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What having a baby was like the year you were born

  • What having a baby was like the year you were born

    Having a baby might seem like a relatively straightforward proposition—simple, if far from easy. Get pregnant, wait nine months, go into labor, and emerge from the process with a brand new human to care for.

    But in reality, there’s so much more to it than that. The societal practices surrounding childbirth have changed radically over the last hundred years alone. Some of the biggest changes include increased access to family planning services, the ways expectant mothers care for themselves and their unborn children, and how and where babies are born.

    Medical advances like in-vitro fertilization have also enabled women who have difficulty conceiving naturally to join the world’s ranks of mothers. The average age of mothers in the United States has been creeping ever upward in recent decades, thanks in part to these advances and in part to changing social attitudes about women in the workforce and marriage. These stats are no-doubt encouraging to women who wish to start a family only after they’ve settled with a partner in a stable career. The timeframe for procreation has widened over the years, and the current world record-setter for natural birth is a woman who had a child at age 57.

    Once pregnant, women are faced with medical options for delivery, and they often struggle with the decision to take advantage of pain relief or to deliver their children “naturally.” Early in the century, drugs that knocked women out for the course of their delivery were wildly popular but later led many women to complain that they could hardly remember giving birth at all. Later on in the century, many women began opting for C-sections.

    In response, some midwives, doulas, and other natural birth proponents began advocating for a return to traditional methods of giving birth, free of much medical intervention, and instead relying on age-old tricks like gravity to ease the pain of childbirth. Their suggestions made them plenty of enemies, but also found proponents within the typical Western medical model.

    To explore what having a baby was like in every year of the past century, Stacker compiled Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on birth rates, infant mortality, and life expectancy, as well as Social Security Administration data on historical baby name popularity. Stacker also included the fertility rate and the crude birth rates⁠—meaning the total number live births per 1,000 women between 15 and 44, and the number of live births per 1,000 of the general population, respectively.

    Click through for a look at what having a baby was like during each year of the past century.

    You may also like: What marriage was like the year you were born

  • 1919: The Spanish flu impacts fertility

    - Total births: 2.74 million (fertility rate: 111.2 births per 1,000 women; crude birth rate: 26.1 births per 1,000 women)
    - Infant mortality rate: 86.6 deaths per 1,000 live births
    - Average life expectancy at birth: 54.7
    - Most popular baby names: Boys: John, William, James; Girls: Mary, Helen, Dorothy

    The Spanish flu that swept the globe in 1918 and 1919 had two interesting effects on fertility. In the short term, the pandemic caused birth rates to decline simply because so many women of childbearing age were dying from the flu. But once the pandemic had paused, birth rates rose, which is consistent with other studies showing an increase in birth rates following a natural disaster.

  • 1920: A revolution in childbirth

    - Total births: 2.95 million (fertility rate: 117.9 births per 1,000 women; crude birth rate: 27.7 births per 1,000 women)
    - Infant mortality rate: 85.8 deaths per 1,000 live births
    - Average life expectancy at birth: 54.1
    - Most popular baby names: Boys: John, William, Robert; Girls: Mary, Dorothy, Helen

    Childbirth underwent profound transformations in the 1920s. The decade would see the process of giving birth shifted from one that was almost always “natural” to one in which doctors both offered and recommended that women use a range of interventions, from ether to forceps.

  • 1921: 'Twilight sleep' makes it into the encyclopedia

    - Total births: 3.06 million (fertility rate: 119.8 births per 1,000 women; crude birth rate: 28.1 births per 1,000 women)
    - Infant mortality rate: 75.6 deaths per 1,000 live births
    - Average life expectancy at birth: 60.8
    - Most popular baby names: Boys: John, Robert, William; Girls: Mary, Dorothy, Helen

    “Twilight sleep” had been popular in Europe for about 20 years when anesthetic doctors began using it to help women forget the pain of childbirth in the United States. In 1921, its place in society was cemented with inclusion in that year’s “Collier’s New Encyclopedia.”

  • 1922: The DeLee-Hillis stethoscope is born

    - Total births: 2.88 million (fertility rate: 111.2 births per 1,000 women; crude birth rate: 26.2 births per 1,000 women)
    - Infant mortality rate: 76.2 deaths per 1,000 live births
    - Average life expectancy at birth: 59.6
    - Most popular baby names: Boys: John, Robert, William; Girls: Mary, Dorothy, Helen

    Dr. Joseph DeLee was the author of one of the most popular obstetric textbooks in the 1920s, and in 1922, he published a report on a device he claimed to have been working on for several years—the head stethoscope. A colleague, David Hillis, claimed to have also invented the stethoscope, so the device, which is still used today, is frequently known as the DeLee-Hillis stethoscope.

  • 1923: A famous composer dies in childbirth

    - Total births: 2.91 million (fertility rate: 110.5 births per 1,000 women; crude birth rate: 26 births per 1,000 women)
    - Infant mortality rate: 77.1 deaths per 1,000 live births
    - Average life expectancy at birth: 57.2
    - Most popular baby names: Boys: John, Robert, William; Girls: Mary, Dorothy, Helen

    One of the most famous composers of the 1920s, Dora Pejacevic, died of complications from childbirth in 1923. Pajacevic was 37 when she died, which was—especially at the time—a relatively late age at which to give birth.

  • 1924: Early contraceptive measures

    - Total births: 2.98 million (fertility rate: 110.9 births per 1,000 women; crude birth rate: 26.1 births per 1,000 women)
    - Infant mortality rate: 70.8 deaths per 1,000 live births
    - Average life expectancy at birth: 59.7
    - Most popular baby names: Boys: Robert, John, William; Girls: Mary, Dorothy, Helen

    An episode of the television show “Downton Abbey” in which one of the characters purchases birth control for another set off a flurry of research into what kind of birth control would have been available to women in England in 1924. While condoms were the most widely used form of birth control at the time, a version of a cervical cap might have also been available—along with a sponge or a diaphragm.

  • 1925: The frontier nursing service is founded

    - Total births: 2.91 million (fertility rate: 106.6 births per 1,000 women; crude birth rate: 25.1 births per 1,000 women)
    - Infant mortality rate: 71.7 deaths per 1,000 live births
    - Average life expectancy at birth: 59
    - Most popular baby names: Boys: Robert, John, William; Girls: Mary, Dorothy, Betty

    Mary Breckinridge started one of the first midwifery schools in America with the founding of the Frontier Nursing Service in Hyden, Ky., in 1925. The rural location was due to the original primary purpose of midwifery in the United States—to provide an alternative for women who lived far from hospitals and who could not afford costly home doctor visits.

  • 1926: A queen is born

    - Total births: 2.84 million (fertility rate: 102.6 births per 1,000 women; crude birth rate: 24.2 births per 1,000 women)
    - Infant mortality rate: 73.3 deaths per 1,000 live births
    - Average life expectancy at birth: 56.7
    - Most popular baby names: Boys: Robert, John, James; Girls: Mary, Dorothy, Betty

    Few single births make as big a cultural impact as royalty. And the British public had just such a birth to commemorate in 1926, when the future Queen of England, Elizabeth II, was born to her mother, the Duchess of York, in London.

  • 1927: Testing for pregnancy hormones

    - Total births: 2.80 million (fertility rate: 99.8 births per 1,000 women; crude birth rate: 23.5 births per 1,000 women)
    - Infant mortality rate: 64.6 deaths per 1,000 live births
    - Average life expectancy at birth: 60.4
    - Most popular baby names: Boys: Robert, John, James; Girls: Mary, Dorothy, Betty

    In 1927, a breakthrough in pregnancy detection occurred when scientists discovered that they could test for chemical indicators a woman was pregnant before she missed a period or began to show. Scientists injected a pregnant woman’s urine into rats and discovered that the rats would go into heat. Thus, the pregnancy hormone, HGT, was discovered.

  • 1928: The National Birthday Trust Fund begins advocating

    - Total births: 2.67 million (fertility rate: 93.8 births per 1,000 women; crude birth rate: 22.2 births per 1,000 women)
    - Infant mortality rate: 68.7 deaths per 1,000 live births
    - Average life expectancy at birth: 56.8
    - Most popular baby names: Boys: Robert, John, James; Girls: Mary, Betty, Dorothy

    The charmingly named National Birthday Trust Fund was established in the United Kingdom in 1928 with the aim of improving the lives of women, including pregnancy and childbirth. Several years later, one of the most prominent members accidentally divulged on a radio program that she wanted to help alleviate the pain of childbirth, unleashing significant blowback.

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