Natural Childbirth History

Natural childbirth is a philosophy of childbirth that goes back to the traditional belief that women are innately adequately prepared to give birth to their children without external intervention. Promotion of external intervention started around the 1700s and gained momentum in the 1800s where doctors began to view childbirth as a medical process that needed to be managed. By the 1920s women were regularly drugged into a state of semi-consciousness and had their babies removed from their bodies with forceps. Episiotomies were common. This state of semi-consciousness became known as the Twilight Sleep and women rarely remembered giving birth to their children.

In the 1930s, obstetrician Dr. Grantly Dick-Read wrote a book called Natural Childbirth which promoted allowing a woman to have a baby as nature intended, that is as in a mostly unassisted childbirth. It was the first time the term "natural childbirth" was used. Dr. Dick-Read went on to publish a book called Childbirth without Fear in 1942.

History of Labor and Delivery

Historically, women had their babies at home without medical intervention. Births were attended to by midwives or friends and family of the mother-to-be. Sometimes herbs were used to help ease pain. In some cultures prayers to gods and goddesses or religious amulets were used to protect the mother during labor. Midwives also often used massage techniques to speed dilation and aid with delivery.

During medieval times and through to the 17th century women were often given caudle, which was a warm spiced wine or ale to help them deal with the challenges of childbirth. They tended to give birth at home in a lying-in chamber which was basically their own homes completely closed off to create a warm environment and sometimes ward off evil spirits. Windows were closed, curtains were drawn, keyholes were stopped up and candles were lit. The home would remain this way for approximately a month after the birth.

By the 1700s the process of childbirth was being viewed as more of a medical process even though most women gave birth at home. Forceps use was publicized. By the 1800s, chloroform and forceps became the common way for upper class women to give birth.

In developed countries, the Industrial Revolution had a significant impact on women having their babies at home. Urban and lower class women were driven to hospitals to give birth because dirty and crowded living conditions made home births more difficult. Wealthy women continued to have their babies at home near the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s.

At the beginning of the 20th century the promise of safer and less painful labor by the medical community resulted in more women of the upper classes having their babies in hospitals. Some historians suggest that the right to a pain-free labor was part of the early feminist movement and also helped increase the number of women having hospital births.

By the 1930s traditional childbirth was mostly gone, especially in the United States. Procedures like enemas, mandatory intravenous drips and the strapping down laboring women became common. It was also common for newborns to be monitored for several hours in a nursery away from the mother. Many of these procedures were routinely done right through the 1970s and even the 1980s in some places.

Challenging Medicalized Childbirth

The 1940s are considered the era where medical assumptions about childbirth were challenged. A return to natural childbirth started by giving women the power to have a say in the way they chose to labor and deliver. Today this choice is referred to as birth plans.

It wasn't long before Doctors Frederick Leboyer and Michel Odent, as well as midwife Ina May Gaskin, pioneered water birth and birthing centers as alternatives to a hospital birth. The Lamaze technique of childbirth was also developed in the 1940s. Natural childbirth stories indicate that this return to traditional childbirth had equal positive labor outcomes to medicalized, hospital births. The exception was (and still is today) high-risk cases. Today traditional birthing techniques are taught through books featuring natural childbirth photos and classes where it's common to watch natural childbirth videos.

Even though there has been a return to a more natural form of childbirth, medical advances in the conception and birthing process have continued. Some of these advances -- like cloning, artificial insemination from unknown sperm donors and invitro-fertilization -- have caused some controversy and ethical concerns.


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