Ever been curious what it really looked like to have a baby in the past? Surely grandma May had a few tales to tell about "back in the day." But did she share anything about her labor experiences? Well depending on the year, she may not remember it.
Since the 1900s, maternal mortality has decreased by 99 percent and infant mortality has gone down 90 percent; moms everywhere can thank their lucky stars for modern science. One could suppose they're grateful since hospitals, deliveries, and the entire practice surrounding how mom brings a baby into the world have undergone incredible advancements and changes.
While a solid "hip hip hooray!" for science is due, indeed, we still wanted to take a closer look at just how far science has come. In a rare opportunity, take a look back in time to when women first started giving birth in hospitals and see just how far we have come.
Some of these photos are downright stunning. We mean mouth open exclaiming, what in the world?! type of stunning. So fasten those seatbelts and sit back and relax on this trip back in time. And P.S. don't forget to thank grandma May for all she's been through, she deserves it.
Moms who appreciate their alone time can really be thankful for modern science. In the early 1900s mothers delivered in one large open room; there were no dividers, curtains or separate laboring or postpartum areas.
In fact, many women got into steam chambers side-by-side to help bring on labor or help lessen the feelings of labor — just like in the photo above. There is very little proof that the steam chambers had any effect on mom, but one could liken the experience of steaming while in labor to that of going to a sauna or a steam spa. A pretty relaxing way to get the baby out, am I right?
How could one even tell that a nurse or midwife was coming to check on mom-to-be and not Darth Vader? Nurses wore really large face coverings that sort of imitated what we are used to today when doctors wear their surgical face masks. Those masks though only came into style and weren't even mandatory until the latter part of the 1900s; think 1965 or so.
That's right, mom, not even in surgery, not even while delivering the baby. Talk about all up in your business, am I right? So, between confusing the nurse or midwife for the masked man, or not having a mask at all, luckily things have changed.
In almost every photo from maternity wards across the US, nurses are seen holding the baby and showing mom, right after birth so mom could rest. Skin-to-skin wasn't a thing. Maternal bonding usually came later, after mom had time to recover. Despite science making a few hundred leaps and bounds, most of what women went through during labor and delivery is still pretty much the same. Mom needs a second to get it all together after birth. Luckily hospitals allowed available midwives to lend a helping hand to make after birth recovery that much painless for mom.
For those moms out there who have dad as their birthing partner, thank heavens that you weren't giving birth around the same time as Grandma May. Back then, dad was never allowed in the hospital room while mom was laboring or delivering. Birthing suites and maternity ward rooms were reserved strictly for women until around 1980. Sound unfair? That was just a way of the times? When the women were bringing life into the world, the men were usually in the waiting rooms or home enjoying a cigar with their buddies. Depending on the era they may have been at work, of course.
Today, people are a lot more aware of germs and how different illnesses spread, people are also a lot more obsessed with personal space than they once were. Back in the day, babies were kept in what looked like egg crates in the hospital nurseries. Surely this saved space and kept babies feeling like they had some company. Before they only had tiny metal or wooden barriers between them versus today where babies are kept at least a foot from one another in plexiglass bassinettes. Things truly have changed in the last century, from how babies are brought into the world to how they are kept once they're born. Luckily we have photos to remember how far we've come.
With over 50 newborns in one place and no system aside from human handwriting to keep track of them all, babies getting switched around from time to time was just part of what went on. Babies were often switched at birth in the early 1900s — all systems were handwritten so babies could pretty easily get mixed up. Besides, since mom was just shown her baby after he or she was born, how would she really know that her Jack wasn't actually her Jack? Instead, her Jack was being called Tommy with the woman in the bed at the other end of the birthing room. As long as everyone went home with a healthy baby, no one really complained.
We're all familiar with the scene from that movie when mom goes into labor and is oohing and ahhing at the top of her lungs until she finally shouts "Give me the epidural!" Well, imagine having a baby at a time when the epidural did not exist. Sorry, we didn't mean to startle you but, back in the early 1900s anesthesia wasn't common for childbirth and the epidural did not yet exist. That's right, moms, no matter if you wanted to or not, gave birth all natural. While it's true that birthing practices changed rapidly over the decades following the Great Depression, one thing is for sure, I would not have wanted to deliver during that time.
Unless you were particularly wealthy, midwives delivered babies for most moms, not doctors, unless you could afford one. So, some woman who we guess liked babies and hopefully liked you, who was probably not super skilled was in charge of delivering your baby because, you, of course, did not work, and your husband worked in a factory so that means no doctor and hopefully you lived in an area where a hospital was readily accessible. No wonder the maternal mortality rate has declined over the last century. All things considered, at least the women in this photo look pretty nice.
Do you remember when we mentioned that epidurals didn't exist? Well, around 1914 modern science of the time came up with something just as good (well at least what was believed to be as good for the time) to help with women's pain management during labor and delivery. Experimental practices for anesthesia led mothers to be knocked out cold for the entire delivery, but both mom and child were more likely to die during delivery while using what was called the 'Twilight Sleep' method. This method made mom lose complete consciousness and total memory of the birth. She was given two different kinds of anesthesia— a pretty intense mixture.
Ready to hear the most stunning thing of all? Most doctors had no real formal education in the early 1900s. That's right, so even if you were rich enough to afford a doctor instead of just a midwife, chances are your doctor had no formal education, at all. Doctors were more "my father was a doctor so I am too," or "I read a few books on it so now I am," or "I'll do my best to sew you back up." (Joking)... sort of. But seriously, just as in the photo above, the doctor and midwives that made up the hospital staff were likely not 'certified' doctors as we know of most doctors to be today.
Although ultrasounds were invented around the 1950s, moms still had no idea whether she was going to have a boy or girl until the day he or she was delivered. Ultrasounds weren't really used to reveal the gender of the baby until much later, think 1970 or so. Think about how surprising it must have been to see a baby boy or girl when you had no idea for the entire 9 months. Sure, some women still choose to wait until delivery to find out what they're having. According to a study, 62% of couples today want to know the gender of their baby before he or she is born. Well, if you had delivered before 1960, chances are you would have had to just wait and see.
Things like a sterile environment wasn't really a thing back then, that means that most midwives, nurses, and even doctors, didn't often wear gloves when delivering babies, handling babies, delivering meds, well you get the gist.
Gloves in the birthing rooms or around the hospitals in general just weren't seen as necessary. As time went on and people started understanding a bit more about contamination, things like surgical masks became enforced, but for some reason, gloves still were not until around 1970. Seriously?! Yup. Thank your mom or grandmother for what she went through bringing you or your mother into the world because chances are it wasn't pretty.
Before 1970, postpartum care didn't even consist of giving mom any antibiotics to fight infection. Yikes. So when we talk about postpartum issues today that affect women, one can only imagine how much more complicated things must have been back then. Sure midwives and nurses were around to check on mom afterward, but most everyone just felt that mom's job after delivery was to rest, because one could pass on from exhaustion... Things like infection and liquid loss or internal hemorrhaging were common. Other things weren't high on the priority list of things to look out for in postpartum care.
Most women just showed up at the hospital ready to deliver their baby, most often having never had seen a doctor before, this increased their risk of preeclampsia and other difficulties at birth. Because women have been having babies since the beginning of time, intervention from doctors before the delivery–especially when hospitals first really became available–was just not a thing. The only time women really went to the doctor before the baby was ready to come out is if there was an actual problem. It's kind of nuts how much emphasis we put on all the prenatal visits today compared to how things were just a few decades ago.
Women wore birthing gowns before as to not be "too conspicuous" when they were in labor. Pregnancy wasn't the glowing glory-filled time in a woman's life that it is portrayed to be today. Back then, women often concealed their pregnancies, especially in their attire, not because they were ashamed but it was just something that women did when they were in their "fragile state." Like in other modest communities, speaking of pregnancy also was not in fashion, which is why all the way up until a woman delivered her child, she was expected to wear certain things and carry on in a certain way.
Back in the day, having children early was just a way of life. The average age of a first-time mother has gone up about five years from 1900 to 2000. Whereas before, young mothers in their very late teens or early twenties filled the beds in the maternity ward in first-time hospitals all around the US, today older mothers are electing to give birth in a hospital or birthing center or even at home. (Talk about history repeating itself, am I right?) So today, due to science, education, or just not finding the right partner, women are electing to give birth later because they can. Whereas before it was more like, well what are you waiting for?
In the very early 1900s, weird baby chambers were established to keep the babies in the nurseries. This was before the baby egg crates. As many as two babies could fit inside one little baby chamber. Not sure why those chambers were preferred over egg crates, perhaps it reminded babies of the womb. In any case, they look kind of creepy. Moms of today should be glad that her baby doesn't have to go into one of those little chambers, and instead can hang out with her after he or she is born. See? Times have changed, mostly for the better.
The iconic glass divider between the nursery and hospital is still around in most places but was built early to separate family (mostly dad) from the newborns. The very well known glass nursery divider can be seen in almost every film produced before 1990 when mom has a baby. According to Public Health Legacy, the divider was actually built to prevent germs from getting to the babies and wasn't actually constructed and used in hospitals nationwide until around 1950. Afterward, that glass divider became an icon for a new baby everywhere, also for the happiness that comes along with new life.
Okay, so we've moved from no anesthesia at all, to being completely knocked out, to ether and chloroform which was actually a pretty common med combination that was given during childbirth in the early 1900s. It was super dangerous for both mom and baby. But it was pain relieving. Today we see films of the bad guy putting some chloroform on a cloth and knocking out their victim, imagine that happening to a pregnant lady! Yeah, things were pretty different back then, luckily someone told the doctor, hey uh... I don't think this is safe, and things slowly began to change.
Hospital births became increasingly popular more and more over time. Hospitals were especially full during the baby boom after the war, and thank goodness since the population needed a good boost, and hospitals needed to continue to practice. Without practice, it's hard to say whether or not we would be where we are today with scientific research and hospital birth statistics. It is true that it has gotten a lot safer for women to have children and a lot less worrisome. Doctors have also gotten more skilled and hospitals more welcoming. Thanks for taking this walk through history with us. We hope you learned a lot and have thanked your grandma.
References: Flexner Report, Library Archives, Public Health Legacy, Carnegie Foundation, FiveThirtyEight