Friday, November 18, 2011

Childbirth in the Old West

We've Come A Long Way, Baby...on having one.

Childbirth in the old west often resulted in death of the mother due to complications, and often the baby as well.  Doctor's were spread thin, and pioneers usually lived miles from the nearest town on any plot of land they could homestead.  If a mother-to-be was lucky, she knew another woman who considered herself a midwife based on the amount of babies she'd assisted in bringing into the world.  Often the criteria was how many she'd had of her own.  It didn't take much to be an authority in those days.

Had I lived during that time, my son and I would surely have died.  Although my first son, close to 10 pounds, was a normal delivery, my second son turned sideways and lodged his hand in the birth canal.  The resulting emergency c-section saved us.  In those days, we just wouldn't have survived, period.  On a side-note, his position was a predictor of things to come.  He's had his hand out ever since.  *smile*

In the old west, there was nothing akin to what we have to ease the "agony" of labor.  No epidurals, no spinals, no Lamaze training to help prepare the mother... nothing.  Women went through grueling hours of pain to bring a child into the world, and many babies died in infancy because of widespread diseases and unsanitary living conditions. More than a few mothers died too, from the inability to stem bleeding or from infections passed during delivery.  It wasn't at all uncommon to see a family cemetery started behind a homesteaders shack, with crosses marking the names of babies and mothers lost during childbirth.

Imagine giving birth in the back of a Conestoga wagon, often while the wheels bumped over a rutted trail in the middle of nowhere.  It took something major to halt the wagon train before day's end, and something as commonplace as birthing wasn't a reason.

What I can't understand because I'm such a wimp is why women today want to suffer through childbirth without drugs.  I respect their right to feel every cramp and consuming pain, but having a child is when "just say no to drugs," doesn't make sense to me.*smile* Had I survived, I might have parented one child, but that would have been my limit.

Pregnancy wasn't reason enough for pioneer women to take it easy.  They still met the responsibilities of their households; some even plowing fields and sowing seeds for the very crops on which their futures depended.  I doubt that a complaint of swollen ankles went very far to shirk their duties.

Let's consider the Indian women of the time period.  Warriors believed that a bleeding woman was possessed by evil and could zap their strength, so during a woman's menstrual cycle, she was isolated the entire time--usually in a specially built place deemed the 'women's lodge.'

This same tepee or structure was used for birthing children, and taboo for the men.  When a woman's labor began, she and the tribe's medicine woman along with a few female relatives retired to the lodge for the birthing ceremony.  Most tribes were very superstitious and took great care to pray and chant over the mother and the babe she  carried.  The Plains Indians, specifically, cherished their children, considering them a gift from Waken Taken, their heavenly father.  If you think a visit to your modern delivery room is scary, read on, my friend.

Usually in the women's lodge, a long narrow trough was dug in the dirt floor and a pole sunk deep into the earth.  The laboring mother squatted over the indention, grasped the pole, and pushed until the baby was delivered.  The afterbirth was caught in the trough, while the baby was swaddled in soft pelts and dried with moss.  The child's umbilical cord was kept in a specially beaded pouch.  Lakota Sioux tribe used two pouches; one to hold the real cord and the other to fool the evil spirits.  The one containing the cord was hidden in the baby's cradleboard until he/she was old enough to wear clothing and then hidden within their attire. This was done to protect the little one from harm.

So ladies, consider the advantages we've shared and the leaps and bounds the medical field has taken to make childbirth a safer and less painful process.  I'm grateful every day that I live in an era that made it possible for both of my children to be born, safe and healthy.  I also pay special homage to the person who created the epidural and the medication administered during my cesarean so I didn't have to be awake while someone dug around in my insides.  *lol* Hey...for those of you who stayed awake during your surgery...Kudos.  When they asked me if I wanted to remain alert during the delivery, I didn't just say no...I said, Hell No!

Given a choice, would you choose squatting over a trough or giving birth in a nice, clean hospital room?  That should be a no brainer.  :)


Jane Lebak said...

I'd go for the trough in a heartbeat, Ginger. I was manhandled and abused in the hospitals in a way no pioneer woman ever could have imagined, and my one medicated birth (of five births) was the worst in terms of pain, recovery, and the horrible way I was treated by hospital personnel. Every single complication in that birth was *caused by the hospital staff.* After the birth, my baby needed a 4-day stay in the NICU. Why? Because of problems caused by the hospital staff.

Why would a sane woman choose an unmedicated delivery? Well for starters, a woman delivering at term has just been told by her doctor not to take any drugs or alcohol for nine months. Then delivery comes and they shoot the mom full of powerful narcotics? Which then go to the baby? My baby showed after-effects of the labor drugs for two weeks afterward, which affected breastfeeding. The drugs in my system made it easier for the doctors and nurses to push me around (literally) and harder for me to work with my own body.

Much of the pain of childbirth is actually caused by the hospital system. And while I don't know anything about your own particular birth, what you describe about a baby born with his hand out by his head is called a "nuchal hand," and women do often deliver those vaginally. I have no idea if there were other complications in your birth, but you may not have died out in the old west.

Obviously there have been improvements in childbirth since then. I'm not saying it's all bad. But for my first baby's birth, I absolutely would have been better off delivering in a ditch than delivering in the hospital.

Unknown said...

Wow,Jane, sounds like you had a really bad experience. I wasn't trying to make light of those who have, but humor is my way of dealing with life in general. If I couldn't find time to laugh, I think I'd throw up my hands and surrender. My baby couldn't be turned, so c-section was my only option, so I'm very happy modern day medicine saved us. Not all hospital experiences are good ones, but I'd sure rather have the option given the odds. I hope you weren't offended and have a better understanding of my personality. I'm a closet comedienne with a captive audience. :)

Diane Scott Lewis said...

Both my children would have died if not for modern medicine, but a couple of months after they were born, not during. So I thank God for the updates in the medical field.
Give me the drugs any time, the "heck" with natural birth, where we suffer!

Sarah J. McNeal said...

As romantic and exciting as it may seem, I sincerely doubt I would have wanted to be a woman in the wild west back in the day. Scary stuff, childbirth. Funny about your son having his hand out.
I like your new place, Ginger.

Unknown said...

Of course you didn't mean to offend would never do that and I too Jane am sorry about your experience. It will depend on circumstances. My first child I battled pre-eclampsia and as my blood pressure was 180/120 they had to use drugs to induce labor (life or death). Needless to say, I was in lala land the entire time so I didn't know how bad the pain was...until my second one without the high blood pressure. I thought wouldn't need the drugs but halfway through my blood pressure was spiking up over an entirely different situation. I hadn't expected so much pain and I wasn't prepared. They ended up giving me drugs and I was grateful for the relief.

Back in the day? Wouldn't have that option.

Hugz Funny Lady...LOVE, LOVE the Cowboy.

Unknown said...

There were scary experiences than and now. But I'd rather have a baby now than in pioneer times, that's for sure.

Lisabet Sarai said...


Since I've never had any children, I'm really not qualified to comment - but hey, that has never stopped me in the past!

I love your new blog, especially the great photo of you in the side bar, which I haven't seen before.

I think if I were back in Pioneer times, I'd rather be a Native than a white woman. At least in Indian cultures, women were respected (and even feared) for their ability to give birth.

Elizabeth Lane said...

Hi, Ginger,
Having had 3 babies (one with a lovely epidural, one who came too fast for the epidural to work, and one in a rural hospital with no option but gas, which I took), I could've had them anywhere and likely survived. But none of my darling grandchildren, or their mother, would have lived.
I'll take a nice delivery room any day. The Indians had the right idea with their early version. Thanks for an interesting blog.
Elizabeth Lane

Anonymous said...

I've never experienced childbirth, but I was there when my stepdaughter had my granddaughter and her screams told me enough about how painful it was. Pioneer women were tough, no doubt about it. Interesting sidenote: you can search umpteen journals left by pioneer women and find no mention of childbirth or pregnancy. Evidently it wasn't to be spoken of, or written about. Great blog. Thanks for sharing.

Hurricane 🌀 Nightrider said...

I have always wondered how women handled childbirth in that era. I am beyond grateful and thankful for technology and hospitals. I've had 4 natural and 4 c-sections and I would take a c-section over a natural birth anyday! Childbirth is extremely painful however the moment your child is born all the pain is gone..until the after birth then its over and once you hold your baby you forget all about the pain and that is why they make them so cute lol. I couldn't imagine giving birth without medication. They say giving birth is comparable to multiple bones breaking at the same time. I'm sure it was something that women couldn't talk about or share like we do now. Back in that Era men were not allowed to be there and I'm sure didn't want to hear about it either so maybe it was a taboo subject and maybe that is why there is nothing really found on it. Also with everything women had to do im sure Journaling wasn't something they had much time for. I am thankful for hospitals, running water, electricity and especially heat and air conditioning and feel very blessed to have those things and realize how hard it must have been to survive winters in the cold areas of extreme cold like Montana Idaho the Dakotahs and also how they survived the extreme heat like Arizona Texas New Mexico. No doubt they had very hard lives. It is also said that those were the toughest and hardest working people . I would love a time machine just to visit different eras but visiting would be the extent and certainly wouldn't want to live my entire life during those times. I think everyone should be able to visit and maybe more people would truly appreciate things that are so often taken for granted. Its truly sad when you see that in that Era newborns had such a high mortality rate and visiting old cemeteries is so sad seeing how many little ones died. I've lost 3 babies but all before they were born which was hard enough but loosing them after you've had them and were taking care of them and raising them had to be so much harder because you have even more of a bond and attachment. I think that now technology is pretty cool because you can trace your family back so much farther then what we know by tests now which connects us more to history. Thank you for sharing and please excuse my writing. I thoroughly enjoyed this article and appreciate the time and effort you put into sharing this.