Medical Madness: Pregnancy and Childbirth Edition

This week’s medical madness involves crazy cures relating to pregnancy and childbirth. Did you ever wonder what women did before the days of epidurals and top-notch medical care? Yeah, feel sorry for them.

Trigger warning: Miscarriage

 Childbirth is a dangerous affair even now, but in many places the best possible healthcare is offered to women to make their experience safer and more comfortable. The same cannot be said for medieval times, when childbirth was so deadly that the church told women to prepare their shrouds and confess their sins before giving birth. Really makes you feel secure before becoming a mommy, right? Midwives were often present, as they were needed to perform emergency baptisms in the case of infant death. However, they had to pinky-swear to their local bishop not to use magic in the birthing room. You know, cos that’s a thing. And if the baby was the wrong way around? The birth attendant might shake the bed to try and move it externally, and if this didn’t work, up popped the hand to fix it in utero. If a baby was dead and failed to be delivered naturally, they would be dismembered and brought out with a variety of nasty tools, which wasn’t much comfort to the exhausted and distraught mother.

If the traumatising experience of childbirth wasn’t enough for the mother of the bygone age, they had an abundance of rules to stick to during pregnancy. Women with pica, for example, were told to drink old, tart wine (but not too much fluid!), fresh fish, pig feet and more. Women with a particular craving for sand were told to eat nothing but fresh bread. However, they weren’t allowed to eat bread with sweet foods. I eat pretty much nothing but bread and sweet foods, so I would be screeeeeeewed. Some women were also put into confinement, which is essentially pregnancy hibernation. Women- generally in the upper and middle classes- stayed in bed for the final weeks of their pregnancy. Women were kept in warm rooms with the curtains drawn, all in an attempt to avoid stress and prevent premature birth. This was particularly true of royals such as the wives of Henry VIII, as it was crucially important for upper class women to deliver a male heir.

In more recent times, a cure for morning sickness caused panic when it was discovered that it was causing major problems in the development of the infants in utero. A drug called thalidomide, developed in the 1950s, was used to prevent morning sickness and aid sleep. However, between the late 1950s and early 1960s, over 10000 children around the world were born with birth defects as a result of thalidomide intake in their mothers. In the United Kingdom, 2000 babies were born with defects and only 466 survived between 1958 and 1961. As soon as the link was discovered, the medicine was pulled- by 1962 the last sales of the drug had been stopped. The children who survived have now been awarded significant compensation by the distributing company.

Thankfully, childbirth in the noughties and beyond is becoming increasingly safer, and the worry of imminent death/pain/A MONTH OF BOREDOM IN CONFINEMENT has been dramatically reduced. Phew. Thank you, medicine.


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons 

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1 Comment

  1. August 5, 2012 at 12:07 am —

    I think you will be surprised to find that childbirth unhindered by modern medicine is actually the safer route, provided the mother is healthy and active. Yes, modern medicine saves lives; however, it has no place in a healthy pregnancy or labor. In fact, medical intervention regularly causes more problems than it solves. Thalidomide is a perfect example of this. Another prime example is the epidural; a cascade of negative events typically follows this seemingly harmless intervention. There is a lot of information out there if you care to seek it out.

    To touch briefly on the topic of childbirth in medieval times; yes, it was a dangerous affair. But, that had less to do with the dangers inherent in childbirth and much more to do with the overall health of the mothers. They typically were in poor physical condition and ate nutritionally poor, grain based diets. Attributing improved pregnancy outcomes solely to medical advances is a false cause logical fallacy; far too many changes have happened to accurately pin down one causative factor.

    Reading things like this truly saddens me. There is so much misinformation out there regarding pregnancy and childbirth. It is so ingrained in our culture that birth is some sort of medical emergency and any other outlook, despite the evidence, seems insane or irrational to most people. When properly nourished and unencumbered by unnecessary interventions, a woman is perfectly capable of bringing her children into this world on her own. In fact, the experience of natural childbirth can prove to be an huge transformative moment in a woman’s life. I hope that, in time, if you decide to have children of your own, you delve into this topic further.

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