Giving birth in the ’80s was SCARY


Working for a parenting website means I get to constantly relive all those bad/good pregnancy moments and the toddler wrangling years, find support during tween hell … and freak out about what lies ahead in the teen twilight zone.

Deep breaths, Alana, deep breaths.

In my travels, I stumbled across a story on ivillage yesterday about what it was like to have a baby 30 years ago. I’ve always been freaked out about the idea of squeezing out a baby in the ’60s when my mum birthed me, but I’d always thought the ’80s were pretty civilised. I mean, it was the era of fluoro bubble skirts, spiral perms and Boy George, how could it not be progressive.

But no, labour in the ’80s was terrifying. I am so bloody lucky I didn’t slip up on the birth control and join the ranks of teen mums.

Well, there was this one time I had to go to family planning, but I was supporting a friend. I swear. And I totally don’t remember pregnancy tests being like this:

“Back in the 80s it would mean an appointment with your GP, who might even ask you to wait until you’d missed two periods before they checked. They’d then send a urine sample off to the lab with a further agonising wait for up to 10 days before the results came back.”

Stressful! Especially for a 16-year-old. I much prefer the wee-on-a-stick innovation.

As for actually giving birth:

“Admission to the labour ward is pretty straightforward these days.  You turn up at some point during labour, get straight on with giving birth and no one tells you to take a shower.  In our mums’ time procedures were a little more regimented and no-one was taking any chances when it came to personal hygiene.

“Shaving and enemas (hot soapy water via a rubber tube or at least a pessary) were still routine in some hospitals, and you’d be expected to take a bath or shower before getting down to business.”


I also can’t believe this sort of thing was still happening:

“Before the late 70s most dads were firmly excluded from the delivery room. By the 80s health professionals were beginning to recognise the value of dads being present at the birth, although they would still be asked to leave if any medical procedure was carried out – even minor ones like injections or vaginal examinations.”

And this bit was just BARBARIC:

“Before the early 80s it was standard practice for women to give birth in a hospital bed – flat on their back with their feet in stirrups and strapped firmly to a foetal heart monitor. Giving birth on all fours or squatting was considered to be ‘animalistic behaviour’ and was famously banned by one consultant in a London hospital.”

But at least it was an improvement on how this former nurse describes childbirth in the 60s.

“Highlights” include:

At 1:06: “twilight sleep”, the “knock em out drag em out” technique of drugging the mother with narcotics then removing the baby with forceps.

At 1:13: leather restraints!

At 1:30: stirrups!

At 1:35: the “generous episiotomy”

At 1:45: the obligatory “lower forceps” delivery so the obstetrician could practise his forceps skills.

At 2:15: the “extraordinary use of fundal pressure” with the baby being forced out of the mother by a nurse using her full weight to push on the woman’s belly from under her ribs.

At 2:30: the terrifying mortality rate.

At 3:37: “fluffing up the babies” by frantically pumping oxygen into them.

At 3:56: the “husband stitch” to ensure the baby daddy had “good sex” after birth by sewing up “the vagina really tight so she’d be like a virgin”.


Is she telling the truth? Anyone who birthed bubs in the ’80s or ’60s, please set me straight. 

15 thoughts on “Giving birth in the ’80s was SCARY

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  1. I remember my parents saying my brother was disgusting & ringing his inlaws to aplogise to for his behaviour all coz he wanted to b there when my neice was born in 1980…
    My other sister in law had my nephew the next year & it was standard to b in the room, but the father was gowned & had a mask on – which we all had to do when we visited the baby while in hospital…

  2. My Grandmother delivered my mum in the 50’s (so quite a bit earlier) but she had the “knock em out drag em out” technique. Her doctor was on holidays so the doctors daughter was in training and decided to have a crack at delivering the baby. She decided that my Grandmothers baby was to large for her to deliver and she wouldn’t be able to cope so she knocked her out with gas(?) but didn’t actually ask her first!? They used forceps and Grandma said my Uncle looked like he’d been beaten up, he was so badly bruised. She’s still outraged by the fact that the doctor never asked (or warned) her about what she was about to do. Horrifying!
    I was born in 79 and my sister 81, and my mothers experience was better. But she was still told she needed to deliver on her back and with stirrups.

  3. Why is it that we keep dredging the bad bits of past generations?
    We believe that we are doing soooo much better now…or are we?
    Will our future generations be looking back and saying “How could they allow that to happen to birthing mothers?”
    Give them a break
    Our past generations obviously thought they were doing the right thing with the knowledge they had at the time.
    When compared to birthing before modern medicine, they obviously believed they WERE doing better…in the same way that we believe, our way is soooo much less barbaric now.
    Realistically, birthing in the 60’s, 80’s or even back in the turn of the century was better than birthing in the middle ages. Compare mortality rates from back then and see what comes up.

  4. Alana, my son was born in 1979 and everything you described happened to me – the shaving, enema, stirrups etc. Once you climbed onto that delivery table when you arrived, you didn’t get off it of off your back until the baby was delivered. My son was one of the first babies born at Westmead and they were pretty ‘progressive’. The other thing they did was not to wash the babies for the first five days – just a bit of a wipe over at birth and that was it. So Michael had blood and gunk caked in his hair for five days. You also had to stay a week – no discussion entered into. However, at night all the babies went to the nursery and the nurses would come and wake you to go down to the nursery and feed. At 6.30am each morning, you’d be woken by the clatter of all the cribs as the babies were delivered back to their mothers for the day.

  5. And my stirrups didn’t look like those in your picture. They were high metal poles with vinyl straps attached to them and they lifted your legs up into them so you hung there! Lovely.

  6. When my mum tells me how she gave birth to the five of us during the 60’s and 70’s I always cry at the way she was treated and what she had to go through. I would never have coped. Incredibly, my brother has Downs Syndrome and she wasn’t even told at the hospital! They gave my dad a letter about it and told him to open it in 3 weeks!!!! My birth was apparently good. TRUST.

  7. I gave birth in the U.S. (California) in 1980. Lucky for me that athough the Lamaze method was popular, it was recommended to me to take classes for the Bradley Method. The Bradley Method advocated no drugs for the mother at all and taught how to use relaxation techniques to minimize labor pain for a natural childbirth. It really worked. I was only 19 yrs old and had a perfect, beautiful labor and delivery. The pain was minimal and I was calm and relaxed throughout the whole thing. It’s a shame the Bradley Method wasn’t more popular because it really works. I had a lot of friends who went through Lamaze training but ended up getting an epidural anyway.

    1. I gave birth to 3 children in 1981, 1984 and 1986. 10lbs 10oz, 9 lbs4 Oz, and 9 lbs 1 Oz. We took Lamaze classes and thanks to Lamaze, I was able to deliver all without any medication. That was my hope and plan. My husband was present for all births in the hospital, military hospitals. He cut the cord for the last 2. Everyone I knew delivering then had their spouse with them and the spouses’ presence and involvement were strongly encouraged by the hospital and doctors. Episiotomy with the first because of his size but not with the last 2. I was reading several of these accounts and wonder why my experience was so different from theirs. The 1980s were not much different from now, comparing my daughters’ birth experiences. Only real difference was no episiotomies, their firsts were much smaller, and they had epidurals.

      1. Hi Laurie, thank you for sharing your experience. I am so glad to hear your husband was there and you could deliver naturally. That’s an awesome result.

  8. I can attest to this. I gave birth in 1975. I was 16. My obstetrician was angry with me because I didn’t choose to give my baby to his lawyer friend, so the treatment was even worse. Yes, shave – enema – very angry and rough nurse harassing me for getting pregnant. Delivery started, without speaking a word to me, I was put in wrist restraints and a gas mask with anesthesia(?) was forced over my face. I thought I was dying. My baby came out. Doctor handed it to a nurse, and never spoke to me again or did the rounds. I was forbidden from seeing the baby, though a nurse snuck her in. Most horrific experience of my life, I still have anxiety and other issues, developed them right after leaving the hospital. I marvel at the idea that birth is a positive experience for people now…

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