than 60 years ago to train childbirth educators, ICEA has an even longer history than DONA.
- CAPPA (Childbirth and Postpartum Professional Association). This association is an international certification organization for doulas, childbirth educators, and lactation educators.
So what do the doula training programs of each of these groups entail? Find out here.
According to Postpartum Support International, “postpartum doulas provide information and support on infant feeding, emotional and physical recovery from childbirth, infant soothing, and coping skills for new parents.They may also help with light housework, fix a meal, and help other family members, including older siblings and grandparents, adjust to life with the new baby.”
The three major postpartum doula training and certification organizations are the same as those listed above. Generally speaking, certification requirements include:
- Attending a workshop approved by the organization in question.
- Self-study activities (such as completing a list of required readings, writing an essay, and compiling a list of local resources).
- Achieving a specific mark on an exam or self-evaluation.
- Caring for a set number of postpartum clients, totalling a certain number of hours.
- Collecting written references or evaluations from a minimum number of these clients.
DONA. A CPR certificate is not a certification requirement, nor is an exam. One thing that is required, however: completion of a class on the basics of lactation and newborn feeding.
ICEA. One of ICEA’s unique offerings is an ‘experienced’ pathway for people who have received certification from another recognized postpartum doula organization within the past two years. Candidates do not have to attend a workshop, but they do need to review a study guide and readings, as well as a set of position papers.
CAPPA. Requirements for certification are somewhat similar to those of DONA. One difference: up to two out of three required postpartum support experiences can be solely virtual rather than face-to-face. Candidates have to secure two letters of recommendation from among certain types of care providers (for example, a certified childbirth educator, certified labor doula, midwife, or obstetrician).
Delivery Options for Doula Training
In Person Programs
Few programs necessitate 100 percent in person attendance. However, there are a handful of brick and mortar colleges that offer certificate programs in doula studies, such as:
- Pacific Rim College (Victoria, BC)
- Fanshawe College (London, Ont.)
- Community College of Aurora (Colorado)
One advantage of an in-person program is the opportunity to learn certain skills ‘hands on’—such as applying counterpressure to relieve back labor.
However, this option is out of reach for most people who don’t live near one of the training institutions. Education level rules out this route for some individuals, as well, since you usually need at least a high school diploma or GED to qualify for college admission.
Class scheduling is typically less flexible compared to other types of programs, too. And tuition tends to be more expensive—for example, at one Canadian college, it’s roughly $3,520 for Canadian students and about $15,555 for international students (over two, 15-week sessions). You can find cost estimates for DONA, CAPPA and ICEA here.
If you don’t live in a large urban center, or you’re pursuing doula training on top of paid work and/or parenthood, online study can be a great solution. Not having to attend in-person workshops or classes can save you costs such as childcare and travel expenses, too.
On the other hand, it won’t be a good fit if you don’t have a reliable internet service and a device to access it, or you learn best via structured, in-person workshops or classes.
DONA, CAPPA and ICEA all provide the opportunity to complete the educational components (versus hands-on client experience) of their doula training programs via virtual or distance learning. So do ToLABOR (which only offers birth doula training and certification) and BEST Doula. In some cases, virtual workshops are interactive and so must be attended live. In others, you can choose between interactive and self-paced virtual workshops.
A number of other organizations offer online-only doula training and certification. Here are a few examples:
- Childbirth International
- Doula Trainings International
- International Doula Institute
- Madriella Doula Network
The downside of the above programs is that the credentials they issue are less likely to be accepted by care providers, hospitals, and third party payors.
However, certain aspects of one of these programs may be best tailored to your unique preferences or needs.
For instance, Madriella’s modest membership fee grants you three years worth of access to their birth doula and postpartum doula certification courses. And their certification requirements don’t include client evaluations or references.
Childbirth International doesn’t require client experience for certification either; nor do you have to buy books to complete a list of required readings, since their tuition fee includes on-line access to all course materials. (You can pay for printed versions if you prefer, though.)
Some organizations offer discounts or scholarships to specific groups, too. For example, BEST Doulas has scholarships available for BIPOC and queer doula trainees, and Madriella offers a 50 percent enrolment fee waiver for active-duty military members and their dependents (spouses and children).
Apart from the online-only programs, most doula training and certification programs allow you to combine in-person and virtual learning. So does at least one post-secondary program: Birth Doula Studies offered by College of the Rockies in Cranbrook, BC.
Which Doula Training and Certification Program is Best?
So which of these training and certifications is best? That depends on a lot of different variables, such as:
- How high a value you place on having insurance companies accept your certification.
- How quickly you hope to start working with clients.
- Your budget.
- What kind of learning environment suits you best.
- Whether you hope to expand your services to areas such as pregnancy loss, fertility support, or childbirth education in future.
The choice that’s best for someone else may not be right for you. What’s most important is that you find a path that will allow you to realize your dream of becoming a certified doula.
Lifelong Professional Learning
Achieving that goal, though, is just the beginning. To keep your skills sharp, and stay at the top of your craft, you’ll need to keep pursuing opportunities for continued professional development. Fortunately, there are countless options, from reading the latest research on the benefits of doula care, to attending webinars on topics like how adverse childhood experiences can affect an individual’s experience of pregnancy and birth.
But with the long, unpredictable hours involved in doula work, how are you supposed to squeeze client appointments and professional development into your crowded calendar, never mind keep up with the day-to-day demands of running a business?
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