This year, as you prep for the birth of your beautiful little baby, you will have a multitude of choices set before you. You’ll be given tours of several hospitals as you decide which one will be the best option for you and your growing family. You’ll be shown the different positions you can try to help ease the pains of labor. You’ll be told about your options for pain relief, if you choose to go that route.
That entire process will include your birth partner, who gets to be by your side during the whole labor and delivery. Doctors, nurses and midwives will be supporting you and making sure your needs are met. This was not the case even as recently as the mid 1900s. But for some of these women, it wasn’t the lack of choices, but the dangerous options available that make us cringe now. For others, it was the unfortunate circumstances in which they found themselves that leave us feeling a bit speechless.
Machinery, pain meds, delivery rooms - these were all very different a few decades ago, and these photos will make you appreciate the options you have today. Or at least thankful that you don’t have to labor like these women did.
15 The Crowded Maternity Rooms
As the 1900s progressed, so did the idea that childbirth was safest in a hospital, which began the decline in home births. With the rise of women giving birth in hospitals came the problem of overcrowding. Maternity wards were very different back then compared to now. Women were roomed together in large numbers, with husbands only allowed to visit during hospital visiting hours. Nurses took the babies to the nursery for most of the hospital stay, only bringing the baby to it’s mom for feedings. Women were to rest after childbirth, so they spent their time in bed with other women who had just gone through the same thing as them. After having a child of my own, this does sound kind of nice, but I’ll take a private room over this any day!
14 'Space Suits' To Ease Delivery
It’s 1965 and feminism is in full swing. Women now have more of a voice and can decide on things like where their finances go or if they want to return to work after the baby is born. One choice many women wanted was pain relief during childbirth (and we understand that!), but sometimes that choice meant some pretty strange contraptions.
This photo shows a group of women in medical “space suits” that doctors claimed would ease childbirth pains plus make the baby smarter. Sounds like a pretty great machine! In reality, the suit just lowered the pressure inside of it, so whether or not it actually helped with childbirth isn’t clear. But either way, it looks very strange and not like anything you’d see in a hospital today.
13 Birth During An Air Raid
Imagine that you go into labor, but instead of heading to the hospital, you find the nearest nurse in your dugout shelter. It’s 1940 and air raids are happening regularly. The sirens have gone off and you find yourself hunkered down with the rest of your family and anyone else who found shelter there. The labor pains start, but instead of worrying about what medication you can have to take the edge off, you’re worrying about the bombs being dropped nearby, wondering if you and the child that is about to born will survive this. I’m sure very similar thoughts were running through Mrs. Ceaplen’s head as she gave birth to her baby in this air raid shelter. Luckily they made it through the pain of childbirth, and we hope they made it through the war as well.
12 The Twilight Sleep Beds
If the idea of twilight sleep in a straightjacket didn’t freak you out enough, then here’s the next step women were taking for that ideal “pain-free” childbirth- labor cots. While under the drugs used to put them into that twilight sleep, women were placed in a bed with towels covering their eyes and head to prevent them from injury themselves if they started thrashing about. They were bound with restraints so that they couldn’t leave the bed. And then the bed was zipped closed until the labor was over. What’s more crazy, women were demanding the right to have their labors this way, because they felt that, as part of the feminist movement, having a painless labor was owed to them. Maybe they didn’t realize how traumatic this way of laboring would be for themselves and their babies.
11 How To Give Birth During The Polio Epidemic
In the ‘40s and ‘50s, Polio was at it’s peak. One treatment option that was widely used, was placing patients inside a tank like device called the Iron Lung. Pressure inside the tank decreased and increased in a way that mimicked breathing, assisting Polio victims who’s chest muscles had become too paralyzed to breathe on their own. The Polio epidemic during that time had become so widespread that even pregnant mothers needed treatment. This picture from 1953 shows a woman who had her baby while still inside the machine. She isn’t even able to hold her child because time outside the iron lung meant that she wouldn’t be able to breathe, so she must only look at her kid and smile happily that he’s ok.
10 Labor During War
Birth during war time meant that cleanliness and sterile procedures were not viewed as important compared to the need to stay safe and alive. Makeshift delivery rooms had to be constructed and used, with the hope that the baby would be healthy enough to fight off anything that they might catch from the unsanitary conditions. Doctors and nurses did their best, but times were tough and they could only use what was on hand. Everything here is portable so that it can be set up anywhere that had the space. This baby is being cleaned up straight after birth in what seems to be a hand washing basin, with no mother present. It’s brave people like these that made sure birth was possible even as air raids and war caused them to be in hiding.
9 The Only Position
Photos like this one are shocking to us nowadays because of the progress that has been made in the delivery room. A woman today can give birth in whatever position she feels most comfortable in (as long as she hasn’t had an epidural). Many women and their partners choose to have a hand in the delivery, whether by helping to guide the baby out of the birth canal or by cutting the umbilical cord. But that was unheard of even as late as the 70s and 80s.
Here, a woman has given birth and is only getting her first look at her newborn after a nurse has taken the baby and cleaned him up. Her birthing coach is another nurse (no husbands allowed) and her legs are completely covered to maintain a level of modesty.
8 Masks At Birth
If you were giving birth during the second World War, then you would have been prepared to do air raid drills, even right after giving birth. As a safety precaution, all staff and patients in English hospitals had to do these drills in case of poisonous gas being dropped in the area. While these kinds of precautions were very necessary, I’m sure that strapping a newborn into a gas mask suit would have been a very scary experience.
The mother pictured here is demonstrating how the suit for her baby allows him to breathe fresh air through the bellows attached on the side. She is wearing what is called a civilian respirator which allows her to breathe clean air while getting the baby and herself to safety in a shelter.
7 No Pain Relief Methods
There weren’t a lot of options for pain relief before epidurals were available, and those didn’t come into play until the 1970s. Women were starting to get desperate for relief from contractions in the 1840s so once ether was successfully used on a patient to remove a neck tumor, doctors began using it on women during labor. The problem was that ether causes the baby to get seriously drugged, so forceps were almost always used to get the baby out in time. What you see here is a baby that has had enough anesthesia through mom’s blood to be limp, but not so much to be in need of serious medical care. Nowadays, we know the long term effects of using such drugs during labor, so they are no longer available.
6 Twilight Sleep Suit
Perhaps the most disturbing trend in childbirth throughout history is the process of “Twilight Sleep”. Many moms-to-be were desperate for pain relief and if the doctor said it was safe, they believed them. In the early 1900s, doctors began the practice of putting women into “twilight sleep” so that the new mom wouldn’t remember the labor and delivery. They used a combination of meds, both of which are now known to make the baby extremely drowsy and have difficulty breathing. Babies were often held upside down to revive them right after birth. The drugs didn’t just affect the baby though, they also made the mom have psychotic episodes, which is why a special straightjacket was used, to keep the mom from acting out.
5 Nurses In Gas Masks
This is probably not a scene you would want to see during or immediately after labor, but it was a common one in England during World War II. Shown here is a group of nurses in gas masks transporting newborn babies down a hall to a safe location during an air raid drill. Babies could be carried by a handle located at the top of the infant gas mask suit so that the nurses could move more than one baby at a time. The mothers are not present here, but are taken to safety with their own group of nurses. I can’t imagine the worry you would feel not being with your brand new baby during such uncertain times. Luckily, this is only a drill, but it would be a traumatic experience nonetheless.
4 Dad Has To Wait Outside
One of the first questions you get asked while you’re preregistering at the hospital you want to give birth in is if your husband or partner will be in the room while you deliver. This may seem like a normal question to you, but it wasn’t until the 1970s (and even later in some hospitals) that men were allowed to be present for the birth. As you can see here, the woman in labor only has a nurse to guide her through the delivery process. She has to remain on her back, with grips to squeeze as she bears down. There are restraints on the bedrails if needed. This was the typical way women gave birth, and they didn’t have any say if they wanted it differently.
3 The Breathing "Gas"
Nitrous Oxide gas has been used to help reduce labor pains since the 1930s, and is still in use today. However, during that time period, concentrations of the gas were much higher than what is currently considered safe. Women would breathe in concentrations of up to 80% nitrous oxide with 20% oxygen. Today, doctors say that a safe mix would be 50-50.
But it wasn’t just nitrous oxide going through that creepy looking ventilation mask. Doctors often mixed in barbiturates, opioids and other drugs for pain relief, resulting in increased labor complications. Many women would pass out or try to get out of bed and would injure themselves due to the heavy sedation. Thankfully, we now have better and safer options for pain relief during childbirth.
2 Studied Births
As our world was experiencing huge technological advancements in the mid 1900s, scientists and doctors wanted to increase their knowledge of how the body worked. There were many new techniques and procedures coming out, but doctors understood very little of how to manage pain during childbirth until the epidural became routinely used in the 70s. Because of this, doctors began studying women during the labor and delivery process. Of course, the woman’s husband was still not allowed in the room, but an entire group of doctors and nurses were allowed to watch as the lone woman experienced one of life’s most painful journeys.
But we definitely should thank women like her because she helped us to get to where we are today with our childbirth choices and pain relief.
1 No Choices
As has been stated in other sections of this article, woman had very few choices and very little say in the delivery room. The doctor knew best and didn’t take into account what the mom wanted. The husband couldn’t be present, except in the waiting room, so he wasn’t able advocate for his wife. What’s crazy to see is that this way of thinking continued into the 70s and even the 80s.
The delivery room pictured here could almost be one you and I would give birth in today. Except that delivering here would mean laying on your back, restraints at the ready in case you tried to move too much, legs draped for modesty, nurses as your only consolers. Thank goodness that now we can have a say in how we bring our children into the world!
Sources: NPR, Getty Images, BellyBelly, AMHistory, DailyMail, WonderfullyMadeBelliesAndBabies, NWHJournal