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The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as an older child

Pregnancy and childbirth
in 1960s Britain

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In the 1960s pregnancy and childbirth were not like they are today, and they were different again from in earlier times.


Pregnancy testing: how to confirm pregnancy

Although some doctors did give a likely confirmation by feeling for small differences in a woman's stomach from an external examination, this was unusual. For me, an appointment was simply made for me to attend the local hospital to get myself registered as an expectant mother.

There was no pregnancy test in the 1960s - at least not for ordinary women. If a period was missed, a woman wondered, and if a second period was missed, she went to her local GP. He - yes - it always seemed to be a male doctor - didn't conduct a test either.

The hospital didn't do any tests, either. The staff there just worked on the assumption that because a woman was there, she must be pregnant. They just got her into the system, as, after all, she could easily be removed from it later if she turned out not to be pregnant. The 'system' involved taking blood pressure and giving out nutritional advice. I can't remember if there was a blood test, but I don't think there was. The woman was also allocated a pre-natal clinic which would monitor progress and run antenatal classes. I seem to remember that iron pills were subscribed, but I can't be sure.

So the understanding that a pregnancy was real dawned slowly. Morning sickness was an early sign. Not that it was necessarily in the morning and it could be an aversion to particular foods rather than actual sickness. I went off coffee; other women went off tea and others fancied large quantities of unusual foods.

Soon of course an expanding stomach gave the final confirmation, and women threw themselves into preparation for having a baby.

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Antenatal classes and natural childbirth

I dutifully went along to antenatal classes.

In general the talks told me what I am sure that most of us knew. They were also rather patronising, with, for example, various foodstuffs being discussed as felt pictures of them were stuck onto a felt board. I do of course appreciate that the talks must have been better in some areas than in others.

There was a great emphasis on what was called 'natural childbirth' which was a form of relaxation supposed to counter the pain of childbirth, and a lot of time was spent in the classes practising it. I believed in it totally, probably because as a young woman, I had never experienced real pain and I was confident that so many experts couldn't be wrong in propounding it. I practised it daily at home. In the event, for me at least, I felt that it had been a huge con, as I had never experienced so much pain before or since. Presumably some women benefited.

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Care at the birth

Husbands were absolutely never allowed at births.

Pain relief was with something called 'gas and air'. Epidurals were decades away. A woman breathed through a mask and supposedly this removed or minimised the pain. Whether or not it did, I cannot say because I have nothing to compare with. I can only repeat that the whole experience was intensely painful for me. Some of my contemporaries, though, told me that they did find gas and air helpful.

It was normal practice at the time for first babies to be born in hospital and for all new mothers and their babies to stay in hospital for 10 days to fortnight after the birth. To me, this seemed an unnecessarily long time. I yearned to get out and be back at home.

It was also normal practice for all further babies to be born at home unless there had been any complications with the first birth. So my second baby was born at home under the care of a local midwife who had to be alerted from a public phone a few streets away. She arrived with a portable 'gas and air' machine, and I was up and about that same afternoon.

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Care after the birth

The care after a birth was good with a midwife calling in regularly at the house to check on things. I can't remember how frequently she came or for how long after the birth. When her visits ceased, mothers and their babies were put into the care of a local clinic. Presumably advice was available there, but my experience was primarily of wasting time waiting around just to have babies weighed. I did, though, meet other mothers who have remained good friends.

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Childbirth before the 1960s: a comparison

According to Wikipedia:

It was not until 1961 that the first paper was published describing the administration of a pre-mixed 50:50 nitrous oxide and oxygen mix, which led to the commercialisation of the [gas and air] product.

Certainly by 1965 when I had my first baby, the use of 'gas and air' was commonplace in childbirth. Before then, for ordinary women, there was no pain relief in childbirth and it was a dangerous business for both mothers and babies.

In 1906 my mother was born at a family home. I don't know the details but gather that a midwife could have been called - and had to be paid for - if the birth seemed to be causing excessive problems, but that the main care and support came from older women in the family. There was no pain relief.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

By 1939 things had changed somewhat as my mother did have me in hospital, but there was still no pain relief. Having a baby in hospital was very expensive too - as my father frequently reminded me - because the National Health Service did not come into existence until 1948.

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.