midwifery (mĬd´wī´fərē), art of assisting at childbirth. The term midwife for centuries referred to a woman who was an overseer during the process of delivery. In ancient Greece and Rome, these women had some formal training. As the medical arts declined during medieval times, however, the skills a midwife possessed were gained solely from experience, and the lore was passed on through generations. With the upsurge of medical science about the 16th cent., the delivery of babies was accepted into the province of physicians, and as formal training and licensing of medical practitioners became more prevalent, these requirements extended also to women still engaged in midwifery. At this time professional schools of midwifery were established in Europe. Midwifery was only recognized as an important branch of medicine, however, when the practice of obstetrics was established. In the United States, due to rising medical costs and a burgeoning interest in natural childbirth and more personalized care, there has been a resurgence of interest in midwifery since the early 1970s.
Contemporary midwives attend births in hospitals and birthing centers as well as at home. Most midwives are registered nurses who have completed additional training in accredited institutions. Certified nurse midwives (CNMs) can practice in all 50 states. Many are trained to deal with other gynecological issues, such as birth control and menopausal problems. Lay-midwives usually train by apprenticeship and are regulated by local statutes that limit what services they may perform.
See J. Litoff, The American Midwife Debate (1986).