Take a deep breath, pushing your stomach out as you inhale. Now exhale slowly to the count of six. Welcome to the techniques of Lamaze, natural childbirth, and relaxation.
Although most women would not put childbirth and relaxation together in the same sentence, that is exactly what Elisabeth Koenigsberger believed should happen and she helped to revolutionize how American women experienced childbirth.
Born in 1914 in Berlin to parents of Jewish heritage, she was forced to quit college two weeks into her freshman year when the officials discovered her ethnic background. Her two older brothers were dismissed as well.
Elisabeth then immigrated at the age of 18 by herself to England and began to study physical therapy while working in a hospital with multiple sclerosis patients. Her job was to teach them how to exercise their limbs. At the end of each day she would go to the maternity ward and voluntarily give massages to new mothers. Her experience with these postpartum women led her to develop an interest in obstetrics.
In 1942 after reading British physician Grantly Dick-Read’s book on natural childbirth, she resolved to learn all she could about his ideas. Her goal was to teach women how to take a more active and prepared role in birthing their babies.
This coincided in an era when women in labor were almost always completely sedated and expectant fathers were left alone in the hospital waiting room to pace the floor. Recuperation for new mothers was normally a stay of ten days.
Elisabeth decided to pursue additional formal training in obstetrics, but WWII complicated that dream and prevented Elisabeth from achieving her objective. She remedied the situation with self- education; reading all the newly published research she could find on natural childbirth.
In 1949 Elisabeth moved to Illinois. A chance encounter with a local obstetrician led to a unique professional friendship between the two. It wasn’t long before the doctor invited her to become involved in his practice, teaching women how to exercise and relax in preparation for childbirth.
Two years later while in transit from New York City to a visit in Germany, Elisabeth met Fred Max Bing; they married the following year. Now living in New York City, Elisabeth began offering informal workshops in childbirth preparation.
As her name spread, she found a powerful ally in Dr. Alan Guttmacher, the head of Obstetrics at Mt. Sinai Hospital. He invited her to teach some workshops at the hospital’s newly opened maternity ward.
Around this same time, Dr. Fernand Lamaze was changing France’s perspective on childbirth. Dr. Lamaze advocated childbirth education classes, relaxation and breathing techniques, and continuous emotional support from both the father and a trained nurse. His methods became quite popular as French women using his techniques experienced childbirth with less fears.
With Dr. Guttmacher’s approval, Elisabeth began to incorporate some of Dr. Lamaze’s techniques into her seminars at Mt. Sinai; she found the classes filling up quickly.
Her next step was to ask Mt. Sinai to send her to France so that she could meet with Dr. Lamaze and learn his techniques first hand. The hospital cited a lack of funding and denied her request. In 1958 Elisabeth then turned to Marjorie Karmel, whose book, Thank You Dr. Lamaze, had become a best seller.
Elisabeth and Marjorie met, and became professional colleagues. In 1960 they co-founded the organization now called Lamaze International.
While fame and ego could have gone to her head, Elisabeth K. Bing always gave credit to Dr. Lamaze for his groundbreaking work. She also was quick to admit that natural childbirth is not always possible, and that drugs still had validity in certain deliveries.
The era of the 1960s launched the beginning of the women’s movement, and also helped to solidify Elisabeth’s passion that every woman deserves to be educated as to the choices involved in giving birth. Elisabeth used the term Prepared Childbirth, instead of Natural Childbirth, to emphasize the active participation of the mother.
She died recently at the age of 100, after having taught childbirth classes focused on the Lamaze techniques for over 50 years.
Breathe in deeply; now exhale slowly to the count of eight. Ah…..relaxation is beginning to seep in.
Thank you, Elisabeth K. Bing.
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Thank for sharing my journey, celebrating women whose passions led them to live life fully, and in so doing, benefited the lives of others.