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OBJECTIVE: to explore trained volunteer doulas' and mothers' experiences of doula support at birth and their perceptions of how this related to the midwife's role. DESIGN: a qualitative descriptive study, informed by phenomenological social psychology. METHODS: semi-structured interviews were carried out between June 2015 and March 2016. Interview transcripts were analysed using inductive thematic analysis. SETTING: three community volunteer doula projects run by third sector organisations in England. PARTICIPANTS: 19 volunteer doulas and 16 mothers who had received doula support during labour. FINDINGS: three overarching themes emerged: (1) 'the doula as complementary to midwives', containing subthemes 'skilled physical and emotional support', 'continuous presence', 'woman-centred support', 'ensuring mothers understand and are understood' and 'creating a team for the mother'; (2)'the doula as a colleague to midwives', containing subthemes 'welcomed as a partner', 'co-opted to help the midwives', and 'doulas identify with the midwives'; and (3) 'the doula as challenge to midwives', containing subthemes 'confusion about the doula's role', 'defending informed choice', and 'counterbalancing disempowering treatment'. KEY CONCLUSIONS&IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE: volunteer doulas can play an important role in improving women's birth experiences by offering continuous, empowering, woman-focused support that complements the role of midwives, particularly where the mothers are disadvantaged. Greater clarity is needed about the scope of legitimate volunteer doula advocacy on behalf of their clients, to maximise effective working relationships between midwives and doulas.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





53 - 60


Birth, Disadvantaged women, Doula, Maternity care, Qualitative analysis, Volunteer support