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The Bizarre Reason Why Women Started Giving Birth on Their Backs

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The Bizarre Reason Why Women Started Giving Birth on Their Backs

Jun 20, 2022
A mama laying with her baby

If you picture a pregnant mama delivering her baby, you probably conjure up an image of a messy-haired, red-faced woman lying on her back in a hospital bed with her legs in stirrups. This image has been painted for us by many different forms of media, especially television.

And with good reason. For over a hundred years, this position, the woman on her back with her legs in the air, has been the standard position for childbirth.

But it hasn’t always been this way!

This post will go over how the standard birthing position came to be, and some other options women have used over the past millenniums.

How Birthing Positions Developed

King Louis XIV liked to watch his mistresses give birth on their backs.

King Louis XIV, who ruled France from 1643 until 1715, had a lot of children. His mistresses were often younger than him and therefore in their child-bearing years. It's no surprise that he had an impressive number of offspring during his rule. (The number varies wildly depending on your source: some say 11 others say 42.)

King Louis had a peculiar fascination with watching his mistresses give birth.  He liked to observe the process from start to finish and grew frustrated when his view was obstructed. He made the supine position standard for his mistresses and many women in France began to follow suit.

It wasn't just his famous mistress Madame de Montespan who gave birth in this way, there are plenty of historical accounts from the period describing prominent women giving birth on their backs. The practice grew in popularity well into the 1700s.

The practice was challenged by a German doctor. 

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, German doctor Heinrich Meibom was interested in the subject of birth. When Dr. Meibom studied medicine, many doctors believed that women had to give birth while lying on their backs because they were too delicate to sit in a chair or stand. Meibom disagreed with this idea and wrote about his research on the subject.

He published his work in 1750 under the name "An Ode to Labor Pains." The report was popular among other doctors who shared his interest and read his works out loud at gatherings for students of medicine. Doctors began to question whether giving birth lying down was necessary for women's health as previously thought. Some even recommended that women walk around during labor so as not to restrict blood flow—a radical idea at the time!

Meibom also suggested that midwives should use gravity instead of forceps to help move babies into position for delivery; he called it “parturition by descent." This practice would allow mothers more control over how quickly their babies were born—and how much pain they might experience from such faster deliveries!

Around the 1900s, supine birth became the norm.

By 1900, we had moved away from home birth. The hospital became the norm for birth. The shift to hospitals was driven by doctors who saw birth as a medical event, not a natural one.

To make it feel more medicalized, doctors put women on their backs in beds with their legs spread apart during labor and childbirth. This position was thought to be easier on the doctor's hands and made it easier for them to monitor contractions and fetal heart rate.

But it also increased the risk of what we now know as posterior or transverse presentations of the fetus (which means that baby's head is pointing sideways instead of straight down).

Doctors say that women were more comfortable lying down.

One reason for the shift to the supine position was the use of early medical interventions. These interventions were often painful and had no scientific basis, but doctors still used them to help women give birth to their babies.

One such procedure involved placing a woman in a wooden chair during labor, with her knees squeezed together and legs raised above her body (to increase pressure on the uterus). This position could force blood away from the mother's brain and cause fainting spells or muscle cramps.

Another common practice was to administer large doses of opium or other sedatives, which made it harder for women to handle pain effectively. Doctors also sometimes used forceps (scissor-like instruments) on women who'd been given these drugs—and sometimes even if they hadn't. Some physicians liked using this technique so much that they'd sometimes pull-out entire organs instead of just the baby!

Due to rampant pseudoscience and poor medical practices at the time the supine position became standard for women giving birth.

The Past Influences Today's Birth Norms

In the past, women would give birth in many different positions. In ancient times, there are even records of specialized chairs that were designed for delivering babies.

Today, the supine position is the standard. However, many mamas are breaking this mold. Some mamas choose to give birth standing, squatting, or even on all fours. Beyond that, the hospital is not the only option for delivering your baby.

Many mamas elect for home births, water births, or other unconventional (but comfortable) birth settings. Midwives and doulas play a big part in helping mamas break away from the sterile hospital setting and reclaim their delivery.

If you are looking for a doula who always listens, and never judges, then it is time to reach out to Stork Helpers. Tamara has helped with the birth and care of over eighty children in her career and she has given birth to seven children of her own.

If you want to reclaim control of your child’s birth, reach out to Stork Helpers.

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