Twilight Sleep – The Brutal Way Some Women Gave Birth In The 1900s

Twilight Sleep - The Brutal Way Some Women Gave Birth In The 1900s

For centuries, women have sought relief from the pain of childbirth.

Until the 1800s, most women gave birth at home, with the help of other women and the local midwife.

For the most part, women bore the pain of childbearing as part of their lot in life.

Anaesthesia during childbirth became more popular in the 1850s, after Queen Victoria used ether during labour.

In those days, anaesthesia meant using whatever drug would bring unconsciousness, and the dose was however much it took to achieve it.

Nearly 70 years later, another type of anaesthetic became the choice for childbirth… twilight sleep.

What Is Twilight Sleep?

Twilight Sleep, or Dammerschlaf, as it was called by the German doctors who were using it in their clinic, was a drug which provided pain relief and also erased the memory of birth altogether.

How Did Twilight Sleep Become Popular?

Originally, Twilight Sleep was met with skepticism, and was not favoured by other physicians of the time, especially those in America.

The dangers and severe side effects of the drugs used were cited as reasons why it should not be used during childbirth.

Regardless, wealthy women travelled to the German clinic, attracted to the idea of ‘painless birth.’ Over time, the doctors who used it experimented, and refined their methods. The word got out, and in 1914, two American journalists went to Germany to report on it for a popular women’s magazine.

The article described the luxury provided at the clinic, the compassionate doctors and, most importantly, how women slept through the birth. It was presented as a miracle discovery. This happened at the time of the Suffragette movement, and it set in motion a call to action for the early feminists in America.

Women Demanded The Right To Have Twilight Sleep

The National Twilight Sleep Association was formed, and began a concerted campaign, demanding that doctors in the US adopt the practice of Twilight Sleep during birth. The fact the drug had been rejected by American doctors for well over a decade was unimportant. Women were urged to rise up against the oppression of the male doctors who were withholding access to this miracle.

Society women and some prominent doctors took up the cause, and before long the pressure of demand began to have its way. Huge public pressure, and the potential loss of clients, caused many doctors to offer Twilight Sleep. Hospitals quickly put together special maternity units, catering for women who wanted the drug.

What Drugs Were Used In Twilight Sleep?

Two drugs were combined to produce Twilight Sleep: morphine and scopolamine.

Morphine is derived from opium. It was developed and first tested early in the 19th century, by a German pharmacist’s assistant. It acts on the central nervous system, causing pain relief.

Scopolamine is a compound derived from nightshade plants. It causes patients to fall into a semi-conscious state and experience amnesia (inability to recall recent events).

By using the right combination of these two drugs, women would fall asleep, and wake up unable to remember anything about the birth. For them it had been ‘pain free’ because they had no memory of the birth.

What Were The Effects?

Not remembering the pain of labour doesn’t necessarily mean there was no pain at the time.

Scopolamine caused women to lose their inhibitions, and have no conscious awareness of what was happening to them. The small amount of morphine used didn’t prevent pain, but contributed to women becoming uninhibited, and even psychotic.

Many women would thrash around, bang their heads on walls, claw at themselves or staff, and scream constantly. They would either be restrained on their beds, by their wrists and ankles, or put into straight jackets.

Twilight Sleep - The Brutal Way Some Women Gave Birth In The 1900s

Often blinded by towels wrapped around their heads to prevent injury, they would be put into ‘labour cribs’ – cot-like beds that prevented them from falling to the floor. They would remain on the beds, bound and screaming, often lying in their own vomit and waste, for as long as it took for labour to end.

Twilight Sleep - The Brutal Way Some Women Gave Birth In The 1900s

Babies were also significantly affected by the use of Twilight Sleep. The drugs would cross the placenta and depress their central nervous system. They would be born drugged, and unable to breathe normally. The commonly used image of babies being held upside down and slapped on the bottom comes from this time – when doctors would attempt to revive comatose newborn babies.

What Happened in America?

The women who experienced Twilight Sleep in America probably didn’t have the same experience as the wealthy women who were treated in Germany.

The German clinic had many successes – mainly due to the refined treatment program in place. A wealthy woman could stay at the clinic for a month before she was due, so the staff could work out the right dose of scopolamine for her particular physiology.

When labour began, her doctor would stay with her, and monitor her from the first dose of Twilight Sleep, doing memory tests every 30 minutes, and adjusting the dosage, depending on her awareness of her surroundings. She would have coverings over the bed, and wear dark glasses and even earplugs, to avoid overstimulation. Afterwards, the new mother would wake up with no memory of the birth, and would remain in her private room for a month.

This refined treatment protocol was rarely seen in any of the American hospitals. Doctors from the US would visit the German clinic, observe several births, then return to their practices at home. They were then regarded as  ‘Twilight Sleep trained’, despite there being a recommended 3 year course to learn the technique properly.

The sheer number of women demanding Twilight Sleep in America also caused many doctors to cut corners when implementing it, and sank the arguments of those who were against the practice.

Doctors began to give the same set doses of Twilight Sleep to all women, rather than the personalised dosage given in the German clinic. Hospital nurses, who weren’t trained in the use of Twilight Sleep, observed the labouring women, and the doctor came in only when birth was imminent. Husbands were banned from the labour ward. Only medical staff witnessed the traumatic effects of the drug.

The End of An Era

In 1915, a year after the craze for Twilight Sleep began, Francis Carmody, one of the most prominent supporters of the drug, died giving birth to her third baby while under the drug’s influence. Her doctor and her husband denied the drug caused her death, but the demand for the miracle ‘painless birth’ dwindled.

Even so, Twilight Sleep continued to be used on women well into the middle of the century, until women began to recall their experiences. Nurses and others who had witnessed the traumatic ‘painless births’ also spoke out, and an exposé was published in the popular Ladies Home Journal in 1958.

These shocking tales of delirium, and women harming themselves, caused the practice to fall out of favour. By the early 1970s, it was no longer routine for women to be anaesthetised to the point of unconsciousness, while their babies were forcibly removed from their bodies by forceps.

The natural birth movement was beginning, but the culture of birth had already been altered. Thanks to the advent of Twilight Sleep, birth was no longer the domain of women at home, but had come under the control of hospitals and doctors.

Below is a short clip about twilight sleep, from the eye-opening documentary, The Business Of Being Born, which we HIGHLY recommend watching.

Recommended Reading: 10 Shocking Birth Practices From The Past. You might also like to read the book, Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born by Tina Cassidy.

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Sam McCulloch enjoys talking so much about birth that she decided to become a birth educator and doula, supporting parents in making informed choices about their birth experience. In her spare time she watches Downton Abbey and has numerous creative projects on the go. She is mother to three beautiful little humans.

  1. This is how I gave birth to my first child in 1966 with the drug scopolamine.

    I was married, 19 years old and afraid of being in the hospital, let alone giving birth. I asked my provider if he could just put me to sleep for the birth and he said, “Absolutely”. He did not tell me that I would, in fact be awake for all of my labor and be put under general anesthesia for the actual delivery.

    I had no memory of the birth itself but I was not allowed to hold my son for 48 hours after delivery because they said I could drop him due to the medication. My son had a severely molded head (a cone head) and a high pitched scream. The nurses laughingly called him “Squeaky Mouse”.

    I intended to breastfeed but they only brought him out of the nursery once every 4 hours for 30 minutes. Still I tried to nurse him. I could alway hear him coming because of his high pitched screams. My husband was not allowed in the room when the baby was there, only when the baby was in the nursery. We were in the hospital for a week for a vaginal birth.

    Several years ago, while I was taking an additional certification course as a childbirth educator, I had a sudden flashback and remembered parts of my labor. The memory brought me to tears. I was in a labor room with 8 other women in labor. I was in a stainless steel crib with the sides up – high metal bars. I was thrashing around and screaming uncontrollably. Even as I was screaming, I was thinking that I should not be screaming because I would upset the other laboring women. But I had no control over my actions. I can remember screaming my Doctor’s name and yelling, I want Dr. K…. The nurse can over and told me that the doctor was not there, that he had gone home. But I continued to scream because I could see his glasses on the window sill. That is still the only memory I have of that birth. But that memory was totally suppressed for over 40 years.

    But I will never forget the breastfeeding instructions I was given at discharge, “Do not breastfeed any more often than every 4 hours. The baby’s stomach needs to rest in between feedings. If the baby cries in between, give water. If that does not hold him, your milk is not strong enough”. Breastfeeding lasted less than a week after I got home. I went on to breastfeed all my other kids and I am now a childbirth educator and board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC).

    1. Oh im so sorry to hear about your traumatic experience.
      Wow, how times have changed.. im glad you are now able to educate and empower others xx

  2. Oh my goodness Susan, that’s absolutely traumatic. Thank you for sharing. I’m so sorry that was your birth experience. Thank you for all the work you do today with birth. You certainly have been a light of hope and knowledge for me; and you have helped me through my struggles with breastfeeding and the trauma of my c-sections through your birth education work more than you know. Thank you for all that you do.

  3. This is how they treated my mother when I was born, as well as two of my brothers; 1949, 1950 and 1951. She went 12 whole hours before holding her babies. When her final baby was born in 1965, she went natural, but even then she was not allowed to hold her newborn for several hours. When I gave birth to my 3rd child, it was a home birth (my 4th, as well.) My mother attended my 2nd and 3rd births. When she held her newborn grandchildren within minutes of their birth she broke into tears, stating she had never held an infant so young. I cried for her. Such a loss and all because of the “Do no harm” doctors.

  4. Was this in the UK as well? I can’t believe I have never even heard of this despite being a midwife of 8 years and my mother a midwife in the 70s before me. How appalling this is, although I frequently despair of what I hear of birthing in the US even now

  5. My mother had twightlight sleep at least for the birth of my sister. I remember her telling me that after Irving birth she would ask the nurses if she had a boy or a girl and before they could answer her she would lose consciousness. What a terrible experience to go thru. By the time I had my babies in the early 80’s til late 80’s. I had mine natural and breastfeed all 3. I remember hoe worried she was that I wasn’t going to have any medication and since she bottle fed all of my brothers and sister, she had worries about that also.

  6. When I had my daughter in 1969, this is what happened. I remember trying to get out of the crib because I thought I had to go to the bathroom. I know I cried at some point and was very embarrassed afterwards. I also wasn’t able be bear down because I was so messed up. According to the doctor, had I been able to do this the baby would have been born an hour sooner. At that time, they would give you the gas when the head was crowning. For three days afterwards, I had debilitating migraines. According to my sister who is an obstetric nurse the twilight sleep consisted of demoralized and scopalomine and that it was probably the latter that caused my migraines.

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