Pre-Modern Era

The roots of midwifery stretch back to the dawn of human existence. In ancient cultures such as Egypt, Greece, and Rome, midwives played a central role in childbirth, often revered as guardians of life and wisdom. These early practitioners relied on empirical knowledge, passed down through generations, and spiritual beliefs to guide women through the birthing process. Midwifery was not only a profession but also a sacred duty, deeply entrenched in the cultural and religious fabric of societies.

During the medieval period, midwifery faced challenges as the influence of the Church grew, leading to the suppression of female healers and midwives. Despite this, women continued to assist each other in childbirth, often within the confines of their own communities. The Renaissance witnessed a revival of interest in science and medicine, paving the way for advancements in obstetrics and midwifery. However, the profession remained predominantly female-centric, with knowledge passed down through apprenticeships and practical experience rather than formal education.

18th Century Midwifery

While Midwifery has been around for thousands of years, we don’t begin to see licensed midwives until the early 18th century. According to Midwifery Today, New York City first required the licensing of midwives in 1716. Doctors were not usually formally educated, so midwives were utilized for childbirth due to a greater knowledge base.

Formal training first began in 1765; however, many midwives felt that childbirth was the domain of women and they were reluctant to receive training from male instructors. The main problem however was that this was often the first time that these women were exposed to formal education. This means that most midwifery students in the late 18th Century were unable to read, write, and calculate simple arithmetic, and had little to no exposure to medical practice apart from folk medicine and traditional remedies.

19th Century Midwifery to Present Day

Beginning in the early 1800s, middle-class families started using doctors for childbirth. As anesthesia became more widely used towards the end of the 1800s and early 1900s, delivery began shifting to hospitals. By 1900, physicians were attending about half of the nation’s births. Midwives were only used for those who could not afford a doctor. During the economic boom in the early 1920s, upper and middle-class women preferred doctors, instead of the "lower class" midwives.

By the 1950s, eighty-eight percent of births occurred in hospitals, increasing to ninety-seven percent in the 1960s. However, during this time formal education for nurse midwives and the concept of family-centered maternity care was introduced in the field of obstetrics.

A resurgence in midwifery sprung up in the 1970s along with the women’s movement. Feminists maintained that childbirth is natural, and hospitalization and supervision by a physician are not required.

By the mid-1980s, regulations were introduced by the American Medical Association to prohibit midwives from practicing without physician supervision and were finalized by the mid-1990s.

Today, nurse midwives are highly educated, specialized professionals who work alongside obstetricians to provide holistic women's health and maternity care.

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