As far as pain relief for childbirth goes, we have certainly come a long way. One way to get the feel of that is to go through the ordeals of mothers of the past, as well as some of the seemingly odd childbirth relief practices of the present. You’ll find that cultures around the world, as well as across time, have their own take as to what can help relieve the pains of labor.
But don’t raise your eyebrows just yet! Some of these crazy-sounding childbirth pain relief practices do legitimately work. After going through this list, we’d like you to think long and hard about which epidural alternative you would like.
15 Herb Amulets
If you were to give birth in medieval Europe, you might be given an amulet made of herbs during childbirth to help relieve your pain. Certain Bible verses may have been written onto the amulet in order to increase its power. On that note, nine months earlier you or your partner may have also worn an amulet when you had sex to help you conceive. The writing on the amulet would have been different if you had wanted a girl or a boy.
We certainly hope they worked, considering that your chances of dying during or soon after childbirth during this period was pretty high.
Late in the medieval period, you might have a better option for childbirth pain relief. Dwale was a pain-relieving drink composed of the bile of a sow, hemlock juice, bryony, wild lettuce, poppy, henbane and vinegar. While this may sound like the ingredients in a witch’s brew, it’s actually quite legit.
As you may know, poppy is the natural source of opium, a potent painkiller that we still use today. Henbane and lettuce were associated with sedation. Although it is worth noting that hemlock can cause paralysis and, in high doses, can paralyze the respiratory system, causing death. For this very reason, this concoction was reserved only for the worst of cases.
13 Nothing but Faith
Or during these old times, you may have received no pain relief at all. Although modern advocates of natural and painkiller-free methods would applaud this, the no pain relief policy was actually for a very different reason.
Since childbirth was said to be painful as Eve’s punishment for the original sin, the local priest could forbid the administration of any sort of pain relief but their faith. While this may seem rather inhumane, considering the other options available at that time, we figure that’s what we want to have too.
We all know that before the advent of modern anesthesia, there was good old whiskey. It was used by old England barbers, who also happened to be the surgeons of the time, to dull the pain of their procedures.
In some cases, it was also used to help relieve the pain of childbirth, if the local priest wasn’t around or was willing to turn a blind eye. But, of course, as anyone who has been drunk before knows, alcohol isn’t exactly the best of painkillers. And nobody wants to be hungover the day after childbirth, after all.
If, however, you lived in 1850s England, you would have more… interesting options. Among them was chloroform, that colorless liquid used by murderers, rapists and thieves to render their victims unconscious.
Even then, however, it was known to be toxic. But Dr. John Snow, not to be confused with the Jon Snow of Westerosi fame, invented an inhaler that controlled dosage. Even Queen Victoria had chloroform personally administered to her by Dr. Snow during the birth of her last two children. With the discovery of other less fatal anesthetics, however, chloroform soon fell out of favor.
10 “Twilight Sleep”
Twilight sleep may sound like the name of a mixed drink or a candle scent, but it was actually a mixture of morphine and scopolamine. This concoction was used as a form of pain relief during childbirth in the mid-1900s.
This gave birthing mothers relief from pain, as morphine is wont to do, but the name probably came from the effects of scopolamine, derived from the belladonna or deadly nightshade. This caused medical amnesia, meaning that mothers would not remember the experience of childbirth. However, some of the drug often reached the baby, which caused breathing troubles in the newborn.
9 A Knife Under the Bed
One odd tradition that allegedly decreases pain during childbirth is placing a knife under the birthing bed to “cut” birthing pains. Because it sounds a bit obscure, it almost escaped our radar. That is, until we found out that it is a tradition in multiple cultures, including China, Turkey and in some places in Europe. Some European versions involve placing a Bible beside the said knife. Because, you know, just in case.
And, while you’re at it, make sure to also place the knife under your baby’s cot as well. It supposedly keeps your little one from harm.
We can’t confirm this, but we’re willing to bet that at least some women all over the world and from all time periods are liberal on the expletives during childbirth. And, the more free-tongued among us will be pleased to know that swearing can actually help reduce pain. Yes, for real.
If you’ve got a sailor’s mouth, however, researchers warn that you may not experience the same effects. The more often you swear, the less emotional intensity the word has and the less its effect on pain. So you’d best scrub your mouth with soap and water through your entire pregnancy until you finally let the f-bombs fly during childbirth.
7 Avoiding Gossip
While swearing may actually help relieve your childbirth pain, some cultures don’t recommend it at all especially when it involves speaking ill of others. In fact, you’re supposed to control yourself, doing and thinking only pleasant things throughout the course of your pregnancy. Tough, yes.
But this is because some believe that your disposition during pregnancy will translate into physical sensation during childbirth. If you’ve been nice for nine months, it is believed that you will have a pain-free birth. If, however, nasty thoughts have crossed your mind, you’d better have an epidural ready!
6 Finish Your Knitting
In Inuit cultures, you will be advised to finish anything you are knitting or sewing during your pregnancy. This is because going into childbirth with something unfinished is believed to result in a long and painful labor. So when you begin to feel those labor pains, make sure to rush through those threads!
If you’re Bolivian, however, you won’t need to worry about that. Bolivians believe that any knitting done while pregnant will cause cord coil. If you’re into knitting at this time, it might be best to take on another hobby!
5 Carrying You Over Coals
Here’s yet another Chinese tradition to ensure an easy labor. Before you and your husband enter your bridal home, he should carry you over hot coals. Essentially, this allows your husband to bear part of the weight of childbirth for you. If he fails to do this, you will have to bear the brunt of childbirth pain.
While this may seem like a sweet gesture for some, other women might say it’s a nice try at least. Depending on the woman you ask, they might say that walking on coals is a walk in the park compared to childbirth. And the monthly periods, for that matter.
4 Belly Dancing
Dancing may be the last thing you want to do when you’re in labor pains. But in some places around the world, belly dancing is encouraged when you’re in labor. While this may not seem appealing to you, this actually makes some sense.
Belly dancing during pregnancy strengthens abdominal muscles, which will make it easier to push your baby out in the long run. In addition, dancing could also encourage your baby’s descent through the birth canal. That’s not to mention the fact that it’s a great diversion to keep your mind off the pain!
3 A Tennis Ball
That’s right: a good old tennis ball can help you out just before you give birth! Many women pack up tennis balls in their hospital bags. During labor, it can transform into an all-around massage ball that you can use in several different ways. Its classic use, however, is for back labor. It provides a bit of counter pressure to your back, which helps relieve a painful back.
When you think about it, it actually makes some sense. A tennis ball is, after all, the perfect size. It’s small enough to pack into your hospital bag, but big enough to cover just enough area for pain relief!
2 Squatting Over Hot Stones
This is a childbirth tradition done in some native American cultures, although there was a similar practice in ancient Egypt. A hole is dug into the ground, wherein hot stones are placed. The mother giving birth will then squat over the hole, holding two stakes for balance. Once the waters broke, she would be transferred elsewhere to make sure that the baby didn’t land on those smoldering stones.
While this practice may look unappealing – even ridiculous – to some of us, it is actually a legitimate way to relieve childbirth pain. In fact, it may have been safer and more effective than some of the above methods.
Heat therapy is a legitimate way to help relieve all kinds of pain, including that of childbirth. Nowadays, however, we use hot water bottles and warm water baths for the same purpose. But the squatting may have also helped the baby descend through the birth canal, helping make the process of labor shorter overall.
1 Water Injections
For women experiencing painful back labor, one modern option is the injection of sterile water into the skin just over the sacrum. This sounds ridiculous for two reasons. First, plain old water doesn’t exactly have any anesthetic effect at all. Second, sticking a needle into someone without a specific purpose is best avoided in medicine. In any case, however, it does work!
One particular study compared injections of sterile water and normal saline solution for management of lower back pain during labor. Those who had sterile water injected into the skin of their backs actually experienced pain relief, while those receiving normal saline did not.