There is no denying it, giving birth is not a clean and tidy process. There are tools, and blankets, and people everywhere. Women may have people looking at and prodding her in places that just get increasingly annoying, and the lack of hygiene and privacy from the past can make the whole experience much more unpleasant.
Many women today are gravitating toward what is generally described as “natural childbirth” with the emphasis on minimal, if any, formal medical intervention. This kind of birthing process can happen at home, in a birthing center, or in a hospital, depending on how you feel about the possibility of medical help if things do not go as planned.
While many of us look at something natural as positive, it should be remembered that not all traditional birthing methods are things you would want to try. Our ancestors may have had a great deal of knowledge, gleaned through practical experience and passed down through the generations but not everything they did was either medically sound or something to try during one's birth.
Not convinced? Well here are some of the grossest birthing methods of the past that will make your cervix clench just at the thought of them.
15 Take A Sip
If you ever find yourself in the position that your labor is not progressing and your team starts to bring up the possibility of intervention, be grateful you are not a laboring woman in Bihar, northeastern India.
Traditionally, in Bihar, women whose labor had stalled were given a glass of water to help get things going again. Oh, and I forgot to mention, this is not a pleasant cold glass of crystal clear water. For this, you have to drink a glass or cup of water, in which your mother-in-law has dipped her toe, and there is no foot washing involved either. Just imagine that thick, curved over toenail, complete with anything lurking underneath, dunked in some water for you to drink. I suspect that the prospect of this is what really worked to hurry that baby along.
14 The First Cut Is The Deepest
In the late 1700s, two Scottish doctors, John Aitken and James Jeffray invented a device designed to help perform a symphysiotomy. For those of you who are not familiar with this term, and nobody I have spoken to had ever heard of it, a symphysiotomy involves a physician cutting the cartilage that holds together a woman's pelvis, allowing the two halves of her pelvis to separate by 2 to 2.5 cm. This was an alternative to a C-Section which was only performed when the mother was a breath away from death.
The device the men invented was a special handheld saw, so you can only begin to imagine how that felt, especially before anesthesia. In case you were in any doubt about the barbarity of this one, these medical saws fell out of use but were later developed into what we now know today as chainsaws.
13 Click Your Button
How about a bit of pain in another part of your body to detract you from the pain in your cervix? Well, early in the 20th century you could take the advice to try pinching your lady parts and here’s how.
"During the first stages, pressure is made with the fingers on the terminal filaments of the sympathetic nerves in and around the privates," Louis A. Spaeth wrote in Coming Motherhood in 1907. "The index and middle fingers are placed, one on each side of this organ, and firm, moderately hard pressure is made against the bone with the direction of the pressure upward toward the abdomen; A reflex result occurs, in which contraction of the womb follows; its mouth dilates, normal propulsion pains ensue, and labor proceeds naturally, all unnecessary flying pains cease."
12 Crowding The Bed
As society moved towards having women leaving their homes to go and give birth in a central location more convenient for doctors, new horrors awaited the birthing process.
In France during the 17th Century, maternity wards were created so that a single doctor could attend to several laboring women at once instead of the women giving birth at home with a midwife in attendance.
It was not unusual in these wards for three, four, or even five women to share a bed while in labor. Not only was this as unsanitary as you might think, but it could also lead to confusion when handing off duties between doctors.
Worst of all, not only were you required to lay in the bodily fluids of the women you were sharing the bed with but if a woman died during childbirth, she would often be left where she lay for hours on end.
11 Germs For Everyone
Laying next to a corpse was not the only hazard in these maternity wards. The most significant danger was, of course, becoming a corpse yourself and this was pretty easy in a time where communicable diseases were not readily understood.
Puerperal, or “childbed fever” is a bacterial infection that many women contracted during or shortly after the birth. Symptoms would develop within days and include fever, chills, abdominal pain and possibly bad-smelling discharge and, this being before the advent of antibiotics, was invariably fatal.
The bacteria was spread by doctors moving from patient to patient, using the same unwashed instruments on everyone and never washing their hands between women. In one of these wards, you would likely come into contact with the bodily fluids and bacteria from multiple women.
10 Ease The Pain
In the time before painkillers and anesthetics were understood and efficient, people would devise their own methods of helping with the pain of childbirth. Many natural remedies for pain, in general, are effective and were developed over thousands of years of trial and error. However, throughout human history, many labor-specific medicines were created that simply boggle the mind and have no basis in scientific knowledge whatsoever.
It would seem that whoever put these remedies together was actually a crazy person - how else do you explain treating a woman in labor with a combination of cow dung and urine to alleviate her pain? If that isn’t disgustingly gross and revolting enough for you then how about a glass of water, mixed with fluids from a goose to help you heal after the birth?
9 Birth As A Team Sport
For many years, royalty across Europe was expected to give birth with an audience of up to 70 people to ensure that the baby coming out of the mother was the same baby who was presented as the heir to the throne. This was to avoid a situation where a stillborn or disabled baby was born and substituted with a healthy child who would inherit the throne without true entitlement. A social birth was also the norm if you were puritan women who might have ten or more people with her during her laboring.
In fact, the word “gossip” is a contraction of “Gods Siblings”, the name given to the woman's friends who sat around talking about other people during the birth process. These rumors or “reports of an intimate nature” were eventually known as gossip because they were spoken by God’s Sibs.
8 Let It Run
For over 2000 years, bloodletting has been used in societies and cultures around the world as a way to cure or prevent illnesses of all descriptions. Many of these practices were as basic and brutal as slicing various areas of the body to let the blood out of the body. Then, during the 18th and 19th centuries, leeches became a popular alternative to a knife when treating anyone, including a woman giving birth.
It was believed that by bleeding the woman with leeches once she had gone into labor, you could prevent inflammation, excessive hemorrhaging and childbed fever. These slippery little suckers would steadily drink the mom-to-be's blood with the belief that they would suck out the dangerous vapors.
So if you are sitting there, getting hot and bothered because you are attached to a monitor remember it could be an awful lot worse - you could be covered in leeches.
7 Get It Clean
Once it was established that cleanliness was the way to go, keeping things clean was enthusiastically embraced, although Henry Davidson Fry, who wrote the book “Maternity” in 1907, was maybe a little too enthusiastic. Fry advocated that:
“The nurse should give particular attention to cleansing and prepare the skin of the abdomen, thighs, and external genital parts. The first scrub with warm sterile water and soap, then rub dry, and afterward bathe the parts in a bichloride solution 1-1000, or solution of Lysol, one percent. It is particularly difficult to render the external parts surgically clean. The hair around the genitalia should be cut short with scissors or shaved, scrubbed with hot sterile water, and bathed with bichloride solution.”
That’s right, in the early 1900’s you would have had a thorough wash down in hot water and Lysol then shaved with some hot water and a mercury and chloride solution that is no longer used today because of its toxicity.
6 Umm OKAY
If any strange birth tradition demonstrates the difference between Western and Eastern cultures, it is that of greeting the new baby by tickling, kissing, or blowing on their genital area. Although it has all but died out in modern times, as western values overtake some traditional ones, it was once common practice in areas populated by China’s Manchu people. The seemingly peculiar tradition then spread to parts of Japan, India, Thailand and other eastern countries.
Girls were usually tickled, while it was not unusual for boys to receive oral to genital contact as well as tickling. Odd though it sounds to us, none of this was intimate in nature. The genitals were just considered the same as any other body part, and this contact was viewed in the same way we would see blowing a raspberry on a baby's belly today.
5 Pact Sisters
While we are on the subject of things that are taboo, let's take a look at menstrual blood. Not literally, of course, but in the context of the ancient Egyptians and childbirth.
Unlike many other cultures where menstruating women were sent away and considered to be dirty, the ancient Egyptians thought that menstrual blood was good medicine. In some medical recipes contained in the Papyrus Ebers, an ancient text, menstrual blood is used as an ingredient to improve sagging chests. Women were told that their girls "should be covered with menstrual blood and the woman's belly and her thighs covered as well."
When a woman went into labor, the women around her would collect menstrual blood and add other ingredients to make an ointment that was then rubbed into the baby's skin to protect them from bad spirits.
4 It’s Gettin’ Hot Down There
The Comanche tribe are a group of indigenous people who once lived in a land that is now split among a number of North American states which include New Mexico and Colorado. Their land was called Comancheria, and the Comanche is now headquartered in Oklahoma.
It was traditional for the Comanche women to squat over hot stones during labor. These stones were prepared as soon as she began to go into labor so that by the time she was having regular contractions and feeling more pain, the stones would be good and hot.
The Comanche women believed that the pain caused by the heat from the rock was helpful in relieving the pain of childbirth.
Like many traditional practices that have developed over many generations, there is a logic behind this. It is now thought that the heat serves to prepare the perineum to stretch and so makes the birth less painful.
3 Bricking It
During Biblical times, in a number of areas of what we now consider to be the Middle East, laboring women were assisted by other, more experienced women during the birth.
These women, who had a role much like the midwives of today, would provide two large bricks that were placed under the mother's feet. The attendants would then help to support the woman as she stood on the bricks and squatted down. This precarious position was not only for the benefit of the mother, who was thought to have an easier time, but it was also of benefit to the midwife or assistants themselves - by having the mom raised up on bricks, someone could get down on the floor and would have more room underneath when it was time to catch the baby.
2 Slap A Slice On It
In The Home Book of Health and Medicine, William Edmonds Horner wrote that birth causes "great stretching of the parts," and that "this occasions great soreness, and uneasy feelings, which are best removed by bathing with warm milk and water. If there be much swelling, an emollient poultice of bread and milk, or linseed meal, may be applied, and frequently renewed. If there be general uneasiness, with heat and throbbing pain in the part, leeches may be necessary."
A point to remember at this stage is that bread at this time was likely to be nasty and moldy and full of weevils.
Meanwhile John Gunn's 1861 “Gunn's New Domestic Physician” suggested that “the parts of generation during labor should always be well-oiled or greased with lard, as it greatly assists and mitigates the suffering, and lubricates the parts of passage.”
1 Now Lay Still And Shh
Elisabeth Robinson Scovil wrote Preparation for Motherhood in 1896, and in it, she advocated that new moms should lie still and flat on their back, alone, for an extended period of time. The book said, “After all that the newly made mother has undergone, she needs perfect quiet for several hours before she is permitted to see anyone. A five-minute interview with her husband is all that should be granted. However well she feels, quiet should be insisted upon. Excitement is dangerous and no visitors must be permitted to enter the room, nor should conversation be allowed, even if she wishes to talk. Neglect of this precaution may cause serious disaster, even when all seems to be going well.”
Other advice available at the time said: “Rest and quiet should be strictly enforced; no visitors should be admitted for a fortnight or three weeks, both to secure the mother from fatiguing herself by talking, and from hearing anything that might agitate or distress her mind.”
Sources: PostpartumProgress, NCBI.nih.gov, TheWeek.com, Jezebel.com, LiveScience.com, Embryo.asu.edu, Sciencelinks.com, Pubchem.ncbi.nlm.gov, WashingtonCityPaper.com, Mum.org