Culture

9 Ways Pop Culture Gets Childbirth Wrong

There’s no shortage of media representations of childbirth, between television and movies. The scene, which has played out for as long as babies have been “born” on television, is fairly cookie cutter: the woman’s water breaks and there’s a mad dash to the hospital — otherwise the baby will be born in a stalled elevator. The woman screams in pain, begging for drugs, and then out comes a beautiful, usually clean baby who cries immediately before being wrapped and placed in mom’s arms.

As with all mainstream media representations of real-life events, writers and producers take a lot of liberties with the scene and how it plays out in real life. Since having a child myself, I often wonder if anyone on the writing or producing staff has ever been present for the birth of a child, given how diametrically different these moments are in real life.

The way childbirth is portrayed isn’t just inaccurate, but also fuels a false perception in our society of childbirth as scary, dangerous, and often negative. Several aspects of how childbirth plays out on screen also affect how real life couples may process their own experience in the moment. So what can a couple expect out of the birth of their child? What does the media get wrong? This list is just a start:

1. Babies come out pink 

One of the scariest moments for any parent who has seen enough babies being born on television is the color their child comes out. While some people may be ready for the goop and slime that coat a baby’s skin, the color of their skin usually comes as a total shock, even if intellectually one has been made aware that often babies don’t come out flesh-colored or pink right out of the womb.

On the series Parenthood, which, unsurprisingly, has seen quite a few births over the course of the last six seasons, the youngest son of the clan, Crosby Braverman, had a daughter with his wife Jasmine. She came out looking like this:

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The very first moments a baby comes into the world, before they’ve had an opportunity to get oxygen into their bodies, a baby’s skin tone, regardless of race, is often a deep shade of purple, which can be petrifying if unprepared, which most parents are. Those first fleeting moments are usually forgotten in the haze of new parenthood, but it’s a shame that most first-time parents find themselves scared for their child’s safety and well-being before the cord has even been cut. Better images would go a long way in changing our image of brand new human beings, highlighting what can be normal in healthy childbirth.

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2. Babies come out alert

Another humorous portrayal of new babies from the previous Parenthood graphic of Crosby’s daughter’s birth was just how alert she was as soon as she hit fresh air. Smiling and making eye contact with her mother, the baby used by the show’s producers is at least three months old, judging not only by the size, but also its level of awareness. For at least the first eight to ten weeks, babies are in what famous pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp calls the “fourth trimester,” where much of their interaction with the outside world is like that of when they were inside the womb, which is to say minimal.

All About Vision, an independent optometry group, explains why babies are so boring the first few weeks of life:

One of the greatest moments when having a child is the first time your newborn daughter or son opens their eyes and makes eye contact with you. But don’t be concerned if that doesn’t happen right away.

The visual system of a newborn infant takes some time to develop. In the first week of life, babies don’t see much detail. Their first view of the world is indistinct and only in shades of gray.

3. Moms are mean and abusive to dads

Childbirth is hard, and childbirth can be painful. It can also be an incredible bonding experience for a couple, though that is often not how it is portrayed on screen. Women become lunatics, shrieking shells of their former selves, abusive and nasty to the fathers of their children, and usually doctors and nurses as well.

4. Babies cry immediately

Here’s another misrepresentation of normalcy in childbirth which can be scary for new parents. While many babies do cry immediately upon emerging from the birth canal, there are instances, even with normal and healthy babies, where there is a short delay before the lungs take in air. This first breath can also sound scary. The U.S. National Library of Medicine describes the moment:

At birth, the baby’s lungs are filled with amniotic fluid. They are not inflated. The baby takes the first breath within about 10 seconds after delivery. This breath sounds like a gasp, as the newborn’s central nervous system reacts to the sudden change in temperature and environment.

5. The best position to push is lying down on your back

When women assume position in order to push, every media representation is that of women on their backs, legs in stirrups.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxFr7BpH8z0

What many women don’t know, as well as their care providers, is that gravity makes pushing while flat on one’s back difficult and makes women more prone to tearing. A fantastic resource,
Evidence Based Birth, has a handy guide for women who have and have not received an epidural explaing which positions might work best for pushing. Lamaze International also produced a video for women who have had epidurals to highlight different options.

6. Pushing is the hardest part

Once women come to the pushing stage of labor, most shows and movies show them begging for it to stop. Rachel from Friends begged for the father of her child, Ross, to take over instead.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmJ_r6wfWKc

Many women, though, especially those who have forgone pain relief, find that the pushing stage is much easier than laboring, as it is preceded by the most physically difficult and painful part of labor, transition.

7. The water breaks first

What is the first sign of labor? On television and movies, it’s the dramatic gush of the breaking of the water.

Sadly for those writing dramatic storylines, however, that only happens 10-15% of the time.

8. It’s a mad dash to the hospital

This is one of the most iconic scenes of childbirth in television history, the mad dash to the hospital on I Love Lucy when Lucy goes into labor with their son. It’s hysterical, and completely unrepresentative of what normal families are told to do when a wife finds herself in labor. Most first babies take a great many hours to make their appearance, making it unnecessary to make a frenzied rush to the hospital.

9. Childbirth is scary and 100% terrible

No, this isn’t what childbirth is like. It’s not always life-or-death, it’s not always terrible, it can actually be an empowering and critical moment in a relationship between a man and a woman. It’s not this bad, and even on the off-chance that it is, at least your baby won’t come out looking like a squid.

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