So, readers, I turned 70 last week. I hadn’t been one bit excited about it as I feel the pandemic prevented me from having a normal year when I was 69. As it turned out, two days before my birthday was officially the country’s second easing of lockdown no. 3. It was a great week to have a birthday as I was able to see some family members I hadn’t seen since before March 2020.
My birthday led me to think, as it often does, of the tales my mum used to tell me about the times when I, my brother and sister were born.
At the turn of the century, birth at home was the normal. Within 50 years, the majority of women had hospital births. Maternity hospitals or homes were usually independent from general hospitals. Men were never with their wives through labour and definitely weren’t present for the delivery.
Bottle feeding started to become popular in the late 40s and by the time I was born women were actively encourage to choose bottle over breast. Years later when my mum saw her grandchildren being breastfed she bitterly regretted not having been encouraged to do it.
Back in the 1950s women stayed in hospital for a period from eight days to two weeks after giving birth. My mum used to tell of being in the maternity hospital for two weeks after each of us. This was all very well when it was a first baby but when were other children to care for, and the father had to work, it was a problem. I was three and a half when my sister was born. My brother (two years old) and I were driven to our grandparents in a different town to stay for the two weeks my mum was in the hospital.
Once born, babies were looked after in the nursery and only handed to their mothers when it was time to be fed. If your baby was unsettled in between feeds you didn’t know about it. Feeding was strictly timed. The routine for newborns and for the first few months was a feed every four hours, at precisely 10.00 am, 2.00 pm, 6.00 pm, 10.00 pm, 2.00 am, 6.00 am. Night feeds were given by nursing staff in the nursery so that the new mum could get her sleep. I remember my mum telling of nursing staff walking down the central aisle of the maternity ward with a large trolley containing babies, handing them out and announcing “Feeding time, mummies!”
Before being discharged, the mothers were taught how to bath their new babies. The system then was to fill the baby bath, test the temperature with your elbow, soap the baby all over, then lower it into the water. The first time my mum did this with me after returning home, she soaped me all over then lowered me towards the water. I wriggled and I was so slippery from the soap that I slipped out of her hands and landed face down in the water. My mum thought she’d killed me and had to shout for my dad to come.
As well as being instructed to feed to a strict schedule, new mothers were told to put their babies outside in their prams in all weathers to benefit from the fresh air. They were also told that crying was good for their babies and exercised their lungs. When they were outside, the mums couldn’t hear them crying. They would bring them in to be fed and changed at the exact times dictated by the nurses at the hospital and by the district nurses who visited the home afterwards.
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