Writing a birth or pregnancy scene in your novel, short story or screenplay? Only have minimal information on the nitty-gritty? Want advice from a senior NHS midwife and writer?
Ensuring the authenticity of a birth, pregnancy, or other maternity scene in your fiction may be daunting, even if you’ve experienced childbirth first hand, or witnessed your own being born. Unless you have professional experience in the field, chances are you weren’t focused on the ‘business end’ or technicalities of proceedings.
All births have things in common, as well as differences. It’s worth remembering that many of your readers may have related experiences and expectations. Many amazing, some traumatic. Either way, the importance of getting all-things-pregnancy right shouldn’t be underestimated.
The first research step most of us take is a mooch around the internet. If that’s you, be sure your sources are accurate and recent. Often, however, the details you need on this subject aren’t easy to find. More commonly, the writer simply isn’t aware of which things need amending, so they don’t check the relevant bits. There lies trouble. A maternity faux pas can bring your story down a notch, or three. And this occurs across the board, from world famous bestsellers with deep pockets for rounds of professional editing, to authors who did everything themselves. Much as crime writers often look to policing consultants for advice, clear guidance from an expert on maternity can be a real boon.
With this in mind, here are five top tips* on pregnancy/birth scenes:
- If the waters break pre-labour, it won’t necessarily cause a tremendous splash, or mean birth is imminent. You don’t need to shove your pregnant person in a taxi and make a mad dash to the hospital. Your pre-labourer is not in discomfort and might roll their eyes at the suggestion to ‘breathe, just breathe!’
- The most dangerous part of normal childbirth, for the person birthing, occurs between the baby’s arrival and the placenta being safely delivered. Yet, fictional accounts often omit this third stage of labour, although it’s a wealth of potential drama and tension. Also, there’s plenty a professional can do to help resolve the most common problem if things go wrong at this stage, namely, life-threatening bleeding. Should you, the author, let the new parent die? Not my decision. But, using guidance, you might come up with, say, a heroic, saves the day – or tried, yet failed – scene. Might as well make the most of the drama just waiting to surface.
- Talking of which, provided they aren’t overstimulated, babies born in water rarely draw their first breath until they’re brought to the surface. The cooler air stimulates them to breathe – even then, it can take a heart-stopping minute. If all is normal and the baby merely needs basic assistance, your untrained character can perform a simple solution. Plus, if you’re after a calm, ahhh moment following the birth, using a waterbirth scene is a great way to achieve this.
- In real life, a caesarean section is a different, though not a simple option for childbirth. Likewise, it needn’t be so on the page. Of course, if a planned c-section is on the cards, the story may not mention worries over the when and where. Unless... you fancy chucking a spanner in the works. What options are there? Too many to mention here. But, with a dash of know-how, they’ll likely enthral your reader. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my job, it’s that everyone who has a birth story wants to share it, and almost everybody wants to hear yours. If that’s not an easy way to sell a chapter, I don’t know what is.
- Unless your story absolutely demands it, I strongly advise your character doesn’t manually attempt to pull the baby out by its shoulders after the head is born. This is an inaccurate description for a start. And, once the head’s out, the body generally follows within a few minutes – if the entire baby doesn’t emerge all at once, which happens more often than you’d think. Crucially, in shoulder dystocia (where the head is born, but the shoulders are stuck), the technical internal manoeuvre is physically difficult, rarely needed and not the first resort. It’s unlikely a lay person could perform it at all, let alone do so successfully. Probably best not to try this one at home, or on a mountain/merry-go-round/spaceship. Anyway, there are so many other, less obvious, more realistic scenarios to consider. More than you would believe!
I hope you’ve found these points useful.
Tracey is a senior NHS midwife and fiction writer with extensive copy-editing experience. She set up BirthWrite, her maternity in fiction consultancy service, to ensure all authors have access to authenticity in their maternity-related writing. For monthly tips, or to discuss your project: