When Did Women Stop Wearing Surgical Masks in the Maternity Ward?

I was having lunch recently at a Cracker Barrel (love the country vegetable plate!).

A framed newspaper article hung next to my table. It was from 1942.

Newborn child, seconds after birth. The umbili...


In the article, there was a photo of three sisters who were in the maternity ward at the same time.

They had had their babies within five days of each other. They were wearing surgical masks.

When did women stop wearing surgical masks when they had babies?

Click here to read a 1944 article in The Journal of Pediatrics, “The role of the surgical mask in the prevention of cross-infections in hospital nurseries for new-born infants”

Click here to read about three generations of women and their experiences with childbirth.

How Long Do Women Stay in the Hospital?

My mother-in-law once told me that when she had my husband in 1945, she was not allowed to put her feet on the floor for a week. I think she was in the hospital for two weeks.

When I had our first son in 1968, I was in the hospital four days. Eleven years later, with our second son, it was three days.

Shortly afterwards, a nearby state sued insurance companies to make them let women stay in the hospital for at least 24 hours.

Insurance companies, state law and hospital policies vary for discharge from five hours to four days.

Click here for an overview of additional factors that affect length of time in the hospital after a baby is born, including cesarian birth, first baby, breastfeeding instruction and practice, and giving birth during non-routine hospital hours.

What About the Masks?

Although it is not clear when between the 1940s and the 1960s surgical masks for new mothers were abandoned, two trends combined to eliminate them – improved sterilizing techniques and the push for less medical intervention and a more natural childbirth environment.

As part of the understanding of the need to separate contaminated and sterile instruments and surfaces in an operating room, called the aseptic technique, drapes became the favored technique instead of masks.

When my second son was born in 1979, he was covered with an extra layer of sheeting that was going to be removed when they took him to the nursery so he would not contaminate the other infants.

I foiled their plan by putting my arm on top of the sheeting after he’d been placed on top of me.

If they’d told me what the procedure was, I would have been more careful. I, of course, was all wrapped up in the glow of how beautiful and perfect my son was.

With improved antiseptic techniques, women no longer had to wear masks in the maternity ward.

Now, the only time anyone has to wear a mask is if they have the flu.

With natural childbirth, introduced by a doctor in the 1930s, but not widespread until the 1960s, the emphasis changed from “twilight sleep” anesthetics that put a woman to sleep during labor until the baby was born to pain management, like epidurals, that left her awake.

Based on nothing more than the tv shows I’d watched growing up, I fully expected to go to sleep and wake up with a baby.

But, such heavy anasthesia was found to be harmful to baby and mother and this practice was stopped with the introduction of natural childbirth classes, training in relaxing breathing techniques and less harmful pain management medications.

Did you wear a surgical mask when you had your children?

Did you go to a natural childbirth class?

Did you know they don’t shave anymore? They found it causes infections.

To you and the wonder of childbirth.

Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers


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