Childbirth Through the Ages
13th September, 2018
Over the years, the methods used to aid women in delivering babies have certainly changed a lot, from rituals to innovative technologies, through to the water births and hypnobirthing some mothers opt for today. We take a look at some of the childbirth practices and procedures used throughout history and how popular they were!
During the Medieval period, there were many folk tales and superstitions surrounding pregnancy. As such, several rituals were in place during and following the birth. One such ritual involved setting fire to the newborn’s umbilical cord to burn away and purify the sin of the actions that led to the babies conception! Midwives, responsible for the birthing, were thought to be witches at this point in history, so those helping with the birth had to be licensed by a bishop and swear an oath to state that they would not practice magic. Following the birth, women were required to stay in their room for 40 days, before being welcomed back into the community during a churching ceremony.
With medical practices during the 1500s not quite up to scratch with modern medicine, childbirth at this time was a very risky business. So dangerous, in fact, that women were encouraged to write their own wills almost as soon as they discovered they were expecting! Despite the risks, the lack of reliable birth control meant that the average number of children per mother was between five and seven, however, many of these would not survive infancy.
When the time to give birth came, no men were allowed in the room, including the doctors, meaning the challenge of birthing lay solely on the shoulders of the mother and her midwives. With no formal training, midwives learned their skills from information passed onto them from their mothers! With no painkillers to relieve them, herbs were sprinkled in the room to improve the smell and help to relax the labouring mother. Women were sat on birthing chairs or stools, which were thought to place women in the optimum position for birth.
Knowledge of ‘germs’ wasn’t apparent until the 19th century, so many women died from infections following the unclean birth practices. This was even the case for Queens, as both Jane Seymour and Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s wives, died following childbirth!
Religious beliefs in the 17th century made birth increasingly difficult for women. With the creation story detailing Eve’s sin and penance, it was believed that the pain women went through in childbirth was an atonement. With witchcraft suspicions at a peak, midwives who were unsuccessful in delivering a healthy baby, and keeping the mother alive, were often burnt at the stake with claims that they were witches.
By the end of the 17th century and throughout the 18th century, many new tools and practices for birthing were being developed, such as the forceps. With midwives deemed ‘witches’ by doctors trying to get into the delivery room, male doctors began taking the forefront during birth, bringing with their new tools with them. Unfortunately, straying from the midwife-led procedures did not end well, with a massive rise in the deaths of new mothers.
Queen Victoria is responsible for allowing women the chance of getting a little help from pain relief during birth, as she requested the ‘blessed drug’ when giving birth in 1853. For her last two births, she used chloroform to help her through labour! Before the end of the 1800s, c-sections were only reserved for women who were going to die during childbirth, as the risks were so high, however, the end of the 19th century saw the procedure used on other mothers in need.
At the start of the 20th century, home births were most common, as giving birth in a hospital was not widely available. In the early 1900’s expectant mother’s would have been extremely envious of our elasticated clothing. With maternity wear largely non-existent at this time, women kept wearing corsets for much of their pregnancy, despite the fact it was crushing the baby, and the mother’s organs somewhat!
Anaesthetics first became available for medical use; however, many male doctors ruled that they should not be used for women, harking back to Eve’s penance, stating that women were meant to feel the pain!
If you had a boy in the 1900s, they were most likely to be called William, while a girl would be called Mary.
Medical advances gave women in the 1910s a few more options to choose from. While most mothers gave birth at home, 1914 saw the first ‘maternity hospital’ opening, giving rise to hospital births. In this decade, the method known as ‘Twilight Sleep’ was introduced. This involved essentially knocking the woman out with morphine and scopolamine so that they didn’t feel anything during birth – or even remember it at all! Babies were then delivered using forceps. Despite the fact that this method was used up until the 1970s, it had massive risks, threatening the life of both mother and baby. Mary and John were the most popular baby names.
The 1920s were a stark contrast to previous decades, turning away from natural births to ones with many (too many) interventions. In addition to Twilight Sleep, which was still very popular, doctors would forcibly dilate a woman’s cervix, use forceps, cut an episiotomy, force the uterus to contract with medication and extract the placenta, amongst other procedures. All of this was done with ether given as a painkiller. Regardless of whether or not the woman really needed these procedures, they were performed anyway!
Margaret and Mary were popular girls names, with John the most common boys name.
By the 1930s, more and more births were taking place in a hospital. The largely unnecessary birthing procedures, unfortunately, led to a large increase in infant deaths. Almost all births were done with Twilight Sleep. Mary and John remained the most popular names.
The birth of the NHS at the end of the 1940s led to a great increase in hospital births, with most mothers opting to leave their homes for the delivery. Men began to stay with their wives in the delivery room for the first time. While Twilight Sleep was still the most common, studies into the benefits of natural birth were emerging, and less invasive techniques began to be used. Margaret was a hugely popular girls name in the UK at this time, with John remaining in the top spot for boys.
When Margaret or David was born in the 1950s, it was most likely to be in a hospital. Twilight Sleep was no longer popular, as women did not enjoy being unconscious during delivery, with evidence emerging that women were treated terribly during this time. Fetal ultrasounds were introduced, allowing doctors to identify any potential medical problems.
Fetal monitoring was widely used, with machines created to see the baby’s heart rate during labour. In order to beat infections, antibiotics were often prescribed post-partum. Due to this, deaths during and after delivery rapidly declined. Names from the first half of the century, such as Mary and Margaret, were largely uncommon now, with Susan and David being the most popular in the 1960s.
Some of the biggest changes in the views on pregnancy and childbirth took place in the 1970s, with the widespread arrival of the contraceptive pill, allowing women the choice to control when they started a family. Despite some warnings against smoking, some doctors were still telling expectant mothers to smoke cigarettes to help them relax, with smoking even allowed on maternity wards. Similarly, mothers with lower iron levels were told to drink pints of Guinness!
The somewhat terrifying Twilight Sleep had been put to rest and replaced with more natural relaxation methods such as breathing, hypnosis, water birth and Lamaze. Epidurals also became popular as a pain relief, paired with the newly invented Pitocin, which is used to induce contractions.
After giving birth, some women would have been ‘cleaned’, by being shaved, and given an enema. Babies would have commonly been called Sarah or Paul.
The focus in the 80s was on prenatal care, with parents able to hear their baby’s heartbeat in utero for the first time. Most women were opting for an epidural when they gave birth to Sarah or Christopher. While hospital births were popular still, women had the option to stay in the comfort of their own home with a visiting midwife.
Women were finally able to have more of a say in their birth plan during the 1990s. More natural births were encouraged, although pain relief was still in use. More checks and scans during pregnancy were now routine, and mothers could discover the gender of their child before they were born. Chloe and Jack provided the start of some of the more modern baby names.
When Oliver or Olivia was born in the 2000s, their mother had more options than ever. The chance for elective c-sections was on the rise, and home births started to become more popular once more. 3-D and 4-D ultrasounds were created, allowing mums-to-be to get a better look at what is growing inside them.
Most recently, the number of drug-free births is on the rise, with an all natural approach considered desirable. Despite that, epidurals are still very popular. For the first time, the face of the mother is changing, with the expectant mum more likely to be single, and an average of 2 years older than in previous decades.
We’ve come a long way, but we are still celebrating the miracle of childbirth. If you are searching for a special way to commemorate the birth of your newborn baby, look to the beautiful baby hand casts created lovingly here at Image Casting.