Natural Childbirth 101: 4 Questionable Practices In The History Of Obstetrics

Contrary to popular belief, midwives and homebirths have been proven to be as safe as obstetrician-assisted births in hospitals and have far less medical interventions, thus delivering healthier babies around the world. Although there have been many more dangerous practices in the history of obstetrics, these are 4 that might encourage women to research further on the best alternative for their childbirth:

1) Twilight Sleep

The medical procedure known as Twilight Sleep became very popular among women as it was marketed as a “painless childbirth”, or, in other words, a way for women to completely eliminate the pain of birth and simply “wake up” to meet their babies. While, this sounded very attractive to a lot of women, the reality was very different. Morphine was used to ease the natural pain of labor, in combination with a popular drug labeled as scopolamine, which was used in order to induce amnesia in laboring women. Unfortunately, a very common side effect of scopolamine was that it also made women completely loose control. So, not only did women have no recollection of what was done to them throughout the birthing process, but they also became aggressive and difficult to control among hospital staff and often times could cause severe injuries to themselves. The solution implemented was a combination of straight jackets, towels and blankets around the head of women, and “laboring cribs” where their wrists could be tied to the beds for days. Women’s urine and feces were often times left in the women’s bed until it was time to give birth. The United States was mostly a “twilight” nation between 1914 and 1945, although there are reports of this very questionable practice going into the 70s and early 80s.

2) X-Rays

In the early 1930s, X-Rays were a regular part of an obstetrician’s pregnancy recommendations, with the justification that it allowed them to make proper pelvic examinations, as well as check for estimated due dates and fetal condition. Of course eventually X-Rays were linked to cancer and this procedure finally stopped in the 1940s.

3) Thalidomide

Thalidomide was portrayed as an over the counter “wonder drug” for insomnia, coughs, colds and headaches. It became frequently prescribed as a way to combat morning sickness in pregnant women in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This dangerous over the counter drug soon started making headlines and by the 1960s over 10,000 children around the world had already been born with severe deformities, including smaller limbs.

4) Cytotec

Cytotec was introduced in the early 1990s and although regular practice in obstetrics stopped around 1999, it is still used today among a few pregnant women. It’s side effects include rupture of the uterus, postpartum hemorrhage, increased fetal distress and increasdstill births.

When evaluating the common practices in the history of obstetrics, one can only conclude that there have been numerous interventions that were not just unnecessary but dangerous to both pregnant women and their babies. It would appear that well intentioned obstetrics students are somehow derailed from their purpose of delivering healthy babies and supporting healthy pregnancies.  As a direct result of this derailment, the US has the second to last infant mortality rate in the developed world and one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the industrialized world. 1. Perhaps it is time for women to take back control of one of the most precious moments in their lives: pregnancy.

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1. Source: CIA Factbook on maternal mortality rate and infant mortality rate

Further Resources:

Cruelty in Maternity Wards: Fifty Years Later

A Quick History of Medication in Maternal Health Care – (and the Business of Being Born)

Business Of Being Born Documentary


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