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by Paul Asling 4 months ago in Historical
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If you think giving birth and pregnancy is tough, imagine being a Victorian expectant woman–wondering if either your pregnancy or your baby’s birth will kill you or not.

When people married in the mid-nineteenth century, they assumed children would follow quickly and frequently. The usual sense was kids just came, and there was absolutely nothing to be done about it. Ladies were encouraged to see parenthood as both vocation and duty. Marriage and pregnancy were considered a woman’s only proper occupation, and birth control information was forbidden in the nineteenth century. The typical working-class wife was either expectant or breastfeeding from her wedding day to menopause. Females who wedded in their early twenties could presume to bear children continuously in their early to middle forties. Families were large, with an average of six to eight children, but averages can be misleading. Families with many more children were common.

Far fewer children were born in the upper classes, showing some educated people knew how to avoid pregnancy. Premarital pregnancy was infrequent among the upper classes. This was usually because girls were always chaperoned everywhere they went. Lots of working-class females became pregnant outside of matrimony. But because of social humiliation and the absence of money to bring the child up, many concealed their pregnancy. Occasionally the family banished the girl from the household, but the couple was frequently forced into marrying if her lover was working-class. During the nineteenth century, many newborn babies were smothered or strangled. If they discovered the mother, she would be incriminated with murder and tried by an all-male jury and a male judge.

In those days, childbirth was painful and dangerous. The one pain respite obtainable was opium, which was regularly on sale as a sleeping drug known as laudanum. Most babies then were born at home, with the help of family and friends. Some womenfolk practised as midwives, though they had no formal training. Doctors were asked only to attend if the births were protracted, and it was feared the mother might die.

The problem with doctors' interventions brought risks. There were instruments for childbirth, but no anaesthetics or understanding of antisepsis, which meant that the danger of infection from medical intervention was grave. This meant doctors were sources of infection, transmitting infection from their previous patients. Hospitals were places of last resort, used only by the very poor. The death rates in hospitals were extremely high.

The chief dangers in childbirth were prolonged birth, extreme bleeding, and infection. Prolonged deliveries often followed when labour began with infants in the breech or transverse a position. Frantic attempts would be made to turn the babies but were rarely successful. Another common problem was a narrow or deformed pelvis caused by childhood rickets, a disease especially widespread in poorer women.

In life-threatening cases, where it became clear after days in labour, a doctor would usually attempt to use instruments to get the child out or crush the child and remove it. At this stage, the baby would often already be dead, and the mother would also die, either from shock or from infection. Excessive bleeding was another common problem, and there was almost nothing a midwife or doctor could do to stop a post-birth haemorrhage, and many women bled to death. Infection was another menace in childbirth. Women are vulnerable to infection during and immediately after delivery, and fever was common and much-feared in the nineteenth century.

Women tackled every birth with fear, and many women regularly primed themselves for death. Using pain relief increased near the end of the century when Queen Victoria legendarily pioneered chloroform and assisted to promote the practice, but various doctors still combatted its use.

Near the end of the nineteenth century, there was a mounting sense that women’s lives may be saved if babies could be delivered under medical observation in hospitals. Using anaesthetic became popular - however, it received a religious backlash. Many clergy members argued ‘that this human intervention in the miracle of birth was a sin against the will of God. If God had wished labour to be painless, he would have created it so.’

Possibly the most ludicrous aspect of being a pregnant woman in the Victorian period was pre-natal advice. It is said that pregnant women during the 1900s were told there was a link between pre-natal nourishment the temperament of the baby: one strange one being they were told to avoid sour foods such as pickles because these types of foods might give the baby a ‘sour disposition.’


About the author

Paul Asling

I share a special love for London, both new and old. I began writing fiction at 40, with most of my books and stories set in London.


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