TV Changes Our Expectations of Pregnancy

New research reveals that television has a deeper impact on our ideas about pregnancy and giving birth than we realize. But is this always such a bad thing?

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We all know the clichés: A pregnant woman delivers her a baby in a taxi. An expectant father freaks out when his wife goes into labor. Pickles and ice cream craving hit at 3 am. Water breaks in a public place. These scenarios are so inescapable that we accept them as the truth about what can happen during pregnancy and birth. But where did they actually come from? A new study presented this week at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting has the answer: television.

TV's subliminal messages

Sociologist Danielle Bessett conducted in-depth interviews with 64 pregnant women about their television viewing habits and found that reality TV, such as TLC's A Baby Story and Discovery Health's Birth Day, as well as fictional shows, had an effect on their perception of pregnancy and giving birth—even when they didn't believe they were affected. "A majority of the women I interviewed didn't think TV had much influence on them, but then volunteered examples where specific programs or their cumulative experiences with TV had in fact shaped their expectations," Bessett, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, tells Fit Pregnancy. "A woman might talk about how she expected something to be a certain way, and then things turned out differently. But when I pushed women to say where their expectations came from, TV often played a critical role."

For example, one woman was taken by surprise when she realized whoever was on-call from her OB's practice would deliver her baby. "I just always assumed, from watching TV, that if you're an OBGYN when the beeper goes off and your patient is delivering, you stop what you are doing and go," she told Bessett. Another admitted being surprised that her first ultrasound was vaginal. "You always see doctors putting the gel on women's stomachs, doing the sonogram through the belly. Well, we were both surprised when [the doctor] told me to undress," she said in her interview. "And I don't want to sound prudish, but it was a different experience than I expected. We had no idea."

Should you trust what you see on TV?

The study also showed that women who were actively looking to get information from television were actually in a better position to recognize its influence. "What we found is that women who had attained less than a college degree were more likely to describe reality television as a good source of information to prepare themselves for pregnancy and birth," Bessett says. Because of this, they were actually more critical in their viewing than higher income women, who tended to dismiss it as mere entertainment. Ironically, it was the women who downplayed TV's power who were, in fact, most susceptible to it.

But this begs the question: Should we be getting our information about pregnancy from TV? "Television isn't inherently worse than other media women are consuming," Bessett says. "It's true that studies have found that television, and reality shows in particular, portray more medical interventions when compared to surveys of women's actual experiences. But pregnancy guides also promote medicalized views of pregnancy and birth, and often emphasize risks in pregnancy—and, as a result, are quite conservative in their recommendations for how women should behave."

As long as you can watch with a critical eye, Bessett says that viewing pregnancy-related shows on TV can actually be a good thing. "The women who watched these shows definitely felt that there were benefits to watching," she says. "One woman was told she needed to have a cesarean delivery, and she watched as many reality shows featuring cesareans as she could—since she was scared to have surgery, she felt it helped her to have a little more control." Another woman was inspired to ask her doctor about having a water birth after seeing one on TV.

Wherever you get your info outside of your doctor's office—TV, internet sites (such as this one), magazines or books—consider the source and make sure it's one you trust. Even childbirth classes, Bessett says, can have their own agenda: to get patients to follow the routines of the hospital. "There is no perfect information source and no source that doesn't have some kind of agenda—with television, it's to get ratings," Bessett says. "Listening to your gut about what to watch is probably the best advice. The more conscious you are of TV's influence, the better you are at assessing it."

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