If only labour lasted the length of a sitcom. But that only happens in Hollywood. In real life, childbirth can dramatically diverge from the script.
Myth: Your waters are guaranteed to break in public
Stop worrying about making a splash in a shop, restaurant or on someone’s shoes (like Miranda does in Sex and the City, ruining Carrie’s pink Christian Louboutins).
Why this is considered a myth
Dr Malikah van der Schyff, a Cape Town specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology, explains, “The foetus is surrounded by amniotic fluid and an amniotic membrane – when this membrane ruptures, women may experience leaking of amniotic fluid.”
“It rarely happens in a public place and usually occurs when a patient is at rest, or already in hospital. If it does rupture spontaneously, it is unusual to have it gush down the legs and form a puddle on the floor.”
Myth: After the waters break, you will need to speed to hospital
Sex and the City: The Movie is a classic example of this myth in action. There’s Charlotte, standing on a pavement outside a New York restaurant, giving Mr Big a piece of her mind: “I curse the day you were born!” she cries. Then: “I think my water just broke. Taxi!”
The reality of the situation
The reality is that contractions are often the first sign of labour, not your bag of waters breaking. Dr Van der Schyff explains, “It often only breaks once women are in the active phase of labour. It may also be artificially ruptured or broken by the midwife or obstetrician. In fact, only about 15% of women actually experience the real prelabour rupture of membranes.”
Myth: Wild, crazy screaming – including abusing any loved ones in sight – is compulsory
Let’s be realistic. “Childbirth is not painless,” says Dr Van der Schyff. “But women are not possessed by a delivery demon during contractions and thus will not behave in a psychotic manner.”
It is true that husbands may be shouted at
It is, however, true that husbands may be shouted at. “Women are often concentrating on their breathing or anticipating the next contraction, and they may not appreciate distractions,” Dr Van der Schyff explains. “Unfortunately certain frequently asked questions by loved ones, such as ‘Is it sore, baby?’, may evoke a harsh response. This question is never well tolerated and may elicit some abuse toward said partner.”
This scene plays itself out on the series Grey’s Anatomy:
Chief of surgery: “Are you all right? Can I get you anything?”
Miranda Bailey (bent over in a contraction): “A boy the size of a 10-pound bowling ball is working his way out of my body. Can you get me something for that? Can you get me a new vagina?
Chief: “Uh, well...”
Bailey (satisfied): “I didn’t think so.”
Myth: You will labour while lying in bed
Women do not go into labour and then hop straight into their hospital beds, unlike the pregnant teen in Oscar-winning comedy Juno.
Standing is often better
Sister Philbrick says, “Medical research shows there are several physiological advantages to being upright during labour and delivery.” These include stronger and more efficient contractions and the fact that your body is working along with gravity, which helps to speed up the process.
Myth: You will look attractive during labour
Sweat is the new hairspray in everything from Knocked Up to Scrubs as make-up artists acknowledge labour is hard work by draping tendrils of hair around the heroine’s face, while her mascara remains unsmudged.
Most women aren't wearing makeup during labour
Registered nurse and midwife Sarah Philbrick of Noordhoek Baby Clinic sets the record straight:
“Many labours start during the night – most of us don’t go to bed in full make-up or feel the need to apply it at 3am. As contractions get stronger and more painful we start to sweat and make-up slides off, and when the pushing begins we soon go red in the face. Due to hormonal influences and the pain-killing drugs, we can often vomit – definitely not attractive. Once it is all over, we are likely to cry with relief, exhaustion and emotion.”
Sarah’s advice? “Either wear waterproof mascara or wait for the photos until after you have showered and had a cup of tea.”
Myth: No-one ever needs a caesarean
Rachel delivered a breech baby in Friends, possibly to ensure the following comic exchange:
Ross: “What is that?”
Doctor: “It’s the baby’s buttocks, she’s breech.”
Ross: “Oh, thank God, I thought she had two heads.”
In South Africa, a first baby in the breech position would probably have meant a c-section. But screen heroines never have caesareans, which lack a sufficiently dramatic storyline of pain, suffering and reward. In real life, the best-laid natural birth plan can sometimes go awry.
Both emergency caesars as well as elective caesars exist
“The decision to perform an emergency caesarean section is made when either maternal or foetal health will be compromised by vaginal birth,” explains Dr Van der Schyff.
There are many reasons for an emergency caesar, and no woman should feel bad about a last-minute change to her birth plan – rather focus on the health of your child than live up to illusory standards set in American sitcoms.
Myth: Men always faint in the labour ward
Think of expectant dad Hugh Grant who sees the epidural needle and collapses in Nine Months. Upon which the Russian obstetrician (Robin Williams) says: “See? That is why women have the babies. Men can’t take the paaaiii...” And he too faints at the sight of a needle.
Husbands passing out is rare
Husbands passing out is rare, but not unheard of, says Dr Van der Schyff: “Often the rule ‘the bigger they are, the harder they fall’ applies.” Sister Philbrick says fainting husbands are more common in the operating theatre; it gives staff a good laugh in the tea room later. “Tip: encourage him to stand against the wall and fall backwards!”
Myth: Baby comes out face up
In Knocked Up, Alison (Katherine Heigl of Grey’s Anatomy) gives birth to a girl who comes out face up – but this is actually the wrong way round. Dr Van der Schyff clarifies, “A normal vaginal birth involves the baby being born with his or her face down and the back of the head (occiput) up (anterior). Medically, this is referred to as occipito-anterior presentation.
If your baby is born with its face up, it is considered a malpresentation, and this occurs in only 1 of 500 live births.”
Sister Philbrick says, “This will make for a relatively longer labour as the head does not fit onto the cervix properly. The causes of this malpresentation may include prematurity, congenital malformation, mothers who may have had several babies already.”
Myth: A newborn is chubby and clean
Watching the birth scene in Juno, you might think, “No way is something that size coming out of my vagina!” And you’d be right. That chubby cherub is no newborn. “I would guess that babies used in TV series or movies are between 2 and 4 weeks old,” says Sister Philbrick. “Check out their very clean noses!
This is definitely not the case
"At full term, a newborn baby weighs 3.4kg, has a head circumference 35cm and length of 50cm,” she continues. Newborn babies are also covered in goo, not artistic red splodges.
“Newborns are slippery and wet and covered in vernix, a white substance that protects the skin from drying out in the amniotic fluid. They often have a little blood on the body and mucous up the nose.” Your baby may also have a “cone head” after passing through the pelvis, and a touch of the werewolf, with fine hair on its back and shoulders.
Still, chin up: he or she will be the most beautiful thing you have ever seen.
Myth: Afterwards, expect a wave of euphoria
Euphoria after giving birth does happen, but there's nothing wrong if it doesn't
Castaway Claire came over all happily tearful when her son was born on Lost – a scene that, for once, has elements of realism. During labour the body releases endorphins, a natural painkiller, explains Sister Philbrick. “It gives you a hormonal high following delivery.”
But don’t feel cheated if it’s not an instant hit. Mothers often feel ecstatic, overwhelmed and joyful. “But exhaustion may set in first. Feelings do fluctuate during this time.”
Myth: You will leave hospital in skinny jeans
It takes 9 months to put on, it can take 9 months to lose it!
Please! This only happens to the likes of Posh Spice, and with definite surgical assistance. States Sister Philbrick, “You will only leave the hospital in skinny jeans if your personal plastic surgeon pops in during your caesarean section. At the time of the birth there will be a weight loss of about 4.6kg. The general rule of thumb is that it takes 9 months to put on weight and 9 months to get rid of it.”
So don’t pack away the maternity clothing just yet.