Midwives have been birthing attendants throughout most of the history of birth. It wasn't until the 1800s that physicians became more actively involved in labor and delivery. Birth became seen as a medical procedure to be managed by doctors. Labor and delivery was no longer the domain of women for the first time in the history of pregnancy and childbirth. Midwives were banished to the fringes of medical society and were seen as dirty and ignorant, unknowledgeable about the aspects of birth simply because they were women.
History of Natural Childbirth
Throughout ancient times birth traditions and customs varied from culture to culture, but all childbirth was what we now term natural childbirth. There was no surgical intervention and no medicinal aids to help with pain management. Herbs may have been used to help speed labor or manage the pain. Sometimes religious rituals were done in the belief that they would help mother and child. Sometimes women gave birth near sacred waters, stones or trees in the belief that these would help the birth and the future lives of their children.
By the Victorian era women were seen as too fragile to handle the rigors of a natural childbirth. Physician intervention became typical and women were commonly sedated with chloroform or ether to help them manage the pain. The birthing position changed from upright to a horizontal position. Historical facts about giving birth indicate that before the 1800s most women stood, squatted, kneeled or sat in special birthing chairs when they were laboring. The change from a practical upright laboring position to a lying flat on the back position was likely encouraged by doctors because it made it more convenient for them to see or feel what was happening as labor progressed.
Up Until the 17th Century
Midwives still managed births and were highly respected in their villages for their skills. In some places they were so highly valued that they were licensed through the local bishop. They were also very influential in their communities. From medieval times until the 17th century doctors were occasionally involved in the birthing process, but only if absolutely necessary and in the case of an emergency. Usually if a doctor was called to a birth it meant that either the mother or baby or both would likely die.
An elaborate childbirth ritual was practiced among all class levels. A lying-in chamber was created for the woman. This included closing windows, drawing curtains and stopping up keyholes to prevent drafts from entering and ward off evil spirits. In upper classes this was usually done to a single room. In lower classes it was often the entire house was transformed into a chamber simply because they had smaller homes. After the birth many of the wealthy women had elaborate rituals of visiting and celebration where many presents were presented.
Births were usually not in bed because of the mess. Woman had their babies before a hearth with straw on the floor to absorb the fluids. Midwives remained with the woman throughout her entire labor and used techniques of massage to help speed dilation and relieve pain.
Doctor Managed Childbirth
The history of anesthesia use during childbirth started during the 1800s when chloroform and ether were commonly used. In the history of childbirth in the UK it's said that Queen Victoria was one of the first high profile women to encourage the use of this type of anesthesia during labor. In 1853 she used it during the birth of Prince Leopold.
In the 1920s advances in anesthesia led to the Twilight Sleep where a combination of morphine and scopolamine created a state of semi-consciousness where the woman didn't remember anything about the labor. By the 1960s and 1970s epidurals were more commonly used to help treat labor pain since infant health problems associated with Twilight Sleep caused this technique to no longer be used by the end of the 1950s.