A mid-century perspective on cesarean childbirth (1959)

A mid-century perspective on cesarean childbirth - Mom with newborn(1959)

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When this article was published, touting the wonders of c-section deliveries, they stated that the cesarean rate was one out of 20 births. And that number in 2018? As much as one in three.

Despite what the statistics might suggest, the procedure itself is much the same, although the typical incision is a little smaller and positioned differently. Still, a cesarean section is considered major surgery.

The article below from the late fifties is presented not as medical advice, but simply to offer a historical perspective on attitudes toward childbirth. – NJP

Vintage mother with newborn baby 1959

Good news about cesarean childbirth

How did cesareans come to be among the safest of all major operations? Here’s a fascinating account of these baby-deliveries — plus practical advice

by Ruth and Edward Brecher

When a young woman finds that she is pregnant and visits her family doctor or an obstetrician, the first or second examination she undergoes almost always includes a measurement of her pelvic region.

While this examination is being made, it’s a rare woman who — perhaps with considerable anxiety – doesn’t ask herself: “Is my pelvis big enough to let the baby through – or will I need a cesarean?” (A cesarean operation, as almost every woman knows, is the delivery of a baby through a surgical opening in the abdomen instead of down the usual birth canal.)

Then other questions are likely to follow: Are cesareans performed for the sake of the mother or the baby? Is a mother conscious during the operation? After it, can she care for and breastfeed her baby? Above all, how serious is the risk — to mother and baby — of a cesarean?

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Doctors are eager to offer reassurance. As one obstetrician told us, “If all wives and husbands knew the facts about present-day cesareans, instead of worrying over the legends handed down from preceding generations, they would feel greatly relieved.”

Hospital nursery with newborn babies in 1955

Here, then, are those facts — gleaned from talks with half a dozen of the nation’s foremost obstetricians as well as from medical reports on tens of thousands of cesareans. Here, too, is some practical advice to women who may have to undergo a cesarean.

Common fears about this operation are easy to understand. Two or three generations ago the cesarean was an “operation of last resort” — an emergency effort in cases where the outlook for both mother and baby seemed hopeless.

Most of the women delivered by cesarean died. This was hardly surprising, for most of them were on the brink of death before the operation, and few physicians had learned how to sew up the uterus after the baby was delivered.

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The cesarean as it is now performed has almost nothing in common with those early, desperate efforts. Yet old-time attitudes towards cesareans still persist.

Today cesareans [1959] are among the safest of all major operations. Leading medical centers report 1,000, 1,500, or even 2,000 consecutive cesareans without the loss of a single mother.

Some of the mothers in these series were seriously ill before the operation; cesareans unquestionably saved their life. Countless babies, too, are saved each year by the operation.

New mother with her baby in 1955

This true story of the Burke family provides a heart-warming illustration of the safety of present-day cesarean childbirth:

About 17 years ago, Mrs Burke became pregnant for the first time, but she lost her baby following a prolonged and hard labor. After losing two more babies under the same circumstances, the Burkes sadly gave up hope of having a child.

A decade passed. During those years doctors learned how to make cesareans safer than they had ever been. The Burkes’ obstetrician told them this, and with his full approval they resolved to have a cesarean-delivered baby.

This time Mrs Burke had her baby in the specially-equipped obstetrical operating room of a large hospital. A trained anesthesiologist gave her a spinal anesthetic that eliminated painful sensations in the lower portion of her body but left her fully conscious.

A skilled obstetrician, assisted by two resident physicians and two nurses, made an incision in Mrs Burke’s abdomen and in the lower portion of her uterus. In less than 10 minutes after the first incision was made, the baby was delivered and held up for Mrs Burke to see.

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Fifties father visiting hospital nursery to see new baby

Then the baby was handed to an attending pediatrician for immediate care, while the obstetrician proceeded to the important task of sewing up the uterus in a way that would provide the greatest strength for subsequent pregnancies.

To prevent infection, the utmost surgical cleanliness was maintained throughout the delivery, and antibiotics were available as a further safeguard. Had the baby needed an incubator, one was ready. And from the hospital’s blood bank an adequate supply of blood, carefully matched in advance to Mrs Burke’s, was on tap to replace any she might lose.

Everything went smoothly, and today the Burke family includes three bouncing children, each born by cesarean. A fourth is on the way. “Not bad,” says Mrs Burke, “for a couple who were convinced that they couldn’t have children at all!”

As cesarean have become safer over the past 10 to 15 years, they have also become commoner. An obstetrician no longer need ask himself, “Is this birth problem so serious that a cesarean is the only hope?”

Instead, he can now put this question: “Of the two methods available, ordinary delivery and cesarean delivery, which in this case is likely to produce the most satisfactory results for both mother and baby?” The doctor knows that wisely-chosen cesarean deliveries account for a considerable part of the encouraging childbirth statistics during recent years.

Mother with new baby

What are the chances of a prospective mother’s having a cesarean baby?

A reasonable estimate is that 19 million babies born during the next five years in the United States will emerge uneventfully down the birth canal in the usual way. About one million will be cesarean births. Thus the odds are about one in 20.

If a mother has already had one baby through the birth canal without difficulty, the likelihood of a cesarean is slight; but occasionally, even among women who have had several babies by ordinary delivery, cesareans are necessary.

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. The article isn’t nearly as dated as you’d expect it to be. I am cringing at Mrs Burke though. FOUR repeat c-sections!! Also likely that she was pushing 40 or over 40 by the time this was written. Sure hope she made it out okay with no complications. I assumed in 1959,a c-section with a general anesthetic would be the only option and there would be no mention of can I breastfeed after because they would assume you don’t. And I expected some talk about the incision in the decade in which women were bombarded with ads of stepford wives cleaning the house in full make up and high heels. Their c-section rates were definitely better than ours. Maybe the operation got SO safe and doctors SO desensitized to the fact that it is a major operation. It seems like everyone who doesn’t shoot the baby out fast is having a c section these days and twins, breech baby who could still turn… automatically scheduled for a c-section. It started being about convenience rather than the question illustrated in the article.

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