Emergency baptisms by the midwife

In the Roman Catholic church, if a child was in peril of dying during the delivery, the midwife was allowed to perform an emergency baptism. Here is a summary of the instructions for such baptisms, as printed in Brussels in 1698.

Instructions for midwives regarding baptisms of young children who were born, or were in peril of not being born whole

  • In case there is fear that the child will sicken or die, they shall wash the child with natural water while speaking these words: “I baptize thee in the name of the father, and the son, and the holy spirit, amen.”
  • Although it is not necessary to use much water, there shall be enough that the child can be said to have been washed clean.
  • If possible, the child shall be baptized on his head, and the water shall touch his body and not just his hair.
  • If only some parts of the child have been born already, and there is fear that the child shall die before being fully born, the child will be baptized on those limbs that are already presenting.
  • If the midwife is in doubt whether the child still lives, she shall baptize the child with these words: “In case you are able to receive the baptism, I baptize thee in the name of the father, and the son, and the holy spirit, amen.”
  • In case only a hand, leg or arm is born, and that it is uncertain whether the child is still alive, the formulation of the conditional baptism shall be used (“In case you are able,” etc), and then as soon as the head or chest is born, the conditional baptism shall be repeated.
  • In case that there is risk of death before any limb is born or presenting, and the midwife can reach the child, in those cases she will baptize the child under condition using the words “in case you are able”, etc. And if later any limb does appear, the head or chest shall be washed and baptized using the words “in case you are able,” etc.
Emergency baptism by a midwife, 1720

Emergency baptism performed by a midwife, 1720. Credits: Bernard Picart, collection Rijksmuseum (Public Domain)

These baptisms were usually later recorded in the baptismal register. If the child lived, he would have been re-baptized by the priest to be sure that it was done properly. The priest would also use the formulation “in case you are able,” since a child could only be baptized once.

For an example of an emergency baptism, read the article about the illegitimate, doubly baptized, incestuous orphan.

SourceYves De Baest, transcriber, “Het doopsel ‘sub conditione’,” Digitale Bronbewerkingen (http://www.debaets.be/yves/documenten/vroedvrouwen/ : accessed 22 August 2015); citing Instructie van het doopsel der jonge kinders in occasie van noodt ende peryckel, second edition (Brussels: widow of Antonius Claudinot, 1733). The text original text from 1698 and its reprint from 1733 are in the public domain.

Hattip: Cornélie Polderman in the “Genealogievrienden” Facebook group for sharing the link to the instructions.

About Yvette Hoitink

Yvette Hoitink, MLitt, CG®, QG™ is a professional genealogist, writer, and lecturer in the Netherlands. She has a Master of Letters in Family and Local History from the University of Dundee, and holds the Certification of Genealogist and Qualified Genealogist credentials. Yvette served on the Board of Directors of the Association of Professional Genealogists and won excellence awards for her articles in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly. Yvette has been doing genealogy for over 30 years. She helps people from across the world find their ancestors from the Netherlands and its former colonies, including New Netherland. Read about Yvette's professional genealogy services.


  1. Shirley Crampton says

    I am a retired RN, educated at a Catholic nursing school in Canada in the 1960’s. We were educated to baptize a child that was born dead or in danger of dying with the words that you quoted. As you noted, if the child lived the parents still had the option of having the child baptized by the priest


  2. Suzanne Matson says

    I am a retired RN with a BSN from a university in the 1970’s in the US. We were taught to baptize infants if there was any suggestion the child might be in danger of dying.
    Thanks for a very interesting article.

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