Labor - Modern Childbirth Techniques vs. Historical Techniques

Pregnancy can be a wondrous time in a woman's life and the life of her partner. But it isn't without its risks even in our advanced, modern age. Once the pregnant labor pains start, unforeseen problems are possible even if all precautions have been taken. And the risks aren't just to the mother. A baby can be born with his umbilical cord wound too tightly around his neck which can cause oxygen deprivation. A mother can hemorrhage and need special medications to stop the bleeding. A blood transfusion might also be necessary if too much blood is lost.

Pregnant labor videos shown in childbirth preparation classes don't usually show the risks and complications of pregnancy labor and delivery. Statistically very few women in the developed world die in childbirth or from childbirth related causes so it's not something birthing coaches and birthing instructors focus on. But in the 1800s it was so much more common that a pregnant woman going into labor was very aware that she might not make it through the process alive, even if she already had several children.

Pregnant: Giving Birth in the 1800s

In the early 1800s midwives still oversaw most births and it wasn't until later that century that doctors were more often called when a woman began to show pregnant labor symptoms. Midwives, who were once respected and revered women in their villages, were often looked down upon and the process of giving birth became more of a medical process in middle to upper class homes.

Hospital births weren't common yet since these places tended to be places where bacteria flourished. It was during the 1800s that scientific breakthroughs in the study of bacteria lead to an exercise of public hygiene. This resulted in fewer women dying from infection in childbirth and a lower infant mortality.

The use of forceps became more common in the 18th century which further pushed midwives out of the baby delivering business. Women were forbidden to use surgical instruments and forceps were considered a surgical tool. Upper classes began to seek physician help when baby labor started while the lower classes still tended to give birth with the help of midwives. The reason for this could possibly be that the lower classes couldn't afford a physician's fees.

It was during this time that childbirth was no longer referred to as such. Euphemisms were common. "In the family way" was the way a pregnant woman was described. The period after the birth was referred to as confinement.

Chloroform and ether were beginning to be more commonly used for labor pain management in the 1800s. It made a woman unconscious so she experienced no pain. Herbs were rarely used and were considered superstitious and ineffective, promoted by women who practiced witchcraft. Some midwives or female herbalists were considered witches.

Past the 1800s

With a decrease in immigration after World War I so came a decrease in a supply of foreign-trained midwives and the immigrant women they tended to service. Hospital births became more common in the 1900s and so did the perception that labor and delivery was a process that needed to be hurried for the health of the mother and baby. Birth became a procedure much like a surgical procedure where women were drugged, strapped to a bed flat on their backs with the purpose to get the baby out as quickly as possible. Forceps use increased and episiotomies were common. Still, this happened while women were unconscious so they didn't experience the pain of childbirth, an appealing option that made hospital births more appealing for some women. Government laws prohibited midwives from practicing which also encouraged hospital deliveries.

Modern Birthing Techniques

Most women still choose to have their babies in hospitals but some countries, states or provinces legally allow home births under the guidance of skilled midwives. Birthing centers are also gaining popularity with women who have uncomplicated deliveries.

Women who choose to have hospital births still tend to give birth while lying on their backs. Pain medication like an epidural makes this position more bearable. Some doctors prefer to give their patients medication to speed up contractions. Medication and bed rest may be necessary to slow down what looks like a preterm birth like when a woman goes into 34 weeks pregnant labor. This option was not available in the 1800s and a premature baby was often at risk of infections and health problems.


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