Making the childbirth experience easier


GONE ARE the days when a woman struggled through labor while the father-to-be paced in a waiting room. Today's prospective parents have many options to help them plan for the birth of their child.

Many couples attend childbirth classes to learn techniques to help them through labor, and some are using the services of a doula to help them through the birth process. Doula is a Greek word meaning "woman's servant." Doulas are trained to provide physical, emotional and informational support to women and their partners during labor and birth.

They do not perform medical procedures, but provide help with breathing and relaxation techniques, movement and positioning during labor and birth. Some also offer their services after the baby goes home - helping with household chores, running errands, caring for the newborn and his or her siblings, and providing lactation support.

The difference between a doula and a certified nurse midwife is that a midwife is more highly trained, provides prenatal care, performs medical procedures and delivers the baby. A doula focuses on providing comfort to the mother during labor and immediately after the birth.

Owen Brown resident Deirdre Smyth started working as a doula in November 2001. She attended a three-day training workshop for doulas during which she learned the mechanics of birth and how a doula can assist.

The mother of two children, Aidan, 4, and Gillian, 21 months, Smyth hired Nancy Watson of Columbia as a doula for the birth of her second child.

"The first time, I wouldn't say I had a bad experience. I just felt so inexperienced and un- knowledgeable," Smyth said. "I wanted to change that. It was the right choice. It was a great experience the second time."

Smyth said that most of her clients find her by word-of-mouth. She charges $300 for her services, from prenatal meetings to attending the birth. Smyth usually meets with couples twice before the mother goes into labor.

"Most couples have been to a childbirth education class so they have an idea of what birth is going to be," Smyth said. "I come to them and ask, 'What type of birth do you envision having? What would be the perfect birth experience for you?'"

Smyth said that some couples want to listen to music or request low lighting during labor and birth. Many mothers want to avoid pain medications.

Clients call Smyth after their prenatal doctor appointments to keep her updated on their condition and so they can get to know each other better. When the mother goes into labor, they call Smyth.

At a hospital, Smyth works with the father and the medical staff to help the woman get comfortable. Sometimes her clients sit on a birth ball to ease the pain of contractions. Smyth uses mental imagery, massage or heated rice socks to help the mother relax.

"To keep stress out of the room is my goal because stress can impede a labor," Smyth said. "Stress can make contractions more painful. It works against the body's natural rhythm."

Beth Mattingly of Elkridge hired Smyth for the birth of her son, Aidan, now 7 months. Mattingly said that having a doula made the process easier.

"My husband was there the whole time and he was fabulous, but we'd never been through this before," Mattingly said. "She stayed with us in the room the whole time until Aidan was born. She made it go a lot smoother."

Mattingly said that she would use the services of a doula in the future.

"I've only been through it once. I wasn't taking notes," Mattingly said. "A doula is someone who has nothing to worry about but just taking care of us. She's able to anticipate what we need and take us through it."

Information: Doulas of North America, To reach Smyth, e-mail her at

Sit a spell

If you've driven past Lake Elkhorn recently, you've probably seen the new gazebo near the spillway. Chick Rhodehamel, director of open space management for the Columbia Association, said the structure will serve many purposes.

At 24 feet in diameter, the gazebo will be used for the Live at Lake Elkhorn summer concert series, sponsored by the villages of Owen Brown, Oakland Mills, Long Reach and Kings Contrivance. It will also be used by the nature camp program, sponsored by the Columbia Association, and may be rented out for private parties.

Over the past three years, Lake Elkhorn has benefited from improvements made to its boat dock and the spillway. The pathways around the lake were resurfaced in 2000-2001.

Because of the gazebo's location, downstream of the dam, the Columbia Association had to obtain waivers from the Maryland Department of the Environment and Howard County Planning and Zoning Department for its construction.

"I think Lake Elkhorn is lovely, and this only adds to its charm," Rhodehamel said. "It will be a nice place for folks who are walking around the lake to take a break and get a little shade."

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