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This Data Will Make You Really Glad You Didn't Give Birth 60 Years Ago

Attitudes and practices towards maternity care and childbirth have come a long way since the 1950s.
September 30, 2015, 6:10pm
NCT antenatal class. Image: NCT/Wellcome Library, London

Even in our tech-filled world, childbirth still remains a pretty messy experience. But it's safe to say that in the 1950s, when expectant mothers had little access to maternity information (or even a say over how they'd like to give birth), women definitely had it worse.

"The idea of childbirth as an experience in itself wasn't something that existed at the time," Elena Carter, an archivist at the Wellcome Library, told me. "It's interesting to see how much has changed in childbirth over the last 60 years in terms of attitudes and practices."

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For the past year, Carter has been involved in a project to catalogue 60 years worth of archival material on maternity and childbirth data donated by the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) (a UK charity offering information on pregnancy, birth, and early parenthood) to the Wellcome Trust, a global medical non-profit.

The archive includes a range of materials encompassing everything from birth records, meeting minutes, and educational video cassettes. It also reflects the changing attitudes, debates, and practices surrounding childbirth in the 20th century as the UK experienced societal shifts brought on by post-war women's activism, and women's rights.

The 40 years of woe as depicted in the New Generation magazine, March 1996, pp. 18-19 Image: NCT/Wellcome Library, London

The NCT was established in 1956 by Prunella Bryant following the loss of her first baby, which she blamed on the negligence of hospital staff. According to Carter, at the beginning, the NCT was very much a self-funded grassroots organization that met in village halls and sitting rooms to discuss how conditions for pregnant mothers could be improved. They relied on local support networks of would-be mothers and mothers to expand their organization over the decades.

"When the NCT was first set up, they were responded to with some skepticism by doctors because they couldn't understand why women would want to take control of their pregnancies, and not just leave it up to the professionals," explained Carter.

As Carter sifted through the numerous documents in the archive, she came across everything from instructive articles on mastering breathing techniques during labour to personal reports by mothers who had felt mistreated at the hands of some medical professionals.

"When you're reading some of the reports from the early years, it can be quite shocking to think of how different things were, and how much of a battle women had on their hands to get the kind of birth that they wanted," she told me. "There was really a 'doctor knows best attitude'; it was very much a 'sit down, do as you're told, and you'll get a baby at the end of it all.'"

The NTC aimed to counter such attitudes by providing more women with information, and aimed to open up discussions on childbirth. Over the years, they honed down their operations to focus on core areas such as antenatal (prenatal) classes, organized a forum where disabled parents could reach out to one another, and ran a breastfeeding support helpline.

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"It was a conservative time—even discussions of childbirth in public were seen as dirty, and childbirth was seen as something that should be over and done with as quickly and quietly as possible," said Carter. "The NCT really wanted to bring the discussion of childbirth into the public sphere."

40th anniversary postcard: "Don't look son!" Image: NCT/Wellcome Library, London

Approaches towards maternity care and childbirth have become less taboo over the decades in the UK with the advent of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, which brought on a shift in attitudes in the 70s and 80s, and the rise of wider trends such as water births, and home deliveries. Some attitudes, however, prevail.

A poster made for the NCT's 40th anniversary in 1996 depicting a breastfeeding mother with the commentary "Don't look son!" is still an attitude that exists to some extents today.

"We still have this attitude that breastfeeding in public isn't highly or completely socially acceptable," said Carter. "The NCT were trying to encourage breastfeeding, and publishing guidelines about where breastfeeding was allowed, or fighting on behalf of women who wrote in about their experiences."

In 2013, the NCT came under public fire when television presenter Kirstie Allsop accused it of being "dogmatic" and "politicised." Yet the current archive reveals just how much attitudes and practices have evolved toward childbirth with mothers having more ownership over their bodies than in the 1950s.