Victorian Era Pregnancy, Labour and Childbirth. Anaesthesia and Delivery

For Victorian women, childbirth was their service to their husbands. Many wealthy families wanted children for heirs. These well to do couples would most likely keep reproducing until they had a male child. Also, the father would want a male child to give his land and money to. Many poor families wanted children for workers. These children could help work on the farm, family stores, or in the domestic service.

Hogarth print showing pregnant woman
Hogarth print showing pregnant woman

How was Victorian era pregnancy like?

Even though children were good assistants, there was a downside. Woman pregnancy was very dangerous during the Victorian era. It was very common for women to pass away during childbearing. Another frightening asset was having a premature baby. The risk of death was more concerning to the lower class women.

These women had poor diets that didn’t have enough nutrition for a pregnant dame. On the other hand, for the wealthy, it was a different situation. They had a more balanced diet, and this produced more healthy babies. Although rich women could afford more wine/beer, which they drank like water, it was very dangerous for their infants.

victorian era pregnancy

Women had to go through many lonely weeks, even months; in case of premature births, which was often, women had to go into confinement. Also having children gave women their rights. When a girl gave birth to their child they finally became a woman.

Labour and Delivery

The actual process of labor and delivery were very important to aristocratic families of the Victorian era. Many would travel to London weeks before to stay with friends throughout the final few weeks. The purpose of this journey, called going to town, was socially motivated as it made public the birth of a new baby. The house had to be prepared very specifically to accommodate the pregnant woman and her husband, friends, family, the doctor and his team of medical attendants.

Not all women actually made the trip to London or to an alternate location to deliver, and therefore many rearranged all of the rooms and furniture in their own house to prepare for weeks of confinement. Confinement was the term used to describe the last few weeks of pregnancy that were spent in the bed of a specially prepared house.

The actual beds women gave birth on were lightweight and portable, and are significant for several reasons. One reason the delivery beds were so highly regarded among women in aristocratic Victorian families was because they increased the important female bonding aspect of childbirth. Because of this, the beds were passed down from generation to generation.

Delivering a baby on a separate bed than the one it was conceived on diminishes the sexual connotations associated with birth. This not only reinforces Victorian values of prudence but gives childbirth a more spiritual meaning, as well.

Anesthesia was first administered in 1847 to obstetric patients by the Scottish physician James Simpson. Before this pain-relieving medicine became popularized, doctors relied on blood-letting to alleviate labor pains. Up to 50 oz. of blood could be drawn to ease pain and weaken the patient as a whole.

Even during labor, Victorian principles of purity and modesty are evident. The clothing women wore consisted of a shift tucked up under the arms with a short petticoat placed about the hips which used to be removed after labor and the dry shift drawn down.

The position most commonly used during childbirth was the Sims position which entailed lying on the left side of the body with knees bent and drawn up into the abdomen. This position prevented the doctor and patient from seeing each other, enabling the mother to save face in an embarrassing situation for Victorian women.

The recovery time for women after labor and delivery lasted between four and six weeks and consisted of various stages of progress. The stages began with something as simple as walking from the bed to a nearby sofa and then was ritually ended by going to the church. There, the new mother would be religiously cleansed and had the opportunity to thank God for a full recovery after the pregnancy and childbirth.

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