Doulas can help women get through childbirth and beyond, whether it's by massaging their backs during labor or giving the new baby a bath. But before you decide to use one, understand what these providers can and can't — and should and shouldn't — do for you.

According to DONA International, a nonprofit association of doulas, a doula (the word comes from ancient Greek, meaning “a woman who serves”) is “a trained and experienced professional who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to the mother before, during and just after birth; or who provides emotional and practical support during the postpartum period.”

That can mean everything from making sure the hospital knows your birth plan to helping you establish breastfeeding or running errands while you and your newborn rest.

However, there are limits to what a doula can, and should, do for an expectant or new mom. And because doulas aren’t licensed in every state, the training they receive can differ dramatically. In fact, anyone can call herself a doula, notes Ana Hill, a labor doula trainer in Denver, who is certified by the Childbirth and Postpartum Professional Association (CAPPA).

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Some potential benefits of hiring a doula

You might avoid a C-section. A recent American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) report of 15,000 women found that one-on-one doula care was associated with happier mothers and a significant reduction in the rate of Cesarean deliveries. In fact, ACOG notes doulas are probably underutilized.

Your labor could be easier. According to a recent report from the National Partnership for Women & Families (NPWF), a doula’s presence in the delivery room may reduce the need for pain medication, help shorten labor and improve a woman’s overall birth experience.

It can save money. The NPWF report also noted that less medical intervention can mean fewer dollars spent.

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Doula do’s and don’ts

Before you hire a doula to help you navigate your pregnancy and life as a new parent, keep the following tips in mind.

Do interview with care. “Ask about a doula’s education, experience, philosophy and certification status before hiring,” advises Melissa Harley, DONA International’s marketing and public relations director. “Make sure anyone you’re considering has training that’s accountable to a certifying body such as CAPPA or DONA,” adds Hill.

Do allow your doula to advocate for you. Once you’ve found a good fit for your family, put her to work. “A doula’s purpose is to provide unconditional support and non-clinical care and improve communication with the woman’s doctor and health staff at the birth site,” says Hill. Your doula is there to empower you and encourage your participation in the care you’re getting.

Don't expect your doula to double as your doctor. She should not be your go-to for medical advice. The Mayo Clinic notes a doula can offer an opinion when you’re making decisions regarding labor and delivery, but she isn’t equipped to stand in for an obstetrician or midwife. According to ACOG, “a doula is considered a part of a woman’s collaborative support team, but is not a health care provider.”

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Don't discount doula care for a high-risk pregnancy. If your circumstances aren’t quite the norm — you're over 40, say, or you're having twins — you can still avail yourself of a doula’s services. “Since a doula’s role isn’t medical, there’s no reason you can’t use one in your birth process,” says Hill. In fact, the more complicated (and potentially scary) the situation might be, the more comforting it may be to have a doula to lean on.

Jennifer Kelly Geddes is a New York City-based writer and editor who specializes in parenting, health and child development. She’s also the mom of two teen girls.