Friday, May 31, 2019

Having a Baby in the 19th Century

by Kiersti Giron

"The New Arrival," By David Henry Friston, fl. 1850s to late 1880s, Public Domain
The coming of a baby has been a source of wonder and joy since time began. Last month, my husband and I were blessed by the birth of our first baby, a little son, and it's given me a new connection and empathy with mothers throughout time. For this post, we'll take a journey back to what having a baby was like during the 19th century, followed soon by a post on baby care during the same period. I hope you enjoy the ride!

Home vs. Hospital

18th/19th century midwifery log,
possibly owned by Timothy Watkins. Wikimedia Commons

In the earlier decades of the 19th century, midwives tended laboring women almost exclusively, and the vast majority of babies were born at home. While women widely feared the pain and danger of childbirth--and indeed, death in childbirth was common--midwives brought the knowledge and wisdom of generations of women to ease the birthing process as much as possible. Only poor women had their babies in hospitals until the early 1900s, and these "lying in" hospitals were notorious for maternal death, with infections running rampant due to doctors not washing their hands between patients and other unsanitary practices.

Doctors and Forceps

Obstetrical Case, including forceps, mid-19th century. By Welcome Images,

With the growing popularity of forceps in the 19th century, doctors began to regularly enter the birthing room for the first time, since they were the ones trained in the use of forceps. This technological invention changed other aspects of childbirth also, such as position. Whereas previously women tended to give birth in a more upright position--which we now know is optimal in easing and expediting the baby's birth--now they started lying on their backs in bed to facilitate the use of forceps.


Young Queen Victoria, By Franz Xaver Winterhalter - Osborne House, Isle of Wight,
Public Domain,
Queen Victoria was famously the first woman to demand chloroform anesthesia during childbirth. While anesthesia during birth didn't become widespread until the 20th century, it began during the 19th, though it was often dangerous and generally frowned upon. But in an era when the pain of childbirth was emphasized as God's curse upon Eve--never mind that the word for "pain" in Genesis 3 is the same one translated "toil" for Adam--Victoria's success proved a significant precedent, though the growth of anesthesia paved the way for the horrors of twilight sleep in the early 20th century and other less-than-positive interventions.

"Lying In" - Postpartum Care

The Young Mother by Charles West Cope, 1845. Valerie McGlinchey,
CC BY-SA 2.0 uk,

As I've been in postpartum recovery mode myself, the 19th century rules for mothers recovery from childbirth were particularly interesting to me. Women were encouraged to stay in bed for some time--no huge surprise there--and not even to get up into a chair until at least the tenth day, according to one 1800s manual. Another, Elizabeth Robinson's Scovil's 1896 Preparation for Motherhood, insists that new mothers not even talk! According to her:

"After all that the newly made mother has undergone, she needs perfect quiet for several hours before she is permitted to see anyone. A five-minute interview with her husband is all that should be granted. However well she feels, quiet should be insisted upon. Excitement is dangerous and no visitors must be permitted to enter the room, nor should conversation be allowed, even if she wishes to talk. Neglect of this precaution may cause serious disaster, even when all seems to be going on well."

Of course, not all women would have had the luxury of resting the four or five weeks recommended by the experts; still, these old-fashioned guidelines can remind us that in most traditional cultures, new mothers are surrounded by a community giving tender loving care for the first month or so to give her and her baby the best possible start.

Now that her baby was born, the 19th century mother, like any other, moved into the next stage of life: motherhood and infant care. But that will be a topic for my next post!

So, how much did you know about 19th century childbirth? What details are most interesting to you? What things are you glad have changed? Please comment and share!

Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazines and won the 2013 and 2018 ACFW Genesis Awards - Historical for two of her novel manuscripts. An English teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at She lives in California with her husband, their two kitties, and their new baby boy.

1 comment:

  1. First of all, congratulations on becoming a mom! Most interesting to me about your post was the no talking part! Really? Times sure have changed!!! Thanks for the post. I don't know why but I had to come find the new post, it wasn't delivered to my in box. But no problem, I can't miss my daily HHH!