The History of Childbirth: From the Beginning of Medicine to Today

Childbirth through the centuries has altered dramatically. Want to know some more details about our lucky escape from pre-21st century childbirth? Read on…

Before the medical advancements we have today, maternal birth injuries were commonplace. What’s more, stillbirths and miscarriages happened all the time, which made giving birth very dangerous for everyone involved.

So, what exactly did our predecessors have to go through during pregnancy and childbirth? Well, for some more details about the history of childbirth, from the Ancient Greeks onwards, you came to the right place…

C. 8th – 2nd BC The Ancient Greeks: the “Birth” of Medicine

For the Ancient Greeks, women’s bodies were a strange and confusing thing. Considering the fact that almost every doctor was a man back then, the only way they could truly understand women was through dissection. That said, that didn’t stop them from writing all their thoughts about women down.

Diseases of Women, by Hippocrates, was an entire section in his famous works, The Hippocratic Corpus. The Father of Medicine wrote all about the diseases specific to women, including the wandering womb and hysteria. There are only a couple of recorded female medical writers during this time, so it’s all very allusive.

When it came to childbirth, there were a few rituals and myths which surrounded the event. Once the midwives were summoned, and the mother laid down on the bed, the room was checked for any knots. In doing so, Greek doctors believed the birth wouldn’t be delayed and would go a lot smoother.

Once birthing began, the expectant mother was then moved to a crouching position, over a birthing stool. This was specifically designed for this purpose, and the midwives would massage her belly, whilst another lay beneath to catch the falling baby.

With all the bad tidings and fear surrounding childbirth, both mother and baby were then cleansed. This way, the unlucky nature of birth would soon be forgotten, and both parties would live happily and healthily.

C. 2nd BC – 4th AD Roman Childbirth: A New Era?

Much like Ancient Grecian births, Roman births were a woman’s business. Medical advice, such as massaging and steady breathing were continued through to this period. What’s more, women might have chosen to wear an amulet around their neck for good luck, made from perishable materials if you were poor.

We often have this preconception that giving birth during the ancient periods would have been extremely dangerous. With minimal childbirth pain relief, save for the few herbal remedies here and there, and little knowledge on hygiene and infection, it seems scary. That said, if the birth was normal, it could be dealt with pretty well.

That said, if labour became a bit more complicated, things were certainly trickier. Midwives used sturdy instruments to reposition the baby and open the uterus. That said, records show no mention of caesarean, forceps, or the cutting of the perineum.

So, it’s no surprise that childbirth injuries to mother and baby were pretty high. Miscarriages and stillbirths occurred around 20 percent of the time!

C. 4th – 15th AD The Medieval Period: Plunging into the Dark Ages

The Medieval period, after the fall of the Roman Empire, leaves us plunged into darkness. Due to the scant evidence from during this period, we know little about life during this millennium.

What we do know is that, much like in the previous centuries, childbirth was seen as the one pivotal role a woman was to undertake in her lifetime. This meant that life for a young woman could have been pretty relentless and dangerous. They would have given birth numerous times, if they made it through delivery, that is.

Considering the link between day-to-day life and religion back then, the birth was also seen as a very religious ordeal. It was Eve’s sin which brought this upon women, and this thought is sometimes continued, even now. So, again, childbirth was seen as unclean and sinful.

Medieval women giving birth would have had a few options if they wanted to ease their labour pains. Some included:

  • Herbal poultices and potions;
  • Prayer, particularly, to the patron Saint of childbirth, Saint Margaret;
  • Wearing gemstones or coral around the neck;
  • A magnet placed on the mother’s forehead;
  • Or, rubbing of the mother’s flanks with rose oil.

If a noblewoman came across a difficult birth, a holy girdle would be placed around her to ease any pains. In general, though, the birth would be a huge ordeal, and many noble births were met with celebrations, lit candles, and decorations.

C. 15th – 17th AD The Tudor Period: How Did Henry VIII’s Wives Fair?

Much like during medieval times, women would have been in real danger if they were unable to birth a child. That said, they wouldn’t have even known they were pregnant until they felt the first kicking of the baby, at around 5 months, sometimes! By this time, though they probably would have guessed something, due to a missed period.

In general, though, women would have had to rely on a doctor for any indication that they might be pregnant. Their urine would be checked to see what colour it was; if it was a pale colour, then the woman might have been pregnant. Alternatively, they might have left a needle in their urine to see if it rusted, but there really was no sure fix.

Likewise, doctors couldn’t check the heart rate of the baby, so women had to rely on each other for support and guidance. After all, childbirth was something never to be discussed openly; only in female company.

Once the time came for a noble woman to give birth, she would be expected to confine herself to her chambers for a matter of weeks beforehand. This way, infection could be avoided, and gossip too. For poor women, though, it’s likely they would have worked right up until labour.

When it came to the birth, the room was decorated with beautiful tapestries and crucifixes, during the Catholic period. After all, this would have been a highly religious affair. But, after the Reformation, all this changed, and women were only allowed to seek help from God or a Priest, rather than relics.

Only rich women would have had the support of a midwife. Otherwise, it was down to female friends and family to support a pregnant woman. That said, we really have no true account of a birth from a female perspective, as women didn’t write down their lives, in the way that men did.

Generally, there was an intrinsic link between midwives and witchcraft, as any stolen placentas and umbilical cords could be used for rituals. So, it was important to find someone deemed trustworthy.

Overall, though, it was really up to the mother how she gave birth, but midwives would often suggest comfortable positions. For example, being cradled from behind or sitting on a birthing stool were some common choices.

C. 18th – 19th AD The Georgians and Victorians: An Industrial Revolution

During this period, the idea of hygiene became much more commonplace. So, the practice of washing hands in chlorinated lime before examining a mother became the norm.

What’s more, this was a time when actual anaesthesia was presented to the mother during childbirth, making it a lot less painful. Although clergymen disliked the meddling within childbirth, as it was a religious sin against God, chloroform was still widely used.

That’s not to say that these practices were perfect. The use of chloroform occurred often, but it was difficult to get the balance right. If too much was administered, it would completely knock the mother out.

Dr. John Snow (1813-1858) mastered the art of chloroform administration, providing only a few drops on a cloth to temporarily block signals from the spine to the brain. Generally, some of the biggest problems during pregnancy could include:

  • A lack of vitamins, meaning that a lot of women were anaemic during their pregnancy;
  • The placenta remaining within the uterus was a common health risk;
  • Contamination due to unwashed hands during birth;
  • And the constant use of a corset throughout a woman’s life, which may have prevented pregnancy.

The 1900s: A Century of Dramatic Change

Although it might seem late, this was the last century in which childbirth was seen as a very private, womanly affair. In fact, it wasn’t really until the 1970s and 1980s that men were permitted to stay in the room during the birth. Before then, they would stay for the labour, if that.

Instead of giving birth at home, most women started to go to hospitals for childbirth during this period. What’s more, safer forms of anaesthesia became commonplace too.

That said, it’s worth noting that the initial medical intervention from doctors, during the mid-1900s, did cause a spike in mortality. This was due to unnecessary actions taking place, as well as many women being unconscious during the whole event! But, this soon changed, and mortality rates during childbirth dropped significantly, by around 90 percent.

Modern Day Childbirth: are We the Most Advanced?

The biggest change during this period of time has been technology. Although the 1900s saw the advancement of the baby scanner, now we can see a complete 3D mock-up of our unborn children. In some labs, scientists are even talking about altering the genetic makeup of babies whilst they’re still in the womb!

Other than this, one of the biggest changes has to be conception. With developments over the recent decades in IVF treatments, and other forms of fertility treatments, people across the world are given the chance to conceive when they might otherwise have been unable to do so.

Learnt Anything New?

So, that’s a brief overview of what childbirth would have been like through the ages. For all of us mothers, I think we’ll be pretty relieved we gave birth during this time; it certainly sounds like we drew the long straw.

Do you have any more interesting insights into the world of pregnancy hundreds of years ago? Perhaps you’ve learnt something new, and want to share your thoughts in the comments down below? Whatever your thoughts, let me know; I’d love for us to get a conversation going!

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