Those who in patriarchal times attended mothers at childbirth are so named in Genesis 35:17; 38:28; Exodus 1:15-22. Such attendants were probably then (1 Samuel 4:20), as they usually are now, the older female relatives and friends of the mother. The duties which they had to perform are enumerated in Ezekiel 16:4: division of the cord, washing the infant in water, salting with salt and swathing in swaddling clothes. During the Egyptian bondage there were two midwives who attended the Hebrew women; from their names, they were probably Hebrews, certainly they were not Egyptians. From this passage it appears that they used a certain double-round form of birthstool called 'obhnayim, concerning which there are several rabbinical comments. It probably was like the kuru elwiladeh, or "birth-seat," still used by the Egyptian fellahin. I have not found any record of its use among the Palestinian fellahin. There is a curious passage in the Talmud (Cotah 2 b) in which it is said that the two midwives had different duties, Shiphrah being the one who dressed the infant, Puah, the one who whispered to it. One Jewish commentator on this supposes that Puah used artificial respiration by blowing into the child's mouth. The midwives must have had considerable skill, as a case like that of Tamar required some amount of operative manipulation.
The English word means originally the woman who is "with the mother" (compare "the women that stood by," in 1 Samuel 4:20), but very early became applied to those who gave skilled assistance, as in Raynold's Birth of Mankind, 1565.