In medieval times childbirth could be a time of either great joy or great sorrow. Mortality rates for both mother and baby were high, and many children who lived through the birth died shortly thereafter.
During the delivery, some peasant women received help from female neighbours; others could rely only on their husbands.
A woman of the merchant or noble classes was attended by midwives and female relatives. The chamber would be dimly lit, and a warm bath prepared for the infant. Both measures were designed to ease the transition from the womb into the world.
The expectant father performed the important job of appealing to the saints for the safety of his wife and child.
The infant was wrapped in swaddling cloths – long cloths wrapped around the body and secured with crisscross bands. Swaddling kept the child warm but was also said to force the limbs to grow straight.
Unless work prevented it, peasants and artisans nursed their own babies, but wealthy mothers hired other women to serve as wet nurses. Without the burden of nursing, which can serve as a natural birth control, such women sometimes conceived as frequently as biologically possible, bearing as many as 20 children.
About 50 to 60 percent of children never saw their fifth birthday.