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Going back in time : Twilight Sleep

In the past two weeks, I have seen several postings in various forums, blogs, and on birth related news sites about the show Mad Men which depicted the shows character Betty Draper giving birth to her third child with something called “twilight sleep” which unfortunately was very common during this period of time.  A great description of the episode itself was from Science and Sensibility writer, Amy Romano :

Last week, the main character’s wife, Betty Draper, gave birth to her third child. While her husband, Don, sits in the waiting room drinking scotch with another nervous expectant dad, Betty is subjected to 1960’s “standard of care” obstetrics. Left alone in a labor room, she is shaved, given an enema, and then receives the crown jewel of her modern childbirth experience: medications to induce twilight sleep, which also induce a mad stupor and land Betty in restraints because of her erratic, combative behavior. As a midwife and a mother, the most difficult part for me to watch was when Betty awoke from her stupor, swaddled baby in arms, with no memory of the experience. You can watch all of the birth-related clips from the show at Jezebel.

But why don’t we take a closer look at the way some of our mothers, and grandmothers gave birth with this drug called “twilight sleep”. In reality it was not a sleep at all, it was a combination of morphine and scopolamine , not only did it aid in taking away the pain of childbirth for the mother, but it also took away a mothers memory of the event as a whole, while also taking away her self control. Because of the loss of control women were often tied to beds for not only their own safety, but for the safety of the hospital staff, but they made sure to use soft materials like lambs wool that would not leave marks on the arms and legs of these women, because then their husbands (who mind you were not allowed into the delivery room) would question what the hospital did to their wife.  But mom’s were not the only ones who suffered from this drug, it also had an impact on the infant, as do many pain relief drugs still used today. Babies born to mothers who had twilight sleep often suffered from

One of the rare pictures of twilight sleep births.

One of the rare pictures of twilight sleep births.

Moreover, the drugs had depressive effects on the central nervous system of the infant.[2] This resulted in a drowsy newborn with poor breathing capacity.

This drug combination known as “twilight sleep” came to replace the use of chloroform as a method of pain relief during childbirth. But who in their right mind would have wanted to be subject to the use of chloroform while in labor?  EEEK!

While we have made strides in pain relief during childbirth, we are still seriously lacking and it makes me question how much better off we are from the days of twilight sleep.Back then there were less interventions, less inductions, less cesarean sections. Our cesarean section rate has increased for 11 years in a row, and it shows no sign of slowing down.

But going back to Betty, Sarah Seltzer on RH Reality Check also wrote a great piece and she included some great points about gender roles during this time period.

Incidentally, as several feminist bloggers have pointed out, the fact that Don and the other expectant fathers were always relegated to the waiting room was ostensibly because of gender roles or social customs. But this practice conveniently meant that women had no one to witness the awful side effects of procedure, or demand that it stop. So “Twilight Sleep” remained “the thing to do.”

Another great quote from her article includes a great quote from British Author Grantly Dick-Read :

British author of “Childbirth Without Fear” to speak to American women. “His premise was that women could have babies without going through the horrors of twilight sleep,  screaming and writhing in pain,” says Corry. “He felt women need to be educated and they could deal and cope with childbirth if trained to do so.”

Backlash started shortly after women really started to put two and two together and realize they had no memory of their child being born, which was the beginning of the end of the twilight sleep days, but not before thousands of women were victimized like Betty Draper was, which was not until the late 1960’s or early 1970’s.  While her experience may have been a television episode used for ratings, the most unsettling part is that this actually happened, some less dramatic and some far more traumatizing, and just like we think today that all our strides in medical technology are fantastic, in another 50 years we will be looking back thinking….

“Wow, I can’t believe we let doctors and hospitals do that to us”

Just like the women of the twilight sleep era do today.

Danielle Elwood

4 Responses

  1. elwood says:

    There really is not a function for it, but many would do it because it was nicer to look at or actually more pleasant for the doctor.
    But more information shows that with shaving, it is easier to get some kind of infection, along with waxing.

  2. jenny morand says:

    What is the function of the shaving?

  3. RJ says:

    It is interesting too, that in the cases of chloroform, twilight sleep, maternity x-rays, thalidomide, and even more modern meds like cytotec, it was only well after the fact, after so much damage had been done that these practices were stopped. What will we find out 20 years from now, about the effects of epidural anesthesia on 80+% of the population?

    My father taught me when I was a kid to use “the right tool for the right job.” Some advances in modern medicine save lives and help experiences. Yet, unless we spare them for the times when we really need them, we are blindly using these tools today and hoping they’ll work most of the time, like using a screwdriver to hammer in a nail rather than to tighten a screw. Meanwhile, maternal and infant mortality rates continue to climb.

    We know birth works, or else most of us wouldn’t be here. We need to realize that right now, it works *in spite of* all these modern-day conventions used on 90% of our women, rather than because of them.

  4. CarolinaMomma says:

    I watched this episode with baited breathe. I felt so badly for Betty and what she was going through. I also felt badly for Don(he would have never let Betty be treated that way) and the other father-to-be. He was never told there was a problem with his wife and that a specialist was being called in for breech. He said it out right and truthfully. “what the hell is wrong with you people, that’s my wife in there.” I am paraphrasing of course but that is pretty darn close.

    The sad reality is that while Twilight sleep is no longer the standard of care; Pushing of Epidurals, breaking of waters, shaving, and supine coached pushing are all still the standard of care in many hospitals. Women more times than not are made to feel like they have no choice because of hospital or doctor policy. You cannot eat or drink, You have to have Electronic Fetal Monitoring, you cannot move about freely. Women may have come around to the fact that the couldn’t remember the birth of their child, but now it has become something some wish to forget because of the way they were treated and the countless interventions. 1 step forward, 2 steps back.