For most married women in the 19th century, being pregnant was a frequent occurrence. They believed it was their duty to produce many children, so consequently, Victorian families were very large. Without benefit of any kind of birth control, babies “just came”—year after year.
In addition to being in a constant state of expectancy, childbirth itself was both painful and dangerous. Pain relief was minimal—maybe some opium or laudanum—but according to their religious beliefs, it was assumed that women were supposed to suffer in child birth.
Babies were always born at home. The mother was helped by family or female friends and sometimes an inexperienced midwife. Midwifery did not come into its own until much later. Doctors were only called at the last moment when it was feared the mother might die. If instruments were used for delivery, they were not sterilized.
Doctors were seldom trained in obstetrics. They didn't wash their hands—an obvious cause of infection, so when babies were not in the correct position and had to be turned either by hand or instrument, the mother experienced not only excessive pain but also bleeding and infection.
Infection and heavy bleeding were in fact the main causes of death for both mother and baby. Hardly any wonder that women approached childbirth (often described as “a woman’s time of trial”) with great fear. Nonetheless, it was deemed to be a normal course of events, and little thought was given to birth control until much later.
It was also believed that women were “unclean” after childbirth, so they were given the sacrament at the communion rail but only after post-childbirth bleeding had ended and women had been “churched.” The 1789 Book of Common Prayer celebrates women who survived childbirth in The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth, commonly called the Churching of Women.”
From the 1870s onward, a transition in fertility control was finally happening. With still no significant birth control in place, families were simply modifying their sexual activity, but by 1900, the size of families had certainly decreased to around four children, approximately half the number 20 or 30 years before. Numbers continued to fall in the first few decades of the 20th century.
In addition, pain relief in childbirth began to increase slowly toward the end of the century. Queen Victoria herself pioneered the use of chloroform for her eighth confinement in 1854, though its use was still opposed by many doctors.
Eventually a belief grew that many women’s lives could be saved if babies were delivered under more stringent medical conditions in hospitals, but this did not fully happen until the 1940s when it became more common for babies to be born in hospitals rather than at home.
Here are some additional facts about childbirth throughout the years:
In today’s world, women have many more childbirth options, including deliveries at hospitals or at home, and second vaginal births after a C-section, gentle "C-section,” and epidural births.
Thank goodness childbirth has come a long way since the 19th century!
Ladies, do you have a delivery experience that was out of the ordinary? Let me know in a comment below.