Pregnancy, as Seen on TV

Pregnancy expectations and understanding may be influenced by TV shows that depict childbirth

TV shows about pregnancy might have a real-world influence on viewers.

In a new study, a researcher looked at how TV programs might affect women’s perceptions of pregnancy and birth. She found that educated women denied that TV had an impact. Less-educated women, however, saw TV as a learning opportunity.

In reality, both groups likely formed impressions about pregnancy and birth from watching TV, said Danielle Bessett, PhD, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati.

“We found clear class differences in how women saw television influencing their pregnancy knowledge,” Dr. Bessett said in a press release. “When asked what part reality shows or fictional TV played on their learning or education about pregnancy and the birthing process, the groups professed two entirely different perspectives.”

Dr. Bessett studied 64 racially and economically diverse pregnant women over a two-year period.

Forty-four percent of the women said they watched reality shows like “Baby Story," “Maternity Ward” and “Birth Day.” Women who were unemployed or cared for children at home were most likely to watch such shows.

Highly educated women downplayed the effect TV programs had on their expectations for pregnancy.

Less-educated women said they saw the programs as one information source among many. These women often assessed the shows critically and assessed them for credibility, Dr. Bessett found.

Reality shows, Dr. Bessett said, tend to focus on births that have many medical interventions as part of the dramatic portrayal — although these events are often considered abnormal in the real world. All of the women in this study cited overly dramatized medical scenes in describing their expectations for their own childbirth process.

Dr. Bessett described these expectations as cultural mythologies of pregnancy. She noted that many women discussed programs they had seen long before they got pregnant.

“This research implies that many women underestimate or underreport the extent to which their expectations of pregnancy and birth are shaped by popular media,” Dr. Bessett said. “This important new awareness suggests that scholars must not only focus on patients’ professed methods for seeking information, but also explore the unrecognized role that television plays in their lives.”

Dr. Bessett presented her research at the 110th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. Research presented at conferences may not have been peer-reviewed.

This research project was funded by a National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant and the Mary P. Dole Medical Fellowship, sponsored by the Mount Holyoke College Alumnae Association. Dr. Bessett disclosed no conflicts of interest.