They did what? 7 fascinating facts about birth through history

When you stop and think about it the entire process of pregnancy and birth, and everything that comes with it, is pretty mind-boggling. I mean really—who grows in your what and comes out of where? Whoa.

But looking back at the history of birth is even more fascinating.

Take a look at these facts, and then let us all collectively thank the stars we were born when we were.

1. Pregnancy tests have been around for a long time

The first urine-based pregnancy test was recorded in Ancient Egypt in 1350 B.C.—more than 3000 years ago. A woman would urinate on barley and wheat seeds for a few days, and if they grew it meant she was pregnant. If barley grew, she was pregnant with a boy, and if wheat grew she was pregnant with a girl.

And get this—the Office of NIH History reports that in 1963 this was tested...and found to be true 70% of the time (just the pregnancy test part, not the gender reveal)!

In the 1550’s, people known as, wait for it... “piss prophets” claimed they could look at a woman’s urine and determine if she was pregnant.

The concept of hormones was discovered in the 1890s, and in the 1920s the pregnancy hormone HCG was detected. In 1927, scientists would inject a woman’s urine into an immature rat or mouse—if she was pregnant, the rodent would become in heat.

2. Gender selection

Until fairly recently, people believed that a baby’s gender was determined at birth (not at conception). So as you can imagine, many theories have existed regarding how to control the baby’s sex.

For example, women were encouraged to stay in bed for the weeks leading up to birth to improve their odds of having a boy.

In 1059, Dr. Trotula wrote, “If they wish to have a male child let the man take the womb and vulva of a hare and have it dried and pulverized. Blend it with wine and let him drink it.  Let the woman do the same with the testicles of the hare and let her be with her husband at the end of her menstrual period, and she will conceive a male.”

Aristotle introduced the theory that girl babies were the result of abnormalities—boys were superior, so when a girl was born, it was because something had gone wrong. He also believed that one was more likely to have a boy if sex occurred when the winds were blowing north and not south and that men with “thicker” sperm were more likely to produce males.

In the 1700s, it was believed that a man’s right testicle and a woman’s right ovary were responsible for making boy babies—so people sometimes had their left testicle or ovary removed.

3. The first baby showers

Before giving birth, a royal woman would receive a blessing and be paraded through the streets as the public wished her well. She then spent about a month confined to her bedroom, a period known as lying-in. Her chambers were covered with tapestries and made dark and warm to replicate the environment of the uterus. Regular women did retreat from the public as well, though they usually had to find other work to do until the moment they gave birth.

BTW, she wasn’t allowed to return to society until six weeks after the baby—because she was too dirty, both physically and morally. She, therefore, missed her baby’s christening.

4. When royalty gave birth, it was a public event.

In The Raven Report, Jennifer Jeffers writes, “The birth of a monarch was not just any old day—it was a political event that could have deep implications for an entire nation... As such, it was not regarded as a private affair, but rather as a moment of significant public concern... As a future ruler, the offspring belonged more to the people than to the queen herself. And as a result, she gave birth in front of many spectators, all of whom watched the process carefully to confirm the sex and health of the baby… and to avoid any foul play.”

When Marie Antoinette gave birth in 1778, two-hundred people were in attendance—that is not a typo. 2-0-0. It is rumored that the overwhelm of that experience caused her to faint during her birth. I am almost fainting just writing about it so, yeah—I believe it.

5. Pain relief

The pain of childbirth was believed to be a result of Eve’s transgressions in the Garden of Eden. The Bible reads, “I will multiply your pains in childbirth. You shall give birth to your children in pain.”

An English will from 1508 indicates that women wore girdles stitched with silver and jasmine to help relieve the discomfort of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth. Women held religious items during birth, put amber and other stones on their bodies, and wrapped themselves in special cloths to diminish the pain.

When Queen Victoria gave birth to her 6th child, Prince Leopold, in 1853, she inhaled chloroform from a kerchief for pain relief. She later wrote of the experience stating, “that blessed Chloroform...soothing, quieting and delightful beyond measure,” and thus began the universal desire for pain medications during labor. Chloroform was also widely used during medical procedures such as amputations. Cocaine was also used for labor pain medication.

Until the mid-1800’s, women drank caudle, a mixture of alcohol and oatmeal (sometimes flavored with cayenne or nutmeg) while in labor. It’s reasoned that this was partially to do with pain management and postpartum recovery, and partially to do with preventing infection—more on that in a minute.

Women might also bake a cake while they were in labor called a groaning cake—the smell of the cake, along with the work of baking it, was thought to ease the discomfort of labor.

6. Midwives

The history of midwives will have to be its own article entirely. But here are a few little nuggets to leave you with:

Midwives have been around forever. They are, for example, in the Bible. A midwife attended Jesus’s birth, and in ancient Egypt, midwives were told by the Pharaoh, “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him. But if it is a daughter, she shall live.”

Midwives, in fact, attended all births—doctors were almost never present. Birth was considered just for women, and men did not start attending births until the 1800s. Even then, they were instructed not to look at the women they were caring for.

When a midwife attended the birth of a royal or well-to-do person, she had to take an oath that she would not steal the placenta or umbilical cord, and use it for witchcraft.

7. Death—and a major improvement

The sad truth is that many, many women died during childbirth—as many as 1 in 34. Women often made wills before going to labor, because the chance of mortality was so high.

Midwives often performed baptisms because the rate of infant mortality was so high, they wanted to ensure the babies were baptized immediately. Cesarean sections were performed, but only after a mother had died with the hope of saving the baby.

In the 18th and 19th century, women were dying of Puerparel Fever, or childbed fever, in large numbers—women who got the infection had an estimated fatality rate of up to 80%. The reason behind this is, well, upsetting—so maybe don’t read this next part while you’re eating lunch.


During this period, while many women were still giving birth at home, some women started giving birth in hospitals. Their births were attended by doctors, who didn’t start to specialize in various fields of medicine until the 1850’s. This meant they did everything—including surgeries, autopsies on cadavers, and delivering babies. Without washing their hands in between.

In 1846 Dr. Ignaz Semmelweism made this discovery and announced it from the rooftops—but no one listened (and eventually, he was fired). It wasn’t until 1875 when instrument sterilization and routine hand washing was common-place in hospitals.

So, to our great many ancestors who paved the way for us to have markedly improved birth conditions, thank you. Now please excuse me. Writing this really makes me need a glass of caudle.

In This Article

    An expectant mama's to-do list can feel endless… but here's the good news: A lot of those tasks are actually really exciting. Planning your baby registry is especially thrilling: You get a say in what gifts friends and family members will buy for your new addition!

    But it can also feel a bit overwhelming to make sense of all the gear on the market. That's why we suggest mentally dividing your registry into two categories: items you need to prepare for your baby's arrival and items that sure would be nice to have.

    Here at Motherly, our editors have dozens of kids and years of parenting experience among us, so we know our way around the essentials. We also know how mama-friendly the registry-building experience is with Target, especially thanks to their recently upgraded registry and introduction of Year of Benefits. Just by creating your baby registry with Target, you'll snag a kit with $120 in discounts and samples. The savings keep coming: You'll also get two 15% off coupons to buy unpurchased items from your registry for up to a year after your baby's expected arrival. Change your mind about anything? The Year of Benefits allows for returns or exchanges for a full year. And as of August 2020, those who also sign up for Target Circle when creating a baby registry will also get the retailer's Year of Exclusive Deals, which includes ongoing discounts on baby essentials for a full year.

    Here are 10 items we agree deserve a spot in the "need" category on your registry, mama.

    A crib to grow with your baby

    Delta Children Farmhouse 6-in-1 Convertible Crib

    First-time mamas are likely creating nursery spaces for the first time, and that can get expensive. Adding a quality crib to Target registry gives friends and family members the option to join forces to make a large purchase through group gifting.


    A safe + convenient car seat

    Safety 1st OnBoard 35 LT Infant Car Seat

    The list of non-negotiable baby essentials is pretty short, but it definitely includes a car seat. In fact, most hospitals will not allow you to leave after delivery until a car seat check is performed. We recommend an infant seat, which can easily snap into a base in your car.


    A traveling nursery station

    Baby Trend Lil Snooze Deluxe II Nursery Center

    It's hard to beat a good playard when it comes to longevity. This item can be baby's sleeping place when they're sharing a room with you for the first months. Down the line, it can function as a roving diaper change station. And when you travel, it makes a great safe space for your little one to sleep and play.


    A swing for some backup help

    4moms mamaRoo 4 Bluetooth Enabled High-Tech Baby Swing - Classic

    A dependable swing can be a real lifesaver for new parents when they need their hands free (or just a minute to themselves). Because many babies are opinionated about these things, we appreciate that the mamaRoo has multiple modes of motion and soothing sounds.


    An easy-to-clean high chair

    Ingenuity SmartClean Trio Elite 3-in-1 High Chair - Slate

    Our best registry advice? Think ahead. It really won't be long before your child is ready for those first bites of solid food, at which point you'll need a high chair. We like one that transitions to a booster seat atop an existing dining room chair.


    A diaper bag to share

    Eddie Bauer Backpack - Gray/Tan

    When you're a mom, you're usually toting diapers, wipes, clothing changes, bottles, snacks, toys and more. You need a great bag to stash it all, and if you're anything like us, you'll choose a backpack style for comfort and functionality. Bonus: This gender neutral option can easily be passed off to your partner.


    A hygienic spot for all those diaper changes

    Munchkin Secure Grip Waterproof Diaper Changing Pad 16X31"

    We can confidently predict there will be a lot of diaper changes in your future. Do yourself a favor by registering for two comfortable, wipeable changing pads: one to keep in the nursery and another to stash elsewhere in your house.


    A way to keep an eye on your baby at night

    Infant Optics Video Baby Monitor DXR-8

    Feeling peace of mind while your baby sleeps in another room truly is priceless.That's why we advocate for a quality video monitor that will allow you to keep tabs on your snoozing sweetheart.


    A comfortable carrier to free up your hands

    Petunia Pickle Bottom for Moby Wrap Baby Carrier, Strolling in Salvador

    A wrap carrier may be about as low-tech as baby items come, but trust us, this product stands the test of time. Great for use around the house or while running errands, this is one item you'll appreciate so much.


    A full set of bottles + cleaning supplies

    Dr. Brown's Options+ Complete Baby Bottle Gift Set

    Whether you plan to work in an office or stay at home, breastfeed or formula feed, bottles are a valuable tool. To make your life as simple as possible, it's nice to have an easy-to-clean set that is designed to work through the first year.


    Target's baby registry is easy to create from the comfort of your own home. Start your Target baby registry now and enjoy shopping with the Year of Benefits featuring exclusive deals available via Target Circle, two 15% off coupons, a year of hassle-free returns, a free welcome kit and more!

    This article was sponsored by Target. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

    Our Partners
    Sunday Citizen

    I live in the Northeast and when I woke up this morning, my house was freezing. It had been in the mid 40's overnight and we haven't turned the heat on yet. Suddenly, my normal duvet felt too thin. The socks on my bare feet too non-existent. Winter is coming, and I'd been drinking rosés still pretending it was summer.

    I couldn't put it off any longer. It was time to do my annual tradition of winterizing my home—and I don't mean making sure my pipes and walls have enough insulation (though obviously that's important too). I mean the act of evaluating every room and wondering if it has enough hygge to it.

    If you've never heard of hygge, it's a Danish word that means a quality of coziness or contentment. And what better time to make sure you have moments of hygge all throughout your house than right now? As far as I'm concerned it's the only way to get through these dark winter months (even more so during a pandemic.)

    So I went room by room (yes, even my 4-year-old's room) and swapped in, layered or added in these 13 products to get us ready for winter:

    Keep reading Show less

    Cameron Diaz on having a baby at 47: 'You really have to work hard for it'

    "The only pressure for me now is I have to live to be, like, 107, you know? No pressure!"

    This is the decade that saw the face of first-time motherhood change. The number of first-time mamas under 30 is shrinking, while more and more women are becoming moms after 40.

    Cameron Diaz is one of them. The actress and businesswoman, now 48, became a mom in January at the age of 47. In a new episode of Naomi Campbell's YouTube series, No Filter, Diaz opens up about what it's like to become a mom in your fourth decade.

    "A lot of people do it the other way around ... they get married [and] have a family in their youth," says Diaz."I'm kind of doing it in the second half of my life."

    Keep reading Show less