Women in history had a pretty rough go of it, especially during childbirth. To find out how 20th century medicine changed the face of childbirth, read on…
21st century childbirth seems like a pretty scary thought, right? Well, there’s one thing which may put your mind at ease… I’m talking about the development of childbirth during the 20th century.
With advances in medicine at the turn of the century, we’d assume things got a lot better for women giving birth in the 1900s. That said, medical intervention wasn’t always a good thing, and childbirth injuries to mothers and babies were still rife during this time. That’s right – although women have been giving birth since the dawn of time, it wasn’t until around 50 years ago that things changed for the better for women and new-borns alike.
The history of childbirth over the past few decades certainly make me feel lucky to be alive right now. To discover the madness of childbirth from the 1900s, and how it has changed over the decades, read on…
1900s: Childbirth at the Turn of the Century
During the 19th century, and continuing into the 1900s, many women would experience an average of around seven births during their lifetime. But, with the pretty hefty mortality rate, they would spend a lot of time prior to the birth preparing for their death. After all, this was a very real possibility of childbirth at this time.
In fact, despite overall decrease in mother and infant mortality due to infectious diseases during the turn of the century, mortality was still at a high. This is due to the incessant medical intervention at this time, which actually caused more harm than good.
In fact, women who did survive often experienced lasting effects from the trauma of childbirth caused by this intervention. Fistulas from lacerations of the perineum that weren’t repaired would cause lifelong problems. What’s more, prolapses often occurred, which would have been practically unfixable at the time, alongside incontinence and pain during sex.
One thing that did change for women during this time was their agency to choose. With a movement away from midwives and homebirths, and a movement into the male-dominated doctor’s surgery, wealthy women had much more say.
During this time, childbirth was still regarded as a pretty unnatural and confusing experience; Eve’s curse. So, during pregnancy, women had to swear off even mild exercise, such as cycling, or they’d be regarded as “unsound”.
What’s more, fathers still avoided the birthing room, and steered clear from any talk about pregnancy. After all, the whole experience was one for women to bear alone, in their mind.
Painless Childbirth: Too Good to be True?
Although childbirth pain relief was very much a consideration during the early 1900s, experimentation was still occurring to get this just right. For many feminists of the time, having the right to a painless childbirth seemed like a human right that they deserved. But, they couldn’t have bargained for what came next…
Ether and chloroform were initially utilised, but the dosage was always a mystery, and many women would pass out. This would often lead to complications during birth, so doctors were on the hunt for something more effective. Thus came the birth of “Twilight Sleep”.
Austrian and German physicians experimented with a mixture of scopolamine and morphine to limit pain. It did so to such an effect that it completely wiped the mother’s memory of the birth from their mind.
To the women who vouched for their right to a painless birth, this seemed like the perfect tool. After all, it kept the woman conscious enough to effectively react to contractions, and to push when needed, but the memory of the pain was completely removed.
However, this was definitely too good to be true, and many doctors were still opposed to this method. Indeed, although mothers had no memory of the birthing experience, this did not mean that their body didn’t go through a terrible ordeal. Many women would thrash, scream, writhe, and convulse in pain, confused as to what was happening to them.
This occurred so much so that restraints were placed on the beds to stop women from thrashing around. What’s more, the women were often left alone and isolated, leading to confusion and exhaustion on waking up. Many women ended up with lasting mental effects from the ordeal, and the drug sometimes caused asphyxiation of new-borns.
Although twilight sleep didn’t last for long, it prompted women and doctors alike to find a sustainable method of administering pain relief during birth. It also brought many more women away from home births, and the administration of unsafe drugs at home, which perhaps saved many lives.
Hygiene and Antiseptic
The 1800s saw an upturn in understanding the importance of hygiene to reduce infection. This meant that vaginal chloral douches and scrubbing of the genitals were commonplace in hospitals during this time. By the 1900s, shaving was common practice, and doctors encourage hospital, rather than home, deliveries for the optimum sterility.
Women were now encouraged to choose a trustworthy physician to perform their birth. That said, as we’ve seen, this medical intervention wasn’t always a good thing. Forceps and other instruments meant childbirth became even more dangerous for mother and baby, causing mortality rates to spike.
1920s: Too Much Intervention
Not only were doctors poorly trained, many doctors wanted to advance further in the field than their counterparts. These experiments meant that women were practiced on like Guinea pigs, proving fatal for many mothers-to-be and babies.
1930s-1940s: Mortality Rates Finally Dropped
After struggling to find a pain relief system that was safe and humane, “gas and air” became commonplace in the 1930s. Even at home, where midwives performed the procedure, this pain relief was widespread. What’s more, the introduction of anti-bacterial sulphonamide antibiotics, which fought against puerperal fever, also proved highly effective.
To add to this, reports demonstrating the negative impact of medical intervention meant that doctors started to revise their methods. Training improved, dangerous techniques were thrown out the window, and c-sections started to become safer. Because of this, mortality rates began to drop.
That said, in some places, twilight sleep was still administered, leaving many women traumatised. This prevailed into the 60s and 70s, when women were left alone for the majority of the birth, and then awoke completely mentally scarred.
Movement Away from Midwives
As we’ve seen, there was a movement away from midwives during the start of the century. It wasn’t until the 1930s that this number began to increase, and around half of the births were performed in hospital by this time.
Alongside new antibacterial drugs, there were a number of other inventions which changed the picture. Not only was penicillin discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928, but ergometrine was also used. This narrowed blood vessels, which helped the mother to deliver the placenta, and reduce bleeding.
What’s more, the science behind blood transfusions had been officially confirmed, making them widely available. So, infection rates were reduced, blood loss was avoided, and women became safer.
1950s-1960s: A New Era for Childbirth?
With all these amazing medical interventions, which actually worked, a new era of childbirth commenced. Now, the idea that the doctor knew best was replaced by the mother becoming the decision-maker for their birth. This created a more humane and understanding environment for women, where they were more autonomous over their bodies.
Now, childbirth was steered away from the treacherous and obscene, and brought into a more pleasant light. It was now regarded as a normal process, that was natural, exciting, and beautiful, changing everything
Natural Childbirth and Non-Medical Pain Relief
These new ideologies, and the problems caused by heavy sedation during childbirth, saw the resurgence of natural childbirth. Although twilight sleep was still sometimes prevalent, it was dying out, and non-medicinal pain relief methods were now used. This included preparing the mother with relaxation techniques, like breathing and water immersion, before the birth began.
These sorts of pain management techniques are much safer for women. By allowing mothers to choose how they give birth, and have control over the whole process without sedation, the process has changed massively.
1970s-1980s: New Technologies Take the Scene
The one major change during this time was the introduction of ultrasounds. This was revolutionary, as it allowed for doctors to spot any complications before they arose. Now, problems can be foreseen, and the safety of the birthing process can be more assured.
Induced labours and c-sections also became common during these decades, which further improved the chances of survival. What’s more, prenatal care was also valued a lot more, again further altering the mindset that childbirth was a curse. Finally, fathers became a welcome addition to the birthing room, bringing parents together in solidarity for their new family addition.
The Modern World of Childbirth
Clearly, the developments over the past century have been absolutely vital in getting to where we are today. Although many women and new-borns suffered at the hands of incompetent physicians, these experiments mean women today can give birth in relative in safety.
What’s more, social changes to the way childbirth is perceived have also altered the way hospitals go about it. Now, the experience has become something to cherish.
What’s more, contraception and the right to choose has meant that women are now much less likely to give birth more than a few times in their life. This means women’s bodies are much safer from long-term harm.
Feeling Lucky to Give Birth Now?
So, now we’ve heard the terrifying tales of childbirth no more than a few decades ago, I think it’s safe to say we’re pretty lucky. What do you think – are you happy to be giving birth during this time? Let us know, in the comments below, what your thoughts are, and if you have any stories or additional facts to bring forward.