Birth and postpartum are not like the movies—but these films still tell important stories.
Featured Image: BIRTHING JUSTICE/Women in the Room Productions
Content Warning: This post contains mentions of suicide and child death.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
While expecting, many soon-to-be parents want to learn more about pregnancy, birth, and postpartum to feel informed and prepared for whatever lies ahead. Prenatal appointments and pregnancy apps will give you a good idea of what to expect from week to week (baby is almost the size of an eggplant!). However, there’s still plenty of essential ground to cover before your newbie decides to make their grand entrance into the world.
Gaining additional insight is beneficial because pregnancy and birth (and everything that comes after it) are not one-size-fits-all—or even most. Different people have different experiences, and it can be helpful to glean insight from various sources in addition to your doctor, midwife, sister, or best friend. By seeing different perspectives on pregnancy and childbirth and understanding the possible outcomes, associated risks, and contributing factors, you can better make decisions for yourself and your baby.
There have been thousands of books written about the birthing process. You can read articles, essays, first-hand accounts, and even fiction depicting others’ experiences. And while some delivery scenes portrayed in television and film strive to give a somewhat accurate illustration of what may be in store, Hollywood usually doesn’t get it exactly right. Documentaries offer an entertaining way to bridge the gap between well-written fiction and real life. Although informative and useful, the downside to these films is that they are usually created to educate the general public on potential dangers and threats within the maternal health care system, so while you take the information in, remember to keep it in context.
These nine exploratory documentaries are worthy of watching the next time you curl up for a quiet night at home or need a break from your regularly scheduled programming.
BIRTHING JUSTICE (2023)
The Black maternal death rate in America is almost three times that of white women. BIRTHING JUSTICE examines racial disparities in maternal health care and examines the structures determining Black women’s mortality. It highlights current progress and what’s being done to prevent these deaths, and long-term solutions to fix this broken system. This film also provides an educational resource for viewers to learn about other birthing options, emphasizing natural birthing and midwifery care. Stream it on PBS.
Two bereaved fathers team up with activists, birth workers, and physicians to address the abysmal maternal death rates in America after losing their partners, Shamony Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac, due to preventable complications during childbirth. Aftershock focuses on the U.S. medical system, illuminating centuries-long systemic racism and the repercussions of patient-provider relations today. While heartbreaking, this documentary explains how we arrived at this point in health care and carries the undertone of optimism and hope as the loved ones left behind fight for change on Capitol Hill. Stream it on Hulu.
When the Bough Breaks (2017)
Postpartum mood disorders are still considered taboo in many circles and not openly discussed often enough, despite affecting up to 20% of birth parents. When the Bough Breaks follows a mother suffering from postpartum depression (PPD) for six years and documents her winding road to recovery. It also includes interviews with women whose severe mental health decline and intrusive thoughts tragically led them to lose their babies to infanticide. Additionally, there are stories of mothers dying by suicide, told from the perspectives of their loved ones. While the material is shocking and heavy, it points out potentially life-saving signs that are often missed during the postpartum period and will encourage you to have essential conversations before delivery. Stream it on Amazon or Apple TV.
The Mama Sherpas (2015)
What’s responsible for the rise in C-sections in America? And who might be able to help turn the numbers around? This closer look at why over 30% of babies are born in the operating room wonders aloud whether collaborative care between medical staff and an increased reliance on midwives might make a difference in and outside hospital settings. While the most important thing is that you and your baby have a safe and healthy delivery, The Mama Sherpas will increase your understanding of cesarean sections and what questions to ask your doctor before the big day. Stream it on Amazon or Apple TV.
40 Weeks (2014)
If you love birth stories, you’ll enjoy this unscripted documentary featuring real-life couples sharing an intimate peek into their journeys from conception to delivery. 40 Weeks explores the emotional and physical changes, hopes and fears, and the difficult choices presented during pregnancy and birth. Each parent-to-be is brave, candid, and open about everything from awkward leaks to awe-inducing ultrasounds. Stream it on Amazon or Apple TV.
Breastfeeding families reveal what it’s really like to navigate nursing in the world. Through a series of frank, revealing, and often hilarious interviews, this documentary highlights the benefits of breastfeeding for babies, the challenges for lactating parents, the effects on partners, and the realities most don’t know about until they experience them firsthand. Breastmilk addresses the facts, questions, and misconceptions surrounding nursing and advocates for all parents to receive the support they need. Stream it on Amazon or Apple TV.
Doulas: A Documentary (2013)
Whether you’re thinking about adding a doula to your labor team or simply want to know what the heck one is, Doulas is an enlightening film that explains the logistics and intricacies of doula care and celebrates the process of supported birth. Get the scoop on what these “tour guides for birth” can do and how one might fit into your birth plan. Stream it on Amazon.
Follow four adorable babies from all over the globe on their first trip around the sun. You’ll be amused and amazed as you observe the vastly different environments they grow up in and the universal parenting truths that cross cultures and continents. Babies is an easy-to-watch crowd-pleaser that showcases the joyous celebration of humankind and will leave a smile on your face. Stream it on Amazon or Apple TV.
The Business of Being Born (2008)
This popular documentary offers a probing report on America’s health care system. The typical form of birth in the U.S. involves hospitals, drugs, and obstetricians, while childbirth in many other countries enlists the help of midwives with an emphasis on home birthing. No matter your preferences for provider and birth setting, the compelling findings of The Business of Being Born will encourage you to advocate for the birth you want and to be an active participant in the conversations surrounding your maternal care. Stream it on Amazon.
Documentary films provoke thought, offer a different perspective, educate an audience, and inspire change like no other medium can. If what you learn while watching any one of these documentaries raises questions and concerns (and some should), don’t be afraid to share them with your provider.
This article was originally published in 2016 and was updated by Lauren Lisle.