Examining the role of doulas, and how to find them in the UAE

With the first licensed doula agency open in Dubai, we look at how doulas differ from midwives and why expectant mothers need them


Eleonora Fornelli, left, and Shereen Zarroug, co-founders of Belly Baby Mom, a doula and childbirth agency in Dubai.

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

Reporter: Hala Khalaf
Section: AL
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Any woman who has had a baby can tell you – it’s no walk in the park. Giving birth is a time when extra support – the right support – can be a game changer. And that’s where a doula comes in.

Taken from the Greek word meaning "female servant or caregiver", doulas offer emotional and physical support to a woman and her partner before, during and after childbirth – in a sense, "mothering the mother", so that a woman and her partner can forget fears and instead have a satisfying birth experience.

The benefits of hiring a doula are slowly gaining traction in the UAE, as evidenced in the legalisation and licensing by the Department of Economic Development of the first doula and childbirth professionals agency, Belly Baby Mom, in Dubai in March.

Run by founders and doulas Shereen Zarroug and Eleonora Fornelli, who are committed to raising awareness of what doulas do, both for mothers-to-be as well as healthcare professionals, Belly Baby Mom is an information portal as well as a support network for mothers, whether before, during or after pregnancy.

“Women here are mostly expats,” says Zarroug, a mother of three from Sudan who has lived her whole life in Dubai. “They can’t always have their mothers here supporting them – they need that additional support, and having that female figure there during childbirth is different than having your husband.”

The benefits of having a doula

There is a lot of evidence, she says, of how the presence of a doula during labour can reduce C-section and intervention rates, increase breastfeeding rates and empower a mother to have a positive birth experience. "We are not medical professionals. That's taken care of by midwives and doctors and nurses. Mothers are covered from that end," she says. "We work with the medical professionals as a team. We're more like maternity coaches. Imagine you have a marathon and require a coach to help you train, or you're launching a business and need a business coach to help you set up. It's the same idea.

"We will train you for childbirth and for baby care, and try to get you to that goal positively. It's not just about being advocates of natural births. It's being advocates of empowering women to make informed decisions and take away the fear of the unknown."

Fornelli, also a mother of three, is from Italy, where she set up a mother's club for new and expectant mothers to come together with their children and socialise. Her club would host play dates for children, workshops for mothers, Pilates and yoga classes, and other events intended to provide support during parenthood and also allow mothers to network.

"This is part of what we do with Belly Baby Mom as well," says Fornelli. "We host breastfeeding workshops, hypnobirthing classes, movie nights for parents to come together and watch documentaries on positive birthing experiences, and mothering circles for pregnant women to come talk about their worries and fears, without any judgment. We also have baby massage classes, a weekly free podcast for mothers to tune into and a WhatsApp group for our members. It is providing a village of support for mothers during a beautiful but hard time in their lives, when a lot of changes are about to happen."

'I couldn’t have done it without her'

For Eman Al Shamsi, having Fornelli present as her doula when she gave birth to her third child this month was a life-changing experience. The Emirati had previously given birth by Cesarean section to her 6-and 4-year-olds.

“I had heard about doulas through YouTube when researching how I could make sure to have a different, more positive birthing experience than my first two times, not knowing that we had doulas in the UAE,” says Al Shamsi.

"We are raised here to think of birth as a horror story, as if we're going off to war, but doulas provide such a different view. I didn't want my memories of my first two to mean I'd have a horrible third experience as well."

Al Shamsi was eager to experience a VBAC (a natural birth after C-section). The support of a doula who could provide the emotional and mental encouragement necessary, drew her to hire Fornelli during her final month of pregnancy.

“I went to the hospital with so much less fear, so much more informed and ready to enjoy what I would experience,” she says. “I took courses on hypno­birthing, watched calming birthing videos, learnt about different breathing exercises and birthing positions, read books from my doula about positive VBACs. My subconscious was prepared and I got rid of a lot of negative thinking.”

Al Shamsi's birth took 36 hours, and Fornelli was with her every step of the way, offering massages with essential oils, making warm herbal drinks, voicing affirmations, feeding Al Shamsi dates to keep up her energy, helping her take long walks in the hospital to encourage the labour, and then reminding Al Shamsi of her birth plan and her dreams to have a natural birth when the going got tough and she almost gave up.

“I became almost hysterical during the actual birth but she was there to calm me. I couldn’t have done it without her,” Al Shamsi says. 

'I needed that extra support'

Yalda, an Iranian who lives in Dubai, also hired a doula a year ago when she gave birth to her baby. Zarroug was there coaching Yalda. "I hired a doula because I felt like I needed that extra support. My husband stayed with our older daughter during my labour, and I had Shereen by my side," says Yalda.

A lot of the support, she explains, was to prepare mentally for what was to come, especially since she had experienced some depression through her pregnancy.

"It's so empowering to know that I have someone there whose sole purpose is to care for me and take care of me. It made for a very gentle, relaxing time, rather than the tense time I had expected," she says. "Women need to know that this profession exists and that there's someone out there who can support them," Zarroug maintains.

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For Dh4,000, Belly Baby Mom offers an initial doula package, which includes two prenatal visits to get to know the mother and father, and answer questions. The doula is then on call for the actual labour, and will attempt to remain by the mother's side until after the baby is born. The package also includes two antenatal visits, at the hospital or at the couple's home, to help prepare parents for the caring of their newborn child.

The package covers everything, from what to expect during labour, to comforting techniques, to informing the mother of what types of pain management techniques are available and what could happen during labour, to emotional support and encouragement, whether the mother wants an epidural or wants to experience a water birth.

Already, several hospitals in Dubai, such as Saudi German Hospital, American Hospital and Al Zahra Hospital, have begun working with doulas and welcoming them into the delivery room, pleased to have someone there whom the mother is comfortable with and who will take care of the emotional side of things.

"There are still some hospitals [in the UAE] with a ban on doulas, though," says Zarroug. "That's why we wanted to get licensed and are eager to raise awareness. We are there to support the mother, not to work against the medical team. Midwives love having us there to help. They take care of the physical. We take care of the emotional."

Find the free Belly Baby Mom podcast on SoundCloud and on iTunes