Monday, November 28, 2011

Pregnancy & Birth through History

I should imagine any woman reading my blog title is probably crossing their legs right at this moment. Well, after my research I wouldn't blame you if you did. Today's blog is on pregnancy and childbirth through history. A fitting post since I recently gave birth to my third child, a daughter, Lily.

For me, this labour was easy, painful yes, but easy and everything went well. Having said that, should I have had my first child, Samuel a hundred years ago, both of us would have died without question. Thank God for modern medicine.

So without further ado, we head back to... The Middle Ages

A time when women and the male physicians were unknowledgeable with the female body and it's reproductive organs. It was thought that the male semen was all that it took to create a baby and us poor females were simply the oven in which it baked. In a time where medicine was practiced with bloodletting, prayer and an assortment of herbs and spices it was any wonder many women died in pregnancy and childbirth during this time.


A medieval woman giving birth


A medieval birthing chair

Seventeenth Century
Not a lot had changed by this time. Women were still predominately the carers in all households and sat in on births during this time. Mother's gave birth in a room with closed windows, curtains drawn and roaring fires. Not the most comfortable way to have a baby if you were to go into labour in the middle of summer.

Father's were kept away and women were pushed to give birth in the sitting or squatting position. Superstitions were rife during this time, and if the labour didn't progress quickly during the pushing phase, family members were asked to open cupboard doors or to untie knots; symbolic of the opening of the womb. Oh dear...

When the baby was born they were swaddled in linen strips and placed in a dark, quiet corner, as they believed bright light was detrimental to the baby's sight. Again, obstructed labour caused many women to die during birth and of course, there was still no anaesthesia to relieve the pain. Ouch.

17th century birth

Nineteenth Century

By this time in history men were participating in births. Male doctors assisted in labour and women were often asked to lay on their left sides 'Sims position' with their knees bent up. This was so the Doctor and patient could not see each other and the women's 'dignity' was preserved. Births were still predominately at home.

By the mid 1800's chloroform was invented and forceps were used more often during birth. The baby was breastfed either by a wet nurse or mother, dependant if the mother wished to or not.

A 19th century birth


Late 19th century 'Sims Position'

We really should take our hats off to the women of the past and what they endured to enable us all to live today. As much as I love to sweep my readers into a time long gone and fill their minds with tales of love and happily ever afters, there was another side of marriage that all our heroines endured. Pregnancy and birth was a dangerous and painful undertaking and not something to be taken lightly. I salute you all.


Alison Stuart said... are quite right, my toes were curling as I read your excellent post! I think we should give three cheers to have been born in the late twentieth century because like you I may not have survived the birth of my first son. A sobering thought :-(

Maggi Andersen said...

What an undignified position the Sims was! Not being able to see your doctor. We have come a long way, thanks heavens! Great post Tam.

Cassandra Samuels said...

I would never have made it through my first pregnancy either. So, I second your praise of modern medicine.

Wonderful post about brave women of the past. I think squatting was a better idea than Sims position by the sounds of things.

Elle Fynllay said...

It is only a 150 years since Ignaz Semmelweis (1818–1865) encouraged physicians to wash their hands between doing autopsies and delivering babies and therefore reducing the deaths of new mothers from sepsis. Give me a midwife any day of the week.
Great post Tam and something we all feel for.

Danielle Lisle said...

Wow. I am so glad I live in the here and now and not back then. While I allow my mind to drift there in my books, birth is not going to make an appearance. *shudders*
Thanks for sharing Tam.

Suzi said...

Thanks for the great historical information.
I would also have died during my first childbirth. Amazing isn't it, how so many of us wouldn't have survived even one pregnancy or childbirth?

Christina Phillips said...

I'm another who wouldn't have survived my first childbirth and just one reason why I'm very glad to have been born when I was!!! I love reading about the past but I do love all my modern conveniences (and yes, what on earth is with that Sims thing? Looks like something from the Spanish Inquisition!!)

Allison Butler said...

Hi Tam,

What incredible strength pregnant women throughout history possessed. I imagine there might have been a good dose of luck involved too. How blessed we are! Thanks for the fascinating, slightly 'uncomfortable' post:)

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison.
Three cheers indeed! As much as I love history, I'm also glad to have been a 20th century girl.
Thanks for stopping by.
Tam :D

Anonymous said...

Hi Maggi!
I know, isn't the Sims Position awful. I would have hated to have given birth this way.
Thanks for stopping by.
Tam :D

Anonymous said...

Hi Cass!
Agree re: the birth position. The Sims Position looks awfully uncomfortable.
Thanks for stopping by.
Tam :D

Anonymous said...

OMG Elle that's horrific! I can't believe doctors used to do that.
*shakes head*
Thanks for stopping by.
Tam :D

Anonymous said...

Hi Danielle.
Pregnancy may occur in my books but I think I'll also draw the line on birth. Probably have an epilogue where the kids are already born and everyone is healthy and alive.
Thanks for stopping by.
Tam :D

Anonymous said...

Hi Suzi.
I know, I can't believe how many of us had complications during birth. So glad we were all born when we were, could have been such a different outcome 100 years ago.
Thanks for stopping by.
Tam :D

Anonymous said...

Hi Christina.
LOL. The Sims Position does look like a form of torture.
Thanks for stopping by.
Tam :D

Anonymous said...

Hi Allison.
Oh yes, the women of the past were strong and brave indeed. I would have been terrified to give birth back then.
Thanks for stopping by.
Tam :D

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic for all of us Tam, as women and writers.
I agree ... because of the era (as you pointed out) there may be a moment we will likely touch on a pregnancy or birth ...whether in detail or not.
One of my historical Novels the heroine is a midwife and I had to research the birthing chair as well. There was a time when Dr's were against the use of it, then they found it had been a useful tool and it's use came back into mode.

*Modern day fact ... A friend of mine (15- 20yrs) had her 3 babies delivered naturally with her buttocks toward the Dr while on her hands and knees.
I was fairly surprised at the time!!!

Anonymous said...

sorry, ... that should read: 15-20yrs ago... not her age LOL!

Eleni Konstantine said...

I'm in awe of all women who give birth, having been privileged to have witness my godson enter the world. And of course, I'm thankful for modern medicine and caring doctors and midwives who help bring those bundles of joy into the world.

Thanks for a great post, Tam.