Birth Customs

Birth customs have varied depending on location, culture and time. It is only a recent development that women will give birth at hospitals versus at home.

The modern-day birthing process may involve a number of people: a doctor, a midwife, a doula and a nurse. The doctor may be an obstetrician or a family doctor. If the need arises, the doctor may perform surgery or employ other birthing techniques to help the birth along. Midwives provide basic care for the woman before, during and after labor. The nurse will assist the doctor, midwife and woman throughout the course of the labor. A doula is not there for technical reasons; rather, she acts as an emotional support system for the woman. Before birth, the woman may attend a childbirthing class taught by a birthing instructor or childbirth educator where she will learn the signs of oncoming labor, birthing techniques and how to take care of a newborn.

Midwifery was the only valid option for childbirth for thousands of years. Midwives were expected to be extremely knowledgeable and experienced in childbirth. In ancient Greece, the midwife was associated with the goddess Artemis. A woman who underwent successful childbirth would offer thanks to the goddess. Superstition played a key role in childbirth. Midwives would use herbs and animal dung to ease the woman's pain. Before labor, the woman would bathe in wine and apply oil to her belly. During labor, the midwife would massage the woman with hot compresses and cloth soaked in olive oil. When the woman actually gave birth, she would sit on a birthing stool. The effect of gravity would help the baby out. Once the baby was born, the midwife would hold it with her hands wrapped in cloth so that the baby would not slip from her fingers. Caesarian sections (cutting open the mother to retrieve the baby) were only performed if the mother was already dead or dying. Poor sanitation and a lack of medication led to high infant and mother mortality rates.

Possibly in reaction to medical practices surrounding modern childbirth, natural childbirth has grown in popularity. Midwife Shelly Girard explains how natural childbirth conducted in one's home is more beneficial than childbirth in a hospital: "Birth, once the province of midwives for the bulk of the population, became the domain of medical doctors who ... funneled healthy mothers into hospitals. These low risk mothers, removed from safe, familiar environments ... began to replace age-old strategies for coping and comfort with fear and uncertainty. With this fear came increased pain and discomfort, leading doctors to begin to administer anesthetics and analgesics." One revolutionary form of childbirth is water birthing, wherein the woman gives birth in water. Studies have shown that classes on birthing techniques involving breathing and massage do not decrease the chances of caesarians or the use of epidurals.

Women giving birth in hospitals will undergo certain procedures. Usually the woman will be hooked up to an IV so that she can receive a necessary intake of calories as she will likely not be eating during the course of labor. She will be hooked up to an electronic fetal monitor so that the doctor can assess the heart rate of the baby. Doctors may give the woman a dose of Pitocin to speed up or induce the labor, or they will manually cut open the amniotic sack. Some doctors will enlarge the vaginal opening. Women are given the option of having an epidural or another type of anesthetic for pain relief. The labor process is divided by stages and substages.

Men bearing witness to the birth of their children is a modern occurrence. Until the 16th century in England, men were forbidden to be in the room while the women were giving birth. Childbirth was considered an exclusive event for women. Only in the second half of the 20th century have men taken a more participatory role in childbirth. This is due to the fact that more women were giving birth in hospitals and undergoing medical treatments they were unaware of. It was deemed necessary that her partner be there at all times to act as a witness and care for her general well-being. At times, the man will find himself overwhelmed by the experience and unable to provide emotional support for the woman. Some men will try to help the woman practice what they have learned in prenatal classes -- the breathing and relaxation techniques.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England
David Cressy.
Oxford University Press, 1999
A Time to Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth
Michele Klein.
Jewish Publication Society, 1998
Life and Ritual in Old Siam: Three Studies of Thai Life and Customs
William J. Gedney; Phaya Anuman Rajadhon.
HRAF Press, 1961
Birth on the Threshold: Childbirth and Modernity in South India
Cecilia Van Hollen.
University of California Press, 2003
Social Work Practice with Childbirth-Injured Women in Nigeria
Ojanuga, Durrenda.
Health and Social Work, Vol. 19, No. 2, May 1994
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
An Exploration of Men's Experience and Role at Childbirth
Johnson, Martin P.
The Journal of Men's Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2, Winter 2002
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Hmong Women and Reproduction
Pranee Liamputtong Rice.
Bergin & Garvey, 2000
Case Studies in Dual Classification as Process: Childbirth, Headhunting and Circumcision in West Timor
McWilliam, Andrew.
Oceania, Vol. 65, No. 1, September 1994
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
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