That’s certainly the case with bed rest. Various studies found that the physical effects of bed rest like bone loss, muscle atrophy, and cardiovascular deconditioning can persist for months after the baby is born. Women who spend time on bed rest are at higher risk of postpartum depression and anxiety.
One study described a “type of sensory deprivation.” “When women spend long, isolated, fright-filled hours in bed, time is perceived as slowing down … Women also feel out of control of what is happening with their bodies. Women report feeling imprisoned,” wrote the authors.
In ancient Greece, Hippocrates blamed everything from headaches to sudden deaths in women on a wandering womb that would travel around the body. A cough or sore throat? That pesky womb must have wandered north. Chest pain? The womb had taken a wrong turn again. The Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia called the uterus “an animal within an animal.”
English physicians in the late 1600s believed a healthy pregnancy depended on the right use of the classical “non-naturals:” air, food and drink, exercise and rest, sleep and waking, fullness and emptiness, and passions of the minds. Bed rest was rarely recommended. After all, if you went to bed, you might not get up again, particularly in an unsterilized hospital ward. Those ideas began to change with the publication of John Hilton’s Rest and Pain in 1863, an influential book arguing for the benefits of rest on the body. Hilton argued that if rest could help heal broken bones, it could also help heal other organs.
Doctors ran with Hilton’s guidance, prescribing rest for indefinite periods of time. Rest became the treatment for heart attacks, tuberculosis, mental illness, ulcers, and rheumatic fever. The bed could cure all ills, leaving doctors and nurses responsible largely for preventing bedsores and maintaining good hygiene.
Several months of confinement, or lying-in, became the norm for affluent pregnant Victorian women. In the 1908 edition of the textbook Obstetrics for Nurses, Joseph B. DeLee recommended that pregnant women be removed from “gossiping neighbors” to “lead a placid, quiet life, avoiding mental as well as physical fatigue and excitement.” Confinement was to begin when the pregnancy began to show. Several weeks of “lying-in”—remaining strictly in bed—would often follow childbirth.
One of the most celebrated medical authorities of the era, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell gained fame for championing what he called the “rest cure” as an answer to the malady of the day: hysteria, a common medical diagnosis reserved largely for women. Mitchell, born to a prominent Philadelphia medical family, was the prolific author of around 170 medical monographs along with novels, poetry, and children’s book. His cure was prescribed to Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, and scores of female artists and writers. “Hysterical” women were ordered to bed, isolated from friends and family, and instructed not to move a muscle or engage in intellectual work of any kind. Writing, reading, and sewing were strictly forbidden. Effectively reduced to infants, they were placed on a milk diet with nurses to clean, feed, and even turn them over in bed.