Kathleen Vaughan believed that a pregnant woman ‘must regard herself as an athlete in need of training for her special job’. Top obstetricians considered her advice ‘constructive hygiene at its best’ – so what did the first modern ante-natal exercises involve?
Kathleen Vaughan spent three years working as a doctor and obstetrician in Kashmir, where she saw women suffering in childbirth due to osteomalacia, a deformity of the pelvis caused by vitamin deficiency due to absence of sunlight, poor nutrition and exacerbated by lack of exercise. She recommended that sufferers be ‘given cod-liver oil and ordered to go out on the lake in open boats’, which was her earliest advice on how exercise could make childbirth less difficult.
On her return to Britain, Vaughan wrote that the pelvis is the ‘common doorway by which we all enter this life’ and its ‘architecture is worthy of more attention’. Many of her recommendations for expectant mothers were about strengthening this ‘doorway’ and its supporting anatomy. Her ante-natal exercise programme is captured in a film from 1939 called ‘Childbirth as an athletic feat’.
In the film, stepping was introduced to strengthen the gluteals and prevent flabbiness after the baby was born. Vaughan’s research led her to conclude that certain exercises could pre-empt difficulties at birth by toning muscles and preparing the pelvis as the bone softened later in pregnancy. Vaughan witnessed stepping exercises on a flight of eighty stone steps in France being taken two at a time.
The mothers-to-be practice deep breathing and vigorous arm raising to the tunes from a gramophone just out of the frame. Vaughan mentioned the importance of doing the exercises to ‘good music, happy gay tunes, such as Strauss waltzes, ballet music’. She recommended Blue Danube by Strauss for this exercise.
In the class is a ballet dancer who is in her 34th week of pregnancy. She displays a remarkable level of fitness and flexibility. As well as the leg swings and kicks, she later pirouettes and leaps about. Vaughan had evidence that energetic exercise in pregnancy delivered physical, physiological and psychological benefits.
These exercises for pelvic arch and pelvic floor stretching were designed to strengthen the perineum and keep it intact. The rounding of the spine also relaxes the perineum. A key feature of the exercise regime is that it should be carried out with a group to encourage camaraderie, mutual support and reduce anxiety; the women carry out this exercise in unison.
After vigorous exercise, rest and relaxation are very important. Vaughan recommended 7-10 minutes of complete repose during a class which would also aid sleeping (and bowel movements!). She believed that relaxation leads to “contentment” and was good for general health.
The women are offered a cup of milk (not tea): the health-giving properties of milk were understood at this time and after pasteurisation it was TB-free (milk was once a reservoir for the disease). Vaughan was also very keen on the benefits of sunlight too and had witnessed the physical problems caused by rickets.
When it came to the ‘confinement’, Vaughan drew comparisons with Classical literature; the birthing woman is recommended to squat, crouch and kneel. The woman in the frame is practicing this exercise with the ante-natal staff looking on encouragingly. This was to promote “better births” and the notion that childbirth is a natural process not an illness.
The endgame of this film is the successful delivery of a new baby and a healthy, happy mother.
About the author
Angela is a research development specialist at Wellcome Collection with a background in film and sound archives. She has worked with artists and television producers on various archive-film-led projects. She co-curated ‘Here Comes Good Health!’ in 2012, and works with the exhibitions, publishing and policy teams on sourcing collections material.
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Read ‘Safe childbirth; the three essentials’, written by Kathleen Vaughan in 1937.
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Plan to visit the new ‘Being Human’ exhibition when it opens this autumn, and reflect on how the environment affects our health in many different ways.