For much of the last 25 years the notion of using painkilling drugs during childbirth has been considered by many to be passé at best, poor parenting at the worst. The idea of “natural childbirth” took root in the last quarter of the twentieth century as being the “best” way to have a child because it spared the baby being exposed to drugs, which passed through the placenta. The mother’s pain was considered almost irrelevant, and as one woman pointed out to me “What’s wrong with a mother if she can’t handle a little pain for the sake of her child?” The best way to have a child was to learn to breathe. Breathing, it seemed, made the pain go away.
Many a Victorian woman would have looked at us like we have three heads.
At the time religion taught women that childbirth was God’s punishment for listening to the snake in the garden of Eden. A lot of Victorian women didn’t care. They didn’t know about the passage of the drugs to the infants, they didn’t have access to modern medicine such a c-sections, and forceps, sometimes improperly used, could cause horrible tears and sometimes irreparable damage. Childbirth could be a slow, painful death. Victorian women wanted drugs.
The original drug of choice was laudanum, a morphine derivative. Then, in 1847, Ether was introduced, shortly followed by chloroform (used in NYC in 1848). By the middle of the 19th century (among urban woman) both were often administered by doctors. They were not used by midwives, however, who had neither the training or the apparatus to use the drugs. Such training was withheld by the medical profession. Is it any wonder that the profession of midwifery slowly died out?
Doctors did have concerns over the use of drugs though. They masked the pain, and some claimed they slowed down childbirth. Therefore in the beginning, drugs were often used with great caution, some doctors only employing them in extreme cases, others only when asked. By the end of the century, using drugs during birth was a common occurrence and thus, childbirth, though still dangerous to women, was at least a little less dreaded.
Sources: Brought to Bed, Childbearing in America, 1750 to 1950, Judith Walzer Leavitt