Prenatal Care Practices: An Era Gone By

Updated | Published
by Brenda F. Johnson Brenda F. Johnson, MSN

Specializes in Gastrointestinal Nursing. Has 30 years experience.

Old medical books give us insight into the world of nurses, doctors and patients of the early 1900s. They educate, intrigue, and scare us with old practices. Enjoy this article about prenatal care in an era gone by.

How much has prenatal care changed over time?

Prenatal Care Practices: An Era Gone By

"Open wide Mrs. Smith, I need to check your teeth. I don't see any pus but two of your teeth need to be pulled. We can arrange that later. Today we will be doing a blood test called the Wassermann test(a test for syphilis that could also detect TB or lupus). Now that you are pregnant, you may not wear a corset or binder because it causes low birth weight in newborns. I know many young women who have tried to hide their pregnancy by wearing a corset but it is detrimental to the newborn. It needs room to grow. Now I want you to start bathing regularly and try to walk every day. The fresh air and exercise will be good for you and the baby.

Um, any history of epilepsy, alcoholism or rheumatism? No?

Well, then my nurse will be in directly to take the blood and answer any questions."

This may have been what a prenatal visit would have sounded like in the 1920s. The Health Care of the Baby by Louis Fischer M.D. seventeenth edition published in 1929 reveals some captivating facts about prenatal care in the early 1900s. Fischer talks about the importance of looking at the teeth of pregnant women for pus. In our world, oral hygiene is a part of everyday life (or should be).

To think that brushing teeth did not become important until post World War II, about 1945, is hard to imagine. The soldiers brought the practice of routine teeth brushing home after the war. I'm so glad they did!

Prenatal care did not become common practice until the early 1900s so preventative care was a lone venture. Hygiene and hereditary disease were just beginning to make their appearance on the questionnaire for newly pregnant mothers. In the twenty years preceding, nursing was just beginning to gain the professionalism it deserved with the formation of the ANA (American Nurses Association) in 1911.

Among the professionals was Mary D. Osborne, known for promoting maternal and prenatal care in this era which paved the way for the medical field to increase standards for pregnant women. With the focus on prenatal care evolving and the increased involvement of nurses, the expectant mother received better health care and therefore decreased infant mortality.

Prenatal care can start before a woman is pregnant nowadays. She may begin taking prenatal vitamins, stop smoking, begin exercising, or change her diet to make sure she is in the best shape possible for her baby. She can take a test at home and find out very early that she is indeed pregnant. Maternity clothes have changed from loose pleated blouses/dresses to form fitting shirts that proudly display the blossoming belly. Societal views of pregnancy have changed over the last hundred years; unwed mothers are as common as nude pregnancy photos.

Looking back on historical medical practices gives us insight into what patients went through and allows us to reflect on how far we have come.

This is the beginning of a series of "An Era Gone By." Future articles will educate and entertain with the following topics: care of infants, treatment of medical conditions and diseases, public and personal health. These articles will come directly from books of the past meant to educate nurses of that time.

Series Update:

Nursemaids and Common Medical Conditions: An Era Gone By

Disease Transmission and Treatment: An Era Gone By

References

Fischer, Louis, M.D. The Health-Care Of the Baby. 17th ED. Funk & Wagnalls Company: New York, 1929. Print.

Judd, Deborah M. Nursing in the United States From 1900s to the Early 1920s. Web. 30 Dec. 2014.

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24 Comment(s)

LadyFree28, BSN, RN

Specializes in Pediatrics, Rehab, Trauma. Has 10 years experience. 8,427 Posts

Can't wait for the next article!!!

Sounds like the beginning of a great and interesting series.

Guest805836

Guest805836

67 Posts

My mother is a midwife, and she has told me many (literally) old wive's tales about things that have been done in the past to help the baby get born. Notably, in an older book of a country doctor, he answered a call for a birthing mother. Upon performing an examination, checking dilation, etc., he feels something gritty in the woman's vagina. Apparently an old 'knowledgeable' woman placed sugar inside, to lure out the baby ! :D

Red Kryptonite

Red Kryptonite

Specializes in hospice. Has 3 years experience. 2,212 Posts

Oh God....can you imagine the yeast infection?

The human compulsion to meddle with birth is amazing.

Guest805836

Guest805836

67 Posts

Yes, not just with birth, but giving advice to nursing mothers, infant care... I recently read a super interesting book about the representations of procreation and birth during the Baroque period - it was full of pretty funny ideas. Like testing to see if a woman was able to conceive by sitting her on a stool with garlic under her - if you could smell the garlic, that meant her 'tubes' weren't 'clogged' and she should be able to conceive !

Here's to living in the present, eh ?

Red Kryptonite

Red Kryptonite

Specializes in hospice. Has 3 years experience. 2,212 Posts

jitomim said:

Here's to living in the present, eh ?

I'd cheer more if we had learned to support birth instead of mucking it up for the most part..... Frankly we're not much better, we just have better technology. But I'm referring to America and I see you're French. I only hope y'all do it better over there.

PS my sincere condolences for the terrorist attack on your country today. :cry:

Mrs.D.

Mrs.D., BSN

Specializes in Medical cardiology. Has 4 years experience. 132 Posts

Jitomim: What was the name of this book? I love reading about the history of maternity and birth--got any more?

Edited by Mrs.D.
To address Jitomim

No Stars In My Eyes

Specializes in Med nurse in med-surg., float, HH, and PDN. Has 43 years experience. 3,337 Posts

The doc who delivered my mom had come right from other home visits and never washed his hands (1918). My mom's mother ended up with erysipelas, scarlet fever and rheumatic fever. She had chronic illnesses for 12 years and died at the age of 30. Tragic and preventable.

Guest805836

Guest805836

67 Posts

It's in French : "Le mythe de la procréation à l'âge baroque" by Pierre Darmon. I'm afraid I don't know if it has been translated, hope you can find it ! Labor & delivery aren't my specialty, I stumbled upon this book accidentally, it was recommended by a friend of mine, who is a literature & French language teacher ))

Guest805836

Guest805836

67 Posts

There are tons of problems with surmedication of birth in France; birthing only in a hospital/clinic setting, almost no homebirths or birthing centers (and this is the country of Michel Odent!). Thank goodness for the wonderful midwifes who are (usually) on the more 'natural' side of things.

Thank you for your kind words, I'm always kind of shocked when these things happen so close to home. The Merah shootings were not that long ago, it was a difficult time... (that was in my city).

Mrs.D.

Mrs.D., BSN

Specializes in Medical cardiology. Has 4 years experience. 132 Posts

jitomim said:

It's in French : "Le mythe de la procréation à l'âge baroque" by Pierre Darmon. I'm afraid I don't know if it has been translated, hope you can find it ! Labor & delivery aren't my specialty, I stumbled upon this book accidentally, it was recommended by a friend of mine, who is a literature & French language teacher ))

Well thank you for the information anyway. I will look into it. It's not my specialty either, as I am not a nurse  I just have a fascination with maternity through the ages. Merci mon ami!