A study involving poor, uneducated women was one of a series on the effect of doulas Â— women trained to help other women through the physical and emotional battering of giving birth. Doula stems from a Greek word meaning slave.
It found that women given a steadying hand and reassuring voice during labor and the hours after birth were more affectionate to their babies two months later.
"It's impressive to think that the presence of that woman can make that difference that much later," said Dr. John H. Kennell, the Case Western Reserve pediatrician who supervised the studies.
Researchers studied a group of low-income women from the Houston area, said Susan Landry, the University of Texas-Houston Medical Center psychologist presenting the study Saturday at the Pediatric Academic Societies of America meeting in New Orleans.
The women, all first-time mothers, were randomly assigned to one of three subgroups at Houston's Ben Taub Hospital, one of two public hospitals in Harris County.
Thirty-three were coached, coaxed and encouraged through labor by a doulaÂ—a woman who had been taught how to do that, but didn't have medical training. Unlike a midwife, the doula did not deliver the baby but was there to support the mother.
The doulas stayed with the women for several hours after delivery, showing them how to hold their babies, feed them and generally get comfortable with them, Landry said.
Thirty-five women got the hospital's standard treatment, and if they complained of pain they were initially offered a narcotic. Most of the women with doulas did not ask for anesthetic.
Thirty-six were first offered an epidural anesthetic. "Many mothers were interested in the study in part because at this big hospital, epidurals weren't usually given," Landry said.
Some women got both a narcotic and an epidural.
Six to eight weeks later, researchers went to the women's homes, saying they were giving the babies a series of tests. The researchers were actually watching the mothers' behavior toward their children, and rating them by a scoring system.
The two groups who had no doula had statistically identical scores, but the doula-assisted group scored significantly higher at four of the five checkpoints, Landry said.
She and Kennell said they don't know why the doulas had such a profound effect, or how long it may last.
Kennell offered several possible causes: The doulas may have shown by example how to love and care for babies; the mothers might have felt so good about being nurtured and cared for that they did the same in turn; or the reduced stress during labor and delivery might have had a physiological effect that translated into more affection for their babies.
"These low-income mothers sometimes go through labor and birth ith no attention not even from their family," said Dr. Gabriella Pridjian, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Tulane Medical Center.
Pridjian said doctors and nurses are so busy "that they have less time for the emotional support of the woman in labor. And clearly, that's as important a role as any of the medical care that's being given."
By Janet McConnaughey