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Wellcome Film of the Month: Your children’s sleep

5 Apr, 2013

This film is from a government-sponsored series aimed at parents and looking at different aspects of parenting in the 1940s. It was made by Realist Film Unit and comes to us courtesy of the BFI Archive. The film tapped into the emerging field of child psychiatry, fuelled by governmental concern for the emerging generation post-war, this whole generation had grown up without two parents being at home.

In terms of narrative structure, the film explores common childhood sleep problems covering many of the typical disturbances encountered by parents. This subject is also being looked at in a television series currently airing on Channel 4 dedicated to sleep-entitled Bedtime Live, presented by Dr Tanya Byron who is government adviser on children as well as a psychologist. ‘Your childrens’ sleep’ delivers sensible, practical advice, although the problems may seem rather tame to modern day parents!

In order to generate a sympathetic reception, ‘Your childrens’ sleep’ follows the framework of the medical case study. The film differentiates adult and childhood sleep patterns very clearly; we encounter Mrs Parkins who mislays her handbag while out shopping (strangely, her major concern is that she’ll get behind with her housework). Then cases of boys and girls parented in different ways are also sympathetically portrayed. Yet, even using these believable examples, the film says that it cannot provide an answer to the question, “what is sleep” because “no one knows”. Research into sleep only grew exponentially after the film was made – from the 1950s onwards with the deepening understanding of sleep disorders and the development of sleep medicine.

The film is not a manual that promises to eradicate sleep disturbances completely. In common with modern parenting handbooks, it offers some coping strategies. One suggestion is to offer a bedtime story, which is charmingly portrayed in the film. The bedtime story, unattributed in the film, but familiar to those who have read it (and a stalwart of my children’s bedtimes), is The Story of the Little Red Engine by Diana Ross with pictures by Leslie Wood, published in 1945.

‘Your children’s sleep’ was reviewed favourably by Ronald MacKeith (1908-1977) in the British Medical Bulletin. In 1948, MacKeith was working at Guys Hospital in London and later (not long after these films were released) became Children’s Physician there. He went on to have a career pioneering the care needs of children with disabilities and their families. In the 1950s, his interest in paediatrics, childhood psychiatry and neurology led him to become involved with the Spastics Society, now known as Scope (the Spastics Society films are in the Moving Image & Sound Collection and MacKeith’s papers are also held in the Wellcome Library). In 2012, two of his daughters brought to us a small number of films owned by their father for appraisal. These turned out to be delightful home movies of their childhood, shot by their father, which they had never seen and a few rather odd films in poor condition collected by MacKeith relating to childhood nutrition (they are as yet uncatalogued).

This interest in childcare and food may explain how MacKeith got involved in reviewing another film from  the series, ‘Your children’s meals’. However, he felt that this film left “a rather muddled impression”. In contrast, ‘Your children’s sleep’, he described as “polished, lucid, tranquil and persuasive”. Unfortunately, he found the sequence of symbolic shapes representing worries – a game of chess with the worries being the black pieces and the white pieces strategies or logic –meaningless. As a film curator, I would say that this is harsh – I find this kind of abstraction rather novel. Mackeith also grumbled about the lack of credit given to the technical adviser on the film, D. W Winnicott, whose name does not appear in the credits. He wrote, “One would guess that a very wise and experienced children’s doctor or psychologist has helped in the making”. Indeed, D. W. Winnicott had a good track record in this field; he served as consultant psychiatrist for the wartime evacuation programme of children from British cities to the countryside and later on his post-war books about childhood psychiatry made him widely known. Winnicott’s papers are also held in the Wellcome Library together with a number of his radio broadcasts.

‘Your children’s sleep’ and ‘Your children’s meals’ will appear on a new DVD release, ‘Your Children and You’, issued by the BFI this April. The DVD will also feature four Wellcome Film titles, three of which have received new specially commissioned sound tracks – more about this in later posts.

Angela Saward

You can learn about the Wellcome Film project here. If you would like to make use of this archive footage in your own projects, please visit the Wellcome Library catalogue to download the original files, which are distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence.

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