In our last two posts, The History Of Modern Midwifery, Part One and Part Two, we did what most people would guess we would do if they were to infer a topic from the title — we talked about the history of modern midwifery. Before that, we took a look at ancient and medieval midwifery along with all that era’s peculiarities in this field. If you are interested in midwifery and would like to know more about how our tradition got its beginnings, we encourage you to check out those posts.

But for the purposes of today’s post, we are going to concern ourselves with the last couple of hundred years or so, with specific regards to American midwifery. We’ll cover Native American childbirth customs, nurse-midwifery, Mary Breckinridge and her remarkable intervention to save American midwifery from total annihilation, and much more in today’s post. Read on if such things capture your attention!

A Brief Word On Our Midwifery Services

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, allow us to highlight our midwife services, as we tend to do in the majority of our posts (hey, we are a midwife clinic, and most of our readers are people in need of exactly that!).

Deanna D. Midwifery provides comprehensive women’s health care to women of the Tri-Cities and beyond. These local midwife services include primary care, gynecological care, preconception care, pregnancy checkups, family planning counseling, postpartum care, physical exams, treatment of STIs, and much more.

As you can tell, the midwife services we offer go well beyond mere care for pregnancy and childbirth. However, the two remain cornerstone pieces of our local midwife practice. We partner with Tri-Cities hospitals, private doctors, and local health systems in Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick in order to provide comprehensive birthing care with the support of experienced physicians in the case that complications arise and an intervention is necessary. This gives our patients an extra layer of support, giving them the peace of mind to have a calm, positive birthing experience.

We have a passion for helping our patients by affirming their strength and power by providing comprehensive women’s health care. Deanna D. is a certified Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner whose passion is to empower women to be their own advocate in terms of seeking and receiving the best health care they can get. Learn more about our midwifery!

American Midwifery Beginnings

When most people think of “American” midwives, they probably think that the practice coincided with the many European migrants who crossed the Atlantic Ocean to call North America home. Starting in the late 1500s, there was plenty of that happening, but Native Americans had their own practice of midwifery in a variety of tribes.

Native American Childbirth Customs

While it is difficult to make generalizations about Native American tribes and their customs, some crossover can be observed if we are careful about it. At a bare minimum, we can discuss the practices of individual tribes without making hasty generalizations.

With regards to childbirth and the Mahican and Mohawk tribes, a Dutchman by the name of Adrien Van Der Donck observed the childbirth customs of said tribes, noting that pregnant women would typically endure childbirth in a solitary way. They would go off on their own near a stream of water, preparing a shelter for themselves with a cover and a mat. Then they would wait, with no access to outside help if something were to go wrong. There are reports of similar customs happening in other tribes, but because most of these accounts were reported by men, and men had access to such an event, it’s difficult to say if this is accurate or something more akin to folklore or stereotype.

Moving right along, the Cherokees had special dietary practices during pregnancies because they believed that certain kinds of food might adversely impact the fetus’ health. Some even held the belief that eating certain types of food might promote or cause specific physical characteristics. An example of this would be that eating a raccoon might cause the baby to get sick or even pass away, while eating trout might promote birthmarks and eating black walnuts might cause the baby to develop a large nose. Other beliefs the Cherokees maintained included the notion that wearing a neckerchief might cause umbilical strangulation to occur. As you might imagine, the beliefs that so specific behaviors caused equally specific birthing events to occur led many to participate in a variety of ritualistic practices in order to improve the likelihood of a safe birth. Such rituals included daily washing feet and hands along with the contracting of medicine men to perform spiritual rites for the same purpose.  

Perhaps the most intriguing practice the Cherokees were observed performing was the ritual observed by anthropologist James Mooney in the 1800s. He recorded seeing a Cherokee ritual that involved scaring the baby out of the womb. A female relative of the mother said something to the effect of “Get up now little man. Here comes an old woman, and the terrible old woman is soon approaching. Get your bed and let us run away!” After this, the woman would say the same things but would replace the “old woman coming” with a grandfather or a little woman — something we might refer to as a “shotgun approach” of sorts.

There is more we could say about this period, but the above notes were some of the most interesting customs we happened upon during our research!

Midwifery Of European Migrants In America

Because the settlements that would become colonies that would become the United States of America still probably qualified as the “Wild West,” there existed very little in terms of regulation, education, or standardization within the medical field as a whole. This meant that for a very long time, midwifery and medical laws were local, as opposed to the British Isles and Europe where midwifery laws were nationally based. And while medicine wasn’t “professionalized” until the middle of the 19th-century, there existed a competition between midwives and physicians that lasted until the beginning of the 20th-century.

At that point, midwifery almost became extinct in the United States. This occurred in no-small-part because of the world of science (and by extension, medicine) saw such advances in the studies of infectious diseases and antiseptic understanding. The upgrade in general care, hygiene, pharmacology, and obstetrics meant that the formal introduction of these advances was only applied to one group, with midwifery being left out in the cold.

Why? In large part, this was because midwifery was an informal, non-standardized practice which had localized cells rather than uniformity. As such, midwives did not receive access to modern advances and their results began to suffer when compared with the success of modern medicine coupled with Joseph Lister’s antiseptic breakthrough.

In 1915, around 40 percent of all American births were performed by midwives. Twenty years later, that percentage dwindled to 11 percent. Over half of that 11 percent were non-white folk, whom in large part did not have access to modern medicine.

Tune In For Part Two

Check back with us soon for part two, in which we’ll highlight Mary Breckinridge’s contribution to saving American midwifery, along with taking a look at how far the practice has come in the last 100 years or so.

In the meantime, reach out to our prenatal care clinic today to schedule your appointment with Deanna D!