This 1970′s documentary is virtually nonexistent–you can’t find it on Google, your library doesn’t carry it, and your college professor has never heard of it. But it’s a fascinating exploration of a peripheral element of birthing that’s nearly never addressed.
The video documents research done from 1975-1981 by Dr. David Chamberlain on birth and womb memory. The research team used regressive hypnosis to explore 100 subjects’ memories of actually being born and their perceptions of the birth experience. There are examples of mothers and their children who had never discussed the child’s birth experience before, yet while under hypnosis, the adult child recounted detailed memories of being in the womb and being born, that match the mother’s account of events.
A local psychologist and I were discussing birth work and alternative lifestyles, and he handed me an unlabeled VHS tape and told me to take a look, and keep an eye out for a “dirty, long-haired, Christian hippie” version of himself in the film.
He indeed does appear, as the husband of a birthing woman who we watch deliver a healthy baby vaginally. The woman, his wife, explains that her first three children were born via cesarean section after her labor stalled during each delivery. Before her fourth birth, she underwent regressive hypnosis as a part of this study, and relived her own birth experience, which was painful, traumatic, and seen negatively by her mother. She attributes her three failed deliveries to this negativity, and subsequently goes on to a successful vaginal delivery of her fourth child, on-camera during the film.
Other subjects described their birth experiences in great detail, from beginning to end. They described feelings of being in the womb, a dark and warm place, and being able to feel the mother’s emotions while in the womb. One woman remembered her mother not being excited about her birth at all, and seeming to be disappointed that she was a girl. When they arrived home, the baby saw that her room had been decorated entirely in blue, and she understood her mother’s reaction. Others reported details about instruments that were used to deliver them, procedures that were done after their birth, remarks made by the doctors and nurses, the hairstyle of the mother when they first saw her, and the ways that they were handled and spoken to and about.
The team also did peer studies involving sets of mothers and their children, who were hypnotized separately and who had never before discussed the child’s birth experience. One such peer couple, Adele and Linda, say that participating in the research brought them closer together as a mother and daughter. While under hypnosis, Linda described her descent through the birth canal, and then the feeling of “cold, hard metal” on both sides of her head as she was pulled out of her mother. Adele, the mother, later confirmed that forceps had been used to deliver Linda.
If the stories being recounted were truly memories of the birth experience, this would have serious implications for our whole understanding of childbirth and the way it is conducted in our culture. “I realized I was listening to a sort of expose of what birth is like in our society,” explains Dr. Chamberlain.
At the time this film was made, in 1981, this research was the only evidence of its kind for birth memories. Dr. Chamberlain states that this evidence should be motivation to “begin to treat babies as real persons, and make the arrival ceremonies appropriate to those thinking, sensing beings–beings who may be a lot wiser than we think.” He also points out that the effects of the Leboyer birth movement were beginning to be seen at the time of this film, and that the changes this was creating in the US birth system were a step in the right direction. Dr. Chamberlain asserts that if babies are indeed aware, thinking beings, as he posits is shown by his study, then there is a need to re-evaluate our perceptions of age, learning, and the point at which parenting begins.