Why Do Women Give Birth Lying Down?
When it comes to giving birth, the first image that comes to mind is a woman lying down on her back, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact the origin of the position we now most associate with women giving birth started as a procedure to remove gall stones in 18th century France. So how did this position become the gold standard for bringing newborns into the world?
If you're like me, your social media is filled with pictures of beaming parents, and
in the midst of that postnatal glow, I bet you haven't stopped to wonder: when
did women start giving birth lying on their backs?
Now I've heard a slew of pregnancy related myths, from the position of the baby bump
predicting a newborn's gender, to the size of a mother's nose indicating the imminent
arrival of a bouncing bundle of joy.
But I have to admit, the idea of women delivering in any position besides lying on their backs
never occurred to me as a particularly hot button issue.
Perhaps it's because most women in the US give birth in hospitals, where being in a
bed is considered the standard procedure.
And if most of us think about every birth scene we have ever witnessed, either in popular
media or in real life, we probably conjure up images of a woman in a hospital bed with
nurses and doctors positioned at her feet, ready to catch a new baby as it enters the
But it turns out that this wasn't always the case.
And that's because male doctors weren't always involved.
Because while women have been having babies since...humans, they weren't usually going
to the hospital for births until the 20th century.
So if you're like me and secretly addicted to the series Call the Midwife, then you've
What were women doing during childbirth before hospital births were commonplace?
Well before the hospital, home birth was the norm, with most women being attended to by
midwives and female family members.
And that's because people's suspicions of hospitals were pretty well founded.
According to Professor Melissa Thomasson at the University of Miami (and our previous
video on US healthcare!) hospitals functioned primarily as almshouses for the poor until
the 20th century.
This included 19th century maternity hospitals that were primarily used for poor women, whether
married or unmarried, and women in urban locations who needed a place to deliver.
By the 18th & 19th century, physicians (primarily men) were being trained in delivering babies,
and introduced the use of forceps, ether, and chloroform to speed up deliveries and
Which side note never use any of these near a pregnant woman.
So although maternity hospitals provided essential services to poor women, they also served as
places where doctors used women from vulnerable populations to examine "difficult births"
as case studies for future work.
But because of cross contamination in many hospitals, you had as much chance of getting
out of there alive as an unattended teen wandering into the woods durings a horror movie.
Early medicine relied heavily on an apprenticeship system, where a young student would work under
a practicing doctor and receive training before eventually graduating to taking care of patients
of their own.
But by 1910 with the release of the Flexner report on the status of medical schools in
the US, medical training improved through standardization, increasing the number of
well trained and qualified physicians.
As for birthing positions, these varied based on time period and location.
According to ancient historian Valerie French, when Greek physician sora-nuss reported on
the practices of childbirth and midwives in the 2nd century AD, he noted that women often
gave birth in a chair sitting up.
And this was a special chair with a crescent shaped hole in the seat to...well you get
Birth stools with a similar designs were used until as late as the 18th century.
And many home births encouraged women to use various squatting, sitting, standing, or upright
That's because the same muscles used to squat are pretty much the same muscles used
to push out a baby, and some argue that our old friend gravity can play an important role
in moving things along.
Oddly enough these are the same muscles used for a much less joyous occasion: bowel movements!
This gross fact is probably why giving women in labor enemas was considered common practice
in the early to mid 20th century, although it's mostly considered unnecessary and unhelpful
Other positions for childbirth included curling on your side, and yes, lying on your back
with knees brought up towards your chest to help with birth.
But the lithotomy position, the phrase used to describe being on your back with your feet
up in stirrups, wasn't the only standard for women in labor.
It varied from delivery to delivery based on the needs of the women in labor and their
So giving birth was a pretty every day procedure that took place mostly at home, not the hospital.
And most women were attended to by midwives and female family members, not male physicians.
But that all changed in the 20th century.
In 1900, only 5% of all births took place at the hospitals in the US.
By 1939 around 50% of births were taking place in hospitals around the country.
But in the early days of childbirths shifting from homes to hospitals, it's not entirely
clear if this reduced or increased the risk of fatality for either mothers or infants.
In fact, until the late 1930s, outcomes for mothers and babies stayed relatively the same
as they were before the hospital became the norm.
So that brings us to our next question:
Why did women start flocking to hospitals for a procedure that used to be largely confined
to the home if the outcomes weren't much different?
An d whAny d arwhe y moarste mostof theofm tlyheinm g lydoinwng ?do
Seems like the answer here is one part improvement of medical intervention and one part convenience
but not for who you'd expect.
In 1937 sulfa drugs (the first successful antibiotic before the use of penicillin in
the 1940s) saw a marked improvement in outcomes for patients who delivered in hospitals.
With this innovation, hospital births started to become safer than at home births, and the
improved outcomes drew more women to deliver there than at home.
In their book Lying In: A History of Childbirth in America Dorothy and Richard Wertz write
about the shifts in American childbirth practices after the Civil War and into the 20th century:
"...Doctors were on the lookout for trouble in birth...In line with that perception, doctors
increased their control over the patients during labor and delivery, rendering them
more powerless in the experience to participate in birth.
Women acceded to the doctors' increasing control because they also believed that their
methods would make birth safer."
(Wertz and Wertz 136)
So as childbirth in hospitals picked up speed in the 20th century, doctors had more say
and control over what happened in the delivery room.
The lithotomy position was originally used for the removal of bladder stones.
In 17th century France, obstetrics and lithotomy were combined and it's postulated that this
is when the reclining position was incorporated into some births.
But it wasn't necessarily because this is the easiest position to give birth, but rather
a hangover from a few different practices.
When male physicians and surgeons began attending to female patients during labor in the 18th
and 19th centuries, modesty was a huge concern for both parties.
As a result, some physicians had women lie on their backs and covered their patients'
legs, so they could feel what they were doing but not actually see any sensitive parts.
But the literature on birthing positions remained unclear even into the early 20th century,
with many relying on either the lithotomy position or positions where women are lying
flat on their backs because this was what a lot of doctors recommended.
But in the latter half of the 20th century women in the US began to push back (for lack
of a better term) and other birthing positions began to be adopted once again, including
women sitting upright, lying on their sides, or squatting.
And because births are varied and unique, some positions work better for some women
It's all a matter of the right fit.
So how does it all add up?
Well if we look at the timeline, the lithotomy position emerged as a concern for modesty
mixed with medical intervention in the 18th & 19th centuries.
But hospital births, and thus lithotomy, didn't become the norm in the US until the early
And that's because as women started looking to hospitals and physicians as a safer alternative
to home births, physicians gained more control in the delivery room.
And so while most representations of childbirth today focus on women either lying back or
sitting up in bed, women haven't always considered that the only position.
But this is a video about medical history, not medical advice, and so you should definitely
rely on the advice of trained professionals when deciding which birthing option works
best for you.
More Episodes (83)
6 Surprising Facts About the 19th AmendmentMay 08, 2020
Where did Advice Columns Come From?April 10, 2020
Economic Lessons from Past PandemicsApril 10, 2020
What Does It Mean to Be a "Good" Student?March 09, 2020
Why Are There 12 People on a Jury?February 21, 2020
Why Does "Straight" Mean Heterosexual?January 30, 2020