My grandmother was one of 16 plus children. We say 15 plus since it never is quite clear how many children there were. Some say 18, some say 17…no one’s really clear because it was a farm in rural Wisconsin nearly a century ago and documentation was bleak to say the least.
Grandma was a twin and my great grandmother birthed her and her twin brother in the attic of their farmhouse and then went and milked cows. It was unclear for a while when her actual birthday was since Great Grandma said she was born one day and her birth certificate said another day. Well, the birth certificate was just the day they meandered into town for the pesky paperwork.
I’m not talking a regular home birth, here. I’m talking no electricity. No bathroom. No running water. Twins. Things were ugly to say the least. Needless to say, with such stellar living conditions, her twin brother died of SIDS (or something) shortly thereafter and his body was kept in her crib in case she got lonesome.
I like to talk about birthing my twins like I survived something. Meanwhile, my grandma popped a squat, un-medicated, unhygienic and completely unfathomably in a shack and went about her day.
So, that led me to investigate other unbelievable baby births throughout history. Let me tell you, they make my hospital birth seem like a Kardashian getaway.
Here’s 15 of the best or worst, I’m not sure, but they will make your jaw drop:
15 Birthing During Twilight Sleep
Since the beginning of time, women have been begging for painless births. Well, in the early 1900’s they had just that — they called them “Twilight Births.”
American feminists rallied around the Twilight Sleep Association which allowed women — sometimes forced them — to take a combination of drugs that literally knocked them out. Then, when they awoke sometimes the next day, they were handed a baby and sent home.
When they went into labor, women were given a dose of morphine to dull the pain and scopolamine (now referred to as “the zombie drug”) to erase their memory. But that’s not all, since the women were in a fragile state, they were kept in padded cribs with masks on their eyes and cotton balls in their ears. Sometimes they were even strapped in straight jackets.
Many doctors were opposed to drugging women and ripping the babies out of them. However, women took to conventions and marches to demand the ability to be out of it when they gave birth.
One of the main reasons doctors opposed this was lack of staff to monitor women in twilight sleep and, most importantly, the fact that women still felt the pain. They just didn’t remember it. So, they needed to be strapped them down as they writhed and screamed in pain. The mothers just didn’t remember it.
14 Delivering In Front Of An Audience
I always felt bad for Princess Kate Middleton who was basically shoved in front of the world a minute after giving birth and looking frazzled and like she’d rather not. However, turns out monarch women throughout history had it much more…intrusive.
About 500 years ago, if you were a pregnant royal you gave birth in front of an audience. Not only were up to 70 people staring at your lady bits as you pushed out a baby. There were also royal superstitions that ruled how the room was managed during delivery.
The mom-to-be had to lay in a darkened room for weeks. A fire must roar in the fireplace even if it was July and sweltering. The superstitions were in place because dignitaries believed keeping a mom locked in a dark hot room would make her give birth to a boy.
13 Babies Caught In Pile Of Leaves
In the mid-eighteenth century, Cherokee women used nature and their amazing physical condition to welcome their newborn babies into the world.
First, right before labor began, the Cherokee tribe would gather around the mom-to-be and chant at the unborn child in an attempt to scare it out of the womb.
A female relative of the mother would say: “Listen! You little man, get up now at once. There comes an old woman. The horrible [old thing] is coming, only a little way off. Listen! Quick! Get your bed and let us run away. Yu!” The female relative then repeated the formula, substituting “little woman” and “your grandfather,” in case the baby was a girl.
Then, once in labor, the woman would rarely lay down. The baby would be born while mom is standing or squatting. No one would catch the baby, either. It would tumble out into a pile of leaves.
Tradition also held that the baby be immediately dunked in the river and dunked again each day for the next two years.
12 A Birth Full Of Superstitions
For Greek women in 430 B.C., the biggest concern during childbirth was abiding by all of the ancient superstitions surrounding their new babies.
First, as the mothers were lain on a bed, someone made sure to scour their birthing rooms for knots. Yes, knots were considered a bad omen and seen as a means to delay birth and needed to be un-knotted.
After knots were removed, the women went to a “birthing stool” where they had their bellies massaged by one midwife and another midwife crouched beneath mom and caught the babies as they came out. Before anything else, the new mom and brand-new baby were immediately washed clean since birth blood was considered unlucky in their culture.
11 Dirty Baby For Days
Superstitions are running rampant when it comes to births throughout history — however, the ancient Chinese might have the stinkiest superstition.
In China in the late 1800s, birth would start out pretty calming. When labor commenced, the woman would be laid down and a priest would softly whisper prayers in her ears.
As the baby came, mom would squat on the bed and the baby would arrive. Like today, a midwife would massage the placenta out, cut and tie the umbilical cord.
Next was not so normal, instead of washing the birth debris (juices?) off the baby, infants were not allowed to be cleaned for three days.
This was said to help ward off evil influences and is most definitely the dirtiest of the ancient births throughout history.
However, Chinese families still practice many birthing traditions — including not giving the baby his first bath until the morning of his third day of life. Also during this ceremony the midwife brings the mother and child: a straw sieve, a mirror, a padlock, an onion, a comb and a weight.
10 Silent Birth Ceremony
If you’re anything like me, birthing babies is anything but silent. I had three c-sections and still screamed. No matter what kind of birth you have, it’s a painful experience. However, in the 1800s, Zuni Indians were not allowed to make a sound during birth.
When labor began for the Zuni Indians, the mother-to-be was laid on a bed of animal skins. The eldest woman in her family would join her to help guide her through her birth. However, while the contractions and pain ravaged her body, she was not allowed to make a sound.
It wasn’t a silent event — while the baby made her way down the birth canal, the other female members of the family would cry, scream and groan in “pain” mimicking the noises a mother should be making as she is pushing a bowling ball out her vagina.
After the placenta arrived, the grandmother of the new mom would throw it in the river to be cleansed.
9 Belly Dance The Babies Out
One of my favorite pastimes is watching warrior women in labor twerking, dancing, and doing things I can’t even do non-pregnant let alone in the worst pain of my life. However, ladies in Egypt in 19,000 BC did this every time they gave birth even if they weren’t Cleopatra.
Yes, at that time, belly dancing was seen as a fertility dance as well as birthing dance. The motions were thought to improve fertility as well as lessen the pain and complications associated with natural labor. Also, it was said to ensure more babies came after the current baby evacuated.
Once the baby was crowning — moms would squat, bear down and continue rolling her abs to keep dancing and working that baby out. The contractions were said to strengthen the ab muscles — and anyone who’s tried a belly roll can attest to that — and aided in quickening labor and making everything all-around easier.
8 An Animal Feast
I always say I will always have a dog to clean up after my kids. Eskimo mothers-to-be kept neighboring animals fed on something a bit more…gruesome.
In the 1920s, Polar Eskimos gave birth alongside their husbands dug a birthing hole and lined it oh-so-sweetly with animal furs to comfort their brides. Those sweet Eskimo husbands would lay behind their wives and massage her stomach to encourage and help their wives give birth.
Sounds so sweet and cozy.
Until after the birth, when those dear husbands cut the cord with their favorite knife, the wives tied the umbilical cord and then Hubby would wrap the placenta up in fur and leave it for the nearby animals to feast on.
7 Placenta On Display
To this day, the placenta is a part of the birthing process that can be saved, eaten, frozen, taken like a pill and who knows what else. It is still seen as a source of major nutrients and medical lifesaver. However, for ancient Indonesian and Malaysian women it was more of a work of art.
For the Indonesian and Malaysian women, birth at the time was very similar to natural home births today. Women labored in a birthing room in their homes as the babies’ first cries were seen as a cry of loyalty and respect for mom and dad and should be experienced at home.
After birth, the baby had prayers whispered in her ears — since words of faith were to be the first words she heard.
Then things got interesting.
The placenta was washed and placed in an earthenware pot, sprinkled with spices and kept near the mother. This wasn’t just a short-term thing. The placenta pot was kept with mom for 40 days and then buried.
6 Do Not Cheat Pain — Or Be Killed
Nowadays, women have many pain-relief options when it comes to delivering a baby. Sure, some women want an epidural as soon as they pee on the stick (me!) and other women want to go straight savage and natural during childbirth. To each her own. However, in the late 1500s, you dealt with the pain or they killed you.
Yes, pain was considered the way God intended. There was no avoiding it. Women were not allowed to drink whiskey or employ any other method of pain relief. If you did? You ended up like one mother who was burned to death for trying to ease her pain during labor.
Henry Davidson Fry’s 1907 book, Maternity speaks of the ideology behind pain-killer-free birth.
The arguments against it were:
The relief of pain during childbirth removed the maternal instinct.
It was immoral because it produced a condition similar to intoxication.
Various ill effects were attributed to it — epilepsy, convulsions, and insanity.
The most powerful argument against the relief of pain was that it was sacrilegious to thrust aside the decrees of Providence. Woman had been sentenced to suffer the pangs of childbirth, and it would rob God of the deep, earnest cries which arise in time of trouble for help. [Fry]
But, they weren’t straight savage to pregnant women. They were allowed a towel tied to the corner of their bed to pull during contractions. [Insert eye roll]
5 Have A Shot Of Pee To Get Pregnant
One of my most complained about aspects of labor for me was only being able to drink or eat liquids for hours on end. I mean, who can just live on cherry Popsicles and ice chips?! However, one royal matriarch makes my liquid diet seem fit for a queen.
Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France in the 1500s, was having a hard time conceiving a baby. So, a folk healer told her one way to improve her egg count was to drink horse pee and take a nice hot bath in cow crap mixed with deer antlers.
Just like many women so desperate to try anything to conceive, the Queen gulped down the urine and swam in the turds. However, after doing this unthinkable deed, the Queen found out it was the King who was causing infertility and after fixing his issues she went on to have 9 children.
4 The Not-So-Easy-To-Survive Oregon Trail
For most of us, the Oregon Trail is merely a way we passed our time during 5th grade math class when the teacher didn’t feel like teaching that day. However, hundreds of years ago, most of the women who challenged the disease and discourse were pregnant, giving birth or about to become pregnant.
The 19th Century marked the great migration on the Oregon Trail. For women, there wasn’t birth control, they couldn’t vote and life was merely following their husbands around. Most women was so used to being pregnant, when her diary was found there was no mention of her pregnancy until the days she gave birth. It’s just the way it was. However, unlike becoming pregnant, surviving childbirth was not as common.
As author William Bowen described in his article, The Willamette Valley; Migration and Settlement on the Oregon Frontier, it was more unheard of for women to survive giving birth in such deplorable conditions.
“We have just passed by the train I have just spoken of. They had just buried the babe of the woman who died days ago and were just digging a grave for another woman that was run over by the cattle and wagons when they stampeded yesterday. She lived twenty-four hours, she gave birth to a child a short time before she died. The child was buried with her. She leaves a little two year old girl and a husband. They say he is nearly crazy with sorrow.”
3 Dark Times For Slave Women
Slavery is an unthinkable act and unthinkable time throughout history. For any slave, life was a brutal nothingness that contained years of sorrow. For pregnant slave women, this meant even more horrible memories.
In the book Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South by Marie Jenkins Schwartz, Schwartz discusses the painful experiences slave women experienced during childbirth. The common theme for slave owners was obtaining slaves that could procreate. This meant more slaves and continued the tradition of slavery for more generations.
“Purchases of slaves could be calculated to ensure that a planter had a sufficient number of women “of breeding age” and that each woman had a suitable sexual partner at hand.”
The infant mortality rate for new slave babies during the 18th century was 28%-50% which was caused by: terrible living conditions, mothers being forced back to the fields almost immediately and some mothers even smothering their children to spare them a life of slavery.
Even though more slaves was a top priority for plantation owners, taking care of pregnant women was not. Most women didn’t have any medical care during pregnancy and the birthing process was witnessed by an inexperienced midwife which caused many slave women to die during or shortly after childbirth.
2 Not So Comfortable Quarters
It seems women throughout history had little to no comforts when it came to childbirth. The moms-to-be of Ancient Rome are no exception.
First, the laboring mother is placed into a birthing room where there are two beds. The beds were not for birth, but one to sit on if she needed a quick break and one for recovery. The actual birth took place on a stool with midwives massaging the baby out of her stomach.
During labor, the women were offered something to drink — water with a scoop of powdered sow’s dung to help with labor pains.
Unlike mothers today, a nice wet bath was not given to baby and mother. No, the newborn was washed down with salt and honey and olive oil was rubbed in her eyes to help her eyesight.
1 Body In Bed
I have never shared a hospital room. I have watched many movies where some sickly person is hacking behind a curtain while the main character covers her mouth with a blanket — but never experienced it. However, 17th century French women were even more cuddly with other laboring mothers.
Paris hospitals kept multiple women in labor in the same bed. That means, when one of the inevitably died since childbirth was very deadly during that time (one out of two women died), sometimes the other laboring mothers would continue their labor next to a dead body for hours or days until someone hauled it away.
It was also during this time that the c-section was being introduced and practiced. Yes, before anesthesia. One woman was recorded as having (and surviving) six c-sections without so much as a painkiller. However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that it became more widely refined.
Sources: Atlas Obscura, The Telegraph, Teaching History, Parents, Babble, The Week, NPR, Kindred Trails, All Other Persons, Mental Floss, PBS, Encyclopedia, Fit Pregnancy, Versailles and More