Childbirth is a process humans have experienced since the dawn of time. Due to our unique evolution, particularly the combination of our large brains and our two-legged nature (causing us to have narrow pelvises), humans have one of the most painful and difficult childbirth experiences. As such, and, of course, due to humans’ intelligent and social nature, countless methods, procedures, and rituals related to childbirth have arisen throughout history. Here is a brief history of the changing nature of childbirth in Western society, including the major developments, trends, and changes in attitude that have transpired over the years, as well as a quick glimpse into the future.
The changing role of men
Childbirth has historically been a female domain. Women would traditionally be attended only by other women during labour and birth, with fathers only permitted to enter if the mother or baby was in a life-threatening situation. Indeed, in 1522, a German doctor snuck into a delivery room dressed as a woman and was consequently sentenced to death. Due to the effective ban on male presence during the delivery process, the role of the midwife emerged. In European cities, midwives began to be formally trained in the 15th century. However, the assistance of a midwife was a luxury typically reserved only for city-dwellers, with rural women instead being aided by female family and friends. In the 1700s, male physicians began to take on a greater role in assisting women during childbirth, but it was not until the 1950s that it became more common for fathers to be present in the delivery room.
The use of hospitals
Historically, women gave birth at home without medical assistance. Hospitalisation only became more commonplace during the Industrial Revolution due to poor and cramped living conditions making it difficult and unsafe for women to give birth in their own homes. Rates of hospitalisation gradually rose over the course of the 1800s, followed by a massive increase in the 20th century. In the United States, for example, just 5% of women gave birth in a hospital in 1900. By 1960, this figure had risen to 96%.
The use of pain medication during labour was deemed controversial for many centuries. This attitude began to change in 1852 when Queen Victoria used chloroform as pain relief during her delivery. The following decades saw the development and spread of a pain relief method known as ‘twilight sleep’, which consisted of a combination of morphine and scopolamine. This cocktail had major side effects and offered relatively little pain relief. Its main result was that it often caused women to forget the delivery process entirely. Thankfully, pain medication has since progressed to be much safer and more effective.
Although we have come a long way, childbirth is still not a perfect process. Over 800 women per day die during childbirth, and various other complications can occur during delivery, which can harm the mother and baby. Although this is often due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, some cases are due to medical negligence, in which case birth injury solicitors can assist the family in making a claim.
Developments in medical science could change the landscape of childbirth forever. IVF is becoming more and more commonplace, and egg freezing procedures have made it possible for women to have children later in life. Scientists have also been able to use stem cells to create sperm and are attempting to do the same with eggs. The development of an artificial womb is also being pursued, which could theoretically circumvent the process of childbirth altogether!