People Are Just Realising The (Infuriating) Reason Why Women Give Birth On Their Backs

A real royal pain.
A boy and the sea via Getty Images

In this week’s instalment of what-the-actual-fuck, we found out the real reason why women give birth on their backs. And, trust me, it’s enough to make your blood boil.

In film and TV, we see it all the time. Woman on back, legs akimbo, with some kind of modesty blanket placed over their lower third and dewy beads of sweat sprinkled across their forehead. But this idealised view of birth hasn’t always been the case.

It’s safe to say that in medieval times, birth looked very different. Often, women would be in an upright position – standing, kneeling or sitting on a birthing stool allowing the sacrum (the spinal bit just above your tailbone) and coccyx (your tailbone) to move and flex.

This allowed the body to create more space in the pelvis for the baby to be born.

Conversely, lying flat on your back while giving birth restricts this movement, which means the baby has to fight and push its way out uphill and against gravity.

According to Better Birth, women relied on instinct before adopting this new technique. They would sit in upright positions while midwives in attendance would sit near the floor and watch the baby being born. And this worked. For thousands of years.

So, whose bright idea was it to put women on their backs during birth?

To find the culprit we have to go back a few centuries, way back to the ruling time of the King of France, Louis XIV, reign, as it wasn’t until the 1700s that this “fashionable” (yuck) style of birthing swept the Western world.

According to a study in the American Journal of Public Health by Lauren Dundes, scholars have said King Louis had a ‘preoccupation’ with obstetrics and an apparent perverted fascination with watching his wife and mistresses give birth to his children, of whom he sired 22 in his 76-year lifetime.

Vintage illustration Louis XVI was the last King of France before the fall of the monarchy during the French Revolution
duncan1890 via Getty Images
Vintage illustration Louis XVI was the last King of France before the fall of the monarchy during the French Revolution

He apparently ordered his mistresses and wife to give birth on their backs so he could get a good view of what was happening. And because of the influence of the royals, its thought that as soon as the world outside the palace walls heard how they gave birth, lying on their backs to give birth became the norm.

Even now, when we think about giving birth, I’m sure the image of a woman laying on her back is initially what springs to mind. However, the narrative could be shifting thanks to reality TV shows like One Born Every Minute, which captures the nature of childbirth in a raw manner.

The truth is that there are several ways to give birth.

Better Birth says: “Just because there’s a bed, we don’t have to get on it, and there is a multitude of other positions we can use throughout labour both for comfort and to facilitate the progression of labour. Upright, forward and open positions are the most optimal.”

This is backed by the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), which recommends the use of active and upright positions to assist with labour and birth. Which, funnily enough, is what women were pretty much doing before King Louis apparently got involved.

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