Birth on the big screen

Photo by Sven Scheuermeier

My 11-year old daughter and I sat down to watch an episode of one of her favourite American TV dramas the other evening – something of a chore for me because I think the acting is so incredibly bad. The heroes had, as always, saved the day and all seemed to be well until the final tense moments when the pregnant lead suddenly clutched her belly, rolled her eyes and said “the baby’s coming!” Cue titles … and my daughter turning to me and saying “Mummy, I don’t think you should watch the next episode because she will be lying on her back and screaming and you will get cross”. Her comment made me laugh out loud because it is so accurate – I regularly do shout at the telly when watching soaps, series or films depicting pregnancy, birth or the early days of parenting – it also made me proud that my 11 year-old recognizes that what is shown on screen is a fictionalized and dramatized version of birth. She has learnt, at an early age, that birth doesn’t have to be all drama, screams and fear – she has heard many stories of babies born in calm, quiet, supported situations.   But, it does make me think …

Before I became a doula I worked in the film industry – my role was finding new writers, developing up and editing scripts and preparing for production. It was a challenging and exciting job and I loved looking at plot construction – how to make something interesting, inspiring, captivating in a short space of time. I still adore watching good films or dramas and appreciating the work that has gone in to creating tension and intrigue. However, when it comes to drama featuring birth, I want it to be, well, less “dramatic”. Because what I experience when I work with women is a huge amount of fear. The thing I realise is that despite being a drama, the way having babies is depicted on the majority of films and TV shows is affecting the beliefs people, and especially, women have around birthing. Research has shown that this level of fear around birth didn’t exist prior to the screen era.   When all you see is a woman lying on her back and screaming in pain it is no wonder that the majority of mothers-to-be want to grab the epidural before the first twinge.  That is not to say that epidurals are necessarily a bad thing (that should be the subject of another blog), but it would be good if there was significantly more emphasis on physiology – how the unique cocktail of hormones we produce in our bodies, in a calm, supported environment, can help us have more positive, even pleasurable, experiences.

The recent “In the Club” had me gnashing my teeth – over a short 6-week period the births shown included a woman who didn’t realize she was pregnant having a baby in a hospital toilet and showing no signs of having birthed afterwards (one little telltale damp patch on her t-shirt a few days later doesn’t cut the mustard in my book), a 16 year old suddenly giving birth in a broken-down lift (same episode) and a mother with twins going through unbelievable drama, but spectacularly able to bring her brand-new premature babies into a social setting within an hour of their births! None of it realistic. Yes babies are born in lifts, car parks and often toilets, but for it to be nearly all of the births shown – not fair on women!

I have banned myself from watching One Born Every Minute – my issue with the programme is that it is presented as real-life, but it is more drama than documentary, and I doubt the intention behind it is to support women having better birth experiences – I have heard many stories of births being too boring to show! Those are my kinds of births – the ones in dimly-lit rooms that the cameras can’t see properly! The only programme I have really enjoyed in recent months is Call the Midwife – there is an attention to detail in the programme and interesting storylines exploring some of the issues that come up around pregnancy and birth. Sadly in the most recent series the programme-makers have done a good job of showing how birth started to be more medicalised, institutionalized and less personalized. The recent National Review of Midwifery highlighted continuity of care as being essential to good experiences for women, and in Call the Midwife the joy is seeing the relationship between the midwives and their patients.

So, this is a call to anyone involved in drama or documentary production to be aware that what they show can have a lasting impact, and request that they explore alternative ways of depicting birth, which will always be exciting to watch, whether dramatic or not. And, if anyone wants to discuss birth, or how to portray it realistically, then we are here to have those conversations! Contact us on