Lesley Everest starts off her workshop at McGill University by having first-year nursing students listen to a recording of a woman giving birth without any medication.

As a Montreal doula for more than 20 years who has supported the mothers of more than 500 babies through their labour pains, Everest recognizes the mother heard in the recording is very expressive – far more vocal than average. 

And that's the point.

She wants the nursing students in her workshop to take note of their own reaction to a birthing mother in pain.

Frightened faces

"The expressions on the faces were definitely frightened," Everest said, adding that when she asked students what they would want to do if they were in the room with that mother, the responses invariably were, "I want to give [her] drugs."

The three-hour workshop goes on to explore a variety of ways nurses can provide hands-on support to women in labour, without medication.

Everest teaches breathing techniques, relaxation techniques and massage.

It's an interactive session where students try out those techniques on each other.

"I think [the massage] could be very useful, especially showing the dads. Sometimes they're not sure what to do and they're just in the corner freaking out because their partner's freaking out," said Jessica Marinello, a first-year McGill nursing student.

Everest emphasizes that nurses should not own a patient's pain.

She says often nurses will push the idea of an epidural, whereas if a mother wants to give birth naturally, she suggests "encouragement is a lot better and trusting that any woman who really wants pain relief will ask for it." 

Sonia Semenic and Hieu Nguyen

McGill University nursing professor Sonia Semenic with student Hieu Nguyen. Nguyen has already used massage skills from the doula workshop to help a woman in labour. 'I made a small difference. It was thanks to the class,' she said. (Shari Okeke/CBC)

Bringing back lost art

The goal of the workshop is to teach students how to help women cope with pain during labour, regardless of whether the woman decides to opt for an epidural.

Faculty members in McGill University's nursing school say it's important to expose future nurses to the approach of doulas.

"These are highly trained, high skilled people, and the role they play in supporting women during labour is phenomenal," said Sonia Semenic, an associate professor of nursing.

"Hands-on, non-pharmacological labour support has really become a lost art," Semenic said.

"This used to be a central role of obstetrical nurses, and it would be great to be able to bring this back."