For thousands of years Midwives (meaning ‘with woman’), have been depicted in imagery and stories providing care to birthing mothers. Some of the earliest written records of birth come from the Grecian School of Medicine (circa 400BC), where uncomplicated natural births were experienced with minimal discomfort.
In medieval times midwives were women from the community whose knowledge was passed down from one to another. They understood birth as a natural process and were trained in optimal positioning and movement to guide the baby through the birth canal, how to safely ‘catch’ and care for a newborn as well as nourishing a woman for energy and comfort in labour and post birth.
Birth commonly happened whilst squatting, kneeling or sitting due to pelvis’s ability to become wider in these positions. Many different cultures had their own designs of birthing seats and stools, the first being traced back to the Babylonians some 4,000 years ago. It was King Louey the 14th who insisted on watching the birth of his offspring which saw women start to deliver on their backs, it was also viewed as more ‘regal’, however this slowed down labour, creating its own set of problems.
In the 18th Century birth became a profitable and highly competitive industry, resulting in births moving from homes into hospitals and early forms of pain relief like chloroform were introduced. Ironically, the lack of comprehension around hygiene at the time and the rise in surgical interventions like episiotomy and forceps delivery led to extremely high rates of maternal death due to ‘childbirth fever’ (bacterial infection). It wasn’t till the early 19th century that hygiene was understood and accepted and Maternal wellbeing increased dramatically.
Over the centuries these events created fear of pain and possible death in birth, much of which still remains with us today. In the 1970’s natural childbirth without pain relief started to gain momentum once more with the launch of birth education classes based on the work of Dr Fernand Lamaze, which aimed at building a woman’s confidence in her ability to birth, taught breathing and massage techniques and encouraging husbands to take a more active role in birth support.
We now know that when fear is experienced during birth (whether real or imagined), we loose our ability to produce endorphins which relieve pain naturally. Our body initiates the fight, flight, freeze or appease response, stress hormones are released, blood flow and oxygen is concentrated to the defence systems rather than the uterine muscles, which constrict and need to work harder to move the baby through the birth canal, slowing or even stalling labour, thus creating pain.
Today we are incredibly fortunate to have a deeper understanding of the body and birth as well as access to quality birth education, various models of care and much safer medical interventions and pain relief if and when required to support a more positive birth experience.