The History of Childbirth – Ouch!

After reviewing some of the history of childbirth, women can rejoice in the knowledge that there has never been a better time to give birth to a baby than now!

We have the most amazing advanced technology to deal with all kinds of labor, and especially difficult deliveries such as breach babies or obstructed labor. We have complete hygiene in our operating rooms, amazing diagnostic machinery, and modern equipment. We have access to an array of medication, which has come a long way from giving the mother chloroform or a bottle of whiskey for easing pain. We have free choice as to who we have in our delivery rooms, whether it is our husbands, sisters, friends, children, doulas, midwives or our parents, or all of them if we wish!

This is important, considering that all males were banned from delivery rooms until the mid-1900’s! We are also now free of the many superstitions that surrounded labor and birth, such as; we now know that whipping male servants outside of a delivery room does not speed up the birthing process! Read on for an overview of the history that has brought us to our modern day baby birthing practices!

A baby is born on a cold winter’s night in the 1800’s

Imagine that it is midnight on a night in the middle of winter with a raging blizzard outside, and somehow, miraculously, the midwife has managed to find her way down the road to your house just before the worst of the blizzard started. You are one of the lucky ones, as the midwife actually made it to your house to help you with the long, hard laborious task of this “journey of your new baby” into this world!

You are in a tiny dark room with no electricity, no heat and no running water. There are no drugs, medicines, or the comforts of modern day conveniences such as disposable diapers, modern cribs, electric baby swings, trendy strollers, adjustable high chairs or even nursing bras – just to name a few of the modern day conveniences that we take for granted! You are shivering with cold in the light of a shortening candle, as another long, painful and hard contraction starts.

Your husband is nowhere to be seen as it is unheard of for men (even if they were a doctor!) to be present during the birth of a baby, during the 1800’s. Finally, after a long 16 hours, your baby appears into this world. You are tired, cold, hungry and your husband fell asleep at the local pub hours ago (one of the only warm places to hide in this blizzard) and you know that he probably won’t be home until the next day.

Your midwife helps you to swaddle the baby, and gives you a sponge bath. Later you will attempt to leave the house to go to the outhouse, but for now you are content to use the bedpan. Your baby cries as the first pangs of hunger start in his belly. You realize for the first time that you are hungry too. As you pull your new baby to your breast and contemplate what the next few days will bring, you wonder and thank God that you had no complications during your baby‘s birth.

You shudder at the memory of your best friend who died during the birth of her third baby last month. Her baby was breach and the midwife did not make it on time - your friend died from the “complications of childbirth” as was common in these times.

As a young mother in the New Americas, you have your work cut out for you! Money is short as jobs are scarce; you know that the daily chores will be harder with more baby clothes and cloth diapers adding to your laundry. All your laundry must be hand scrubbed and washed with water that you have to bring in from the well. Keeping in mind that the well has been frozen for a couple of weeks due to a particularly cold winter this year, you may have to collect snow and melt it over your wood fire stove before washing your growing pile of infant clothes and diapers, and your own laundry.

Food has to be prepared with your wood fire stove and the wood still has to be chopped to fuel the stove. Your four other children (all under the age of 7) need you as well. You hope your husband will find a job soon and that he will be able to make trips to the local town. The nearest town is about 2 hours away by horse and carriage and he'll need to bring in monthly supplies of food and other sundries such as baby supplies, children’s clothing and more laundry soap! You bite your lip as you breastfeed your newborn and brace yourself for the busy future…

The history of childbirth has been recorded since A.D. 98

Yes, we have come a long way from childbirth and motherhood in the 1800’s. Actually, the history of childbirth has been recorded since A.D.98 when Soranus, a classical Roman who apparently had good baby delivering skills, wrote a text book of obstetrics that was actually used until the 16th century.

During the Medieval Period (also known as the Dark Ages, approximately 500 – 1500 AD) there weren't really any records kept of obstetric practices. It has been presumed that during the Medieval Period the birthing of babies was mostly left up to midwives. It was preferred this way, as it kept the mother away from the large hospitals that were full of infections during those times.

Men were not allowed anywhere near childbirth situations. In fact, men were not allowed near birthing situations for hundreds of years. There is a story of one Doctor, Dr. Wertt of Hamburg, in 1522, who had the idea to dress up in women’s clothes to gain entry to a labor room. He was discovered and was burned at the stake for his effort!

It was not really until the 1970’s that fathers were allowed into birthing rooms, and at that time it was not so that they could help, they had to stand in the corner and just watch! Another record of birthing superstitions was that women were whipped to induce labor. There is record of a tale of one birthing experience where a medieval German Empress had 20 men whipped just outside of her labor room; coincidentally, she did in fact have a successful labor!

With the Renaissance and the invention of the printing press, medical knowledge was able to spread throughout the world. The first book of obstetrics was printed in English in 1544; it was called the “Birth of Mankynde” by Thomas Raynalde.

The Invention of Forceps

One of the greatest innovations in the treatment of obstructed labor was forceps. Obstructed labor was perhaps the number one cause of death to birthing mothers, previous to the 1600’s. With the invention of forceps, came a great increase in the survival rate of mothers and babies during childbirth. Previous to this time, death during childbirth was “an expected” tragedy.

Forceps were invented by William Chaberlen, but they were a crude invention at that time. The use of forceps was really pioneered by William Smellie (1697-1763); he was a doctor of family medicine in Scotland. He left Scotland in 1739 to study in London and Paris. He returned to London and set up a midwifery school.

Midwifery at that time was still teeming with superstitions and was very secretive (practices and knowledge were not shared between midwives at this time). In fact from the 14th to the 17th century many lay midwives and female healers were accused of being witches and were hunted and executed. Mr. Smellie’s midwifery school became very popular; it was probably because it was a very timely “invention”!

In fact, the practice of midwifery started to decline with the opening of an obstetric ward in Britain in 1739. During these times women were banned from university medical training which made midwives look ‘uneducated’ and they were looked upon as the “less” desirable birth attendants. It was only the wealthy and upper class who could afford trained medical doctors to attend the birth of their babies.

As one might imagine, Mr. Smellie was not very popular in those times by a lot of older and more “experienced” midwives! He was taking both their jobs and income away from them. Midwives tried hard to discredit him; they also complained that it was unfavorable and distasteful to have males present during such an intimate female “process”.

Midwives are making a ‘come back’ in some parts of the modern world

It is obvious today that midwives did not win the fight all those years ago for their cause of wanting to be the prominent birth attendants for women. While midwives are still common today, they are not the most popular choice of attendants for a baby’s birth in most of the modern world. Their presence and practices are making a come back in some countries today however. The Government of British Columbia, Canada recognized midwives as a viable attendant for births in 1998.

Midwives in British Columbia must now pass a government medical exam to prove their knowledge and once they have passed, they have all of the same rights that a doctor has for attending births in a hospital. Today the government sponsored medical plan allows a woman to choose a midwife over a doctor to attend the birth of her baby, either in the home or at the hospital, and the government medical plan will pay for all midwife services!

This is a great step forward in the recognition of the services that modern day and properly trained midwives can provide! In British Columbia it is interesting to note that the government medical plan also pays for the midwife to do all of the follow up appointments for a new mother and her newborn baby for six weeks after the birth. This includes home visits and helping the mother learn breastfeeding positions and breastfeeding techniques, making sure a nursing bra fits properly, weighing the baby, etc. This is wonderful help especially when it is a first baby for a new mother!

The invention of the Cesarean section

Another of the greatest “inventions” for the treatment of obstructed and difficult labor was the cesarean section. Actually, the first recorded event of a Cesarean section was on the death record of a woman who was giving birth to a baby some time during the period of 715-673 B.C. Obviously this was an unsuccessful cesarean, but the record does prove that crude attempts were being made this far back.

During the Renaissance, the practice of Cesareans was revived. One of the first published detailed account of a cesarean was in 1596. Scipione Mercurio stated in his instructions that you need four strong assistants to hold the patient down as the incision is made; he then applied a liquid concoction of varied herbs before removing the baby. He did not, however, record if this event made way for the survival of either the mother or child.

There are many records of various doctors who attempted cesarean sections during the 1700’s to early 1900’s. There was really a 50/50 chance of survival for both the mother and the baby.

Considering that it wasn’t really until the 1840’s that doctors realized they had to scrub and wash their hands between patients, it’s not surprising that so many babies and mothers died! In fact, it was common during those times for doctors to attend autopsies of recently deceased people who had died from very contagious diseases and then to attend a birth without washing their hands! Needless to say, it was during this time that many contagious diseases, such as scarlet fever, spread rampantly and deaths were many!

The Invention of Anesthesia

Perhaps one of the other greatest “inventions” for childbirth was the invention of anesthesia. It was in 1853 that Queen Victoria of England gave birth to her 7th baby. Her doctor gave her chloroform to ease the pain. This was a great success and the Queen quickly spread the ‘word’ about how wonderful it was to have relief from the pain!

So it is really only in the last 150 years that pain relief has been available to women. Before that time there was no anesthesia available and childbirth pains were greatly feared by women. Young girls were encouraged to witness and hear women birth their babies so that they could “mentally prepare” for their turn to give birth to their own baby!

The last 30 years has seen the greatest advances in childbirth technology!

It was not really until the 1980’s that the modern world really “woke up” to the realization that ‘childbirth education’ for women and their partners was beneficial to the whole baby birthing process! Today the whole experience of having babies is so dramatically different to what the world had available even 30 years ago! It is also trendy today for couples who are expecting their first baby to attend Prenatal, or Lamaze classes, in order to prepare for baby delivery day!

These classes are also important in today’s world as families often do not have the “luxury” of being able to depend on extended family to teach them about caring for babies. Modern prenatal classes teach all about what to expect for the delivery of your newborn and they also offer valuable advice on what types of diapers, strollers, cribs, change tables, baby clothes, baby bedding and other baby products to buy.

The classes also teach new parents how to change a diaper, how to swaddle a newborn, and how to bathe and dress a new baby. A mother in the early 1800’s (actually in any other time previous to this century!) would have ‘killed’ to have the modern day baby conveniences that we have today. Even if they could have had their husband or partner present during delivery for moral support it would have helped!

Modern conveniences and the child birth experience

Today we are very, very lucky to have the modern conveniences of doctors (your choice of male or female!), trained midwives, doulas, clean hospitals, efficient drugs and effective medical interventions, and a woman can have her husband attend the birth of their baby! In fact in most hospitals today it is possible to have your mother, brother, sister, children, best friend or whoever you wish attend the birth of your baby!

We also have, if you so choose, the convenience of disposable diapers. And aren't you glad to have the ever so amazing washing machine and dryer that your great grandmother did not have to wash their “mountains” of laundry that a new baby creates!

We have catalogues and catalogues all displaying an amazing selection of baby clothes, baby shoes, strollers, cribs, car seats, high chairs, baby swings and more to choose from. We also have such things as nursing bras, nursing clothes and breast pumps now, which offer a huge convenience over what mothers in past centuries, had to deal with.

Can you imagine bringing a baby into this world 100 years ago? Well, time travel is not possible so lets just give thanks and gratitude to the women of long ago who endured to make all the modern baby conveniences of today’s world possible!

About the Author

Julia Mahler is a successful and talented freelance writer providing advice for parents and consumers on purchasing a variety of baby products which includes baby strollers, baby furniture, Christening gowns, nursing bras, infant costumes and more! Her numerous articles provide a wonderfully researched resource of interesting and relevant information for all of your baby interests and for all of baby’s needs.

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