A video featuring Elisabeth Bing produced by Lamaze International in 2012. Bing first appears at 0:17.
At a childbirth class in the 1960s, a woman long past childbearing age stood up and expressed her envy. She wasn’t jealous because she couldn’t have any more children, necessarily — but she wished that she had known more when delivering her own five children around the time World War I broke out.
“I wish someone had told me all about labor and delivery, and I wish they had taught me to use my body correctly,” she told her daughter’s students. “… I did not know how to help myself. And I wish someone had shown me how to relax. Nobody told me anything beforehand. I was frightened and helpless and very lonely.”
Fear, helplessness and loneliness — these were emotions Lamaze pioneer Elisabeth Bing, who died last week at 100, wanted to eliminate from the experience of childbirth. And in that class, hearing her own mother talk about them gave her hope.
“Since my mother gave birth two generations ago (almost three, in fact!), obstetrics has changed greatly,” Bing wrote in 1990. “There was a whole generation of women who gave birth between the 1930s and 1960s who opted to be entirely out of the picture. They were the generation who liked and demanded twilight sleep to make them forget their pain and fears.”
Bing didn’t invent Lamaze, a host of methods developed in the 1950s by Fernand Lamaze, a French obstetrician, that women can use to relax and control pain during childbirth. But as a co-founder of what would become the nonprofit Lamaze International and the author of books such as “Six Practical Lessons for an Easier Childbirth,” Bing brought to these shores the idea of educating rather than drugging women during labor.
“This method is not a technique of so-called ‘natural childbirth,'” Bing wrote in “Six Practical Lessons.” “On the contrary, it is a technique which is not at all natural, but acquired through concentrated effort and hard work on the part of the expectant mother and her husband. It is a method which provides an analgesic (or lessening of pain) achieved by physical means instead of by drugs or chemical means.”
At the core of the Lamaze method is “focused breathing” during labor with the aid of a partner. Expectant mothers and partners participate in classes prior to childbirth where they learn that and other relaxation techniques designed to ease the pain and stress of childbirth.
In a world awash with Lamaze, the Bradley method, pre-natal yoga, birth plans, doulas and copies of “What to Expect When You are Expecting,” it’s hard to imagine how radical the idea of freeing women from medicalized childbirth was in Bing’s day. Epidurals and Cesarean sections are still more common than home births in the United States; Bing’s gospel was not eagerly received by the medical establishment half a century ago. Indeed, Lamaze was part of a revolution.
“One also has to understand that it was probably the times as well,” Bing told the Journal of Perinatal Education in 2000. “It was a time when there were many changes going on — women’s lib, the Vietnam war, the ‘flower children,’ the freedom rides, etc. People seemed to say, ‘We have to change things; things are not good enough.’ Prepared childbirth was easy to introduce in a way because the atmosphere was right.”
Still: “They called me the crazy lady from New York,” Bing said in a video produced by Lamaze International in 2012.
It wasn’t the first time Bing was on the outside looking in. Born in 1914 in Germany to a family of Jewish descent, she fled the country at age 18 in 1932 as Adolph Hitler rose to power. Exiled in London, she studied physical therapy and worked with women who had just given birth. She didn’t like what she saw.
“At that time they were keeping postpartum women in bed for 10 days and they were not allowed to even put their feet on the floor,” Bing said.
Inspired by the work of another obstetrician, Grantly Dick-Read, Bing studied alternative methods of childbirth. After her immigration to the United States, she read about Lamaze in a book, learned the method from one of his students and began teaching “psychoprophylaxis” in New York.
“I was called on the carpet at Mt. Sinai Hospital,” she said. “They made me appear at grand rounds before 150 people — the whole obstetric staff — because some of the doctors had complained about me.”
Despite some resistance, the method caught on. The days when husbands would have to handcuff themselves to their wives to be permitted in delivery rooms would soon be over.
“Since the beginning, the prepared childbirth movement has been a consumer movement,” Bing wrote. “Its ideas and philosophy were accepted by large numbers of women and men who asked their obstetricians to support a birth in which they could be active participants. … These men and women pointed out that if the mother was given tools to help herself during the stressful experience of labor, then healthier mothers and babies would be the result. The use of medication could be reduced, and having a baby could be made into a rewarding and humane experience instead of a traumatic one.”
“It started to become a popular thing – it was a thing to do,” childbirth educator Harriet R. Barry said. “But there was a huge segment that wanted to know the truth – about pregnancy, about labor, about deliveries, and what they could do to be a part of it very consciously.”
Unfortunately, Bing herself was given laughing gas and an epidural during the birth of her son.
“I got everything I raged against,” Bing said, as the New York Times reported. “I had the works.”
Today, partly thanks to Bing’s work, Lamaze and its fellow travelers — home births, midwives, movement during labor — are increasingly options pregnant women contemplate. Indeed, Maryland just legalized home births.
“Even if people haven’t heard her name,” Lamaze International President Robin Elise Weiss told Voice of America, “she’s impacted how they give birth.”
In 2000, Bing said she was often stopped on the street by parents who attended her six-week workshops.
“If I have helped people feel good about birth and about themselves, then I’m satisfied,” Bing said. “Surely they must feel that way if they still remember me 29 years later and want to say hello. This happens often enough that I feel that perhaps I have really done something meaningful. I’m sure they wouldn’t stop me on the street if they saw me and thought, ‘Oh, there is that awful woman who made us learn those breathing techniques!'”