Pregnancy is a time of great vulnerability for women. It has always been accompanied by some risk, especially in the past when we knew less than we do now about gestation and birth. Experience, while it is our fundamental source of knowledge, can also be misleading—one woman’s experience does not, cannot, and should not define another’s. A woman’s health, support network, emotional preparedness, and doctor/midwife can all influence her experience.
Many of the myths surrounding pregnancy arose with the intention of protecting mother and child. Some are based in fact, but don’t give a complete picture and can be misinterpreted. In this article we will debunk some of the most common myths and give you the basic facts instead.
All cultures devise stories and myths to explain the world. Over time we have replaced many of the old stories with more accurate explanations based in scientific study. However, there has long been a male bias in medicine. The male body was studied first, but lady-parts remained a mystery for many decades. In fact, the first comprehensive study of the clitoris was published by a female scientist in 1998.
Historically, midwives attended to pregnancy and birth and passed their wisdom down through generations of women. We have much to thank them for.
However, today we have much more information and are able to differentiate between fact and superstition. Pregnancy has studied extensively by experts in gynaecology, genetics, surgery, and other scientific disciplines. Advances in medicine have drastically decreased deaths of expectant mothers and their children during pregnancy and delivery. Even so, there is much we have yet to learn and there some dangers are difficult to prevent.
Let’s take a look at some myths about pregnancy and birth that are still common today.
The food a woman eats while she is pregnant should be fresh and varied to provide the nutritional building blocks a foetus needs to develop healthily. But there are many myths surrounding eating while pregnant that simply aren’t true. Cravings or specific products consumed during pregnancy will not affect the infant’s taste buds and preferences. Nor will the colour of the foods you eat influence the baby’s skin or hair colour, birthmarks, and other pigmentation.
In some Asian countries there is a belief that hot and spicy foods will make a baby bald or even cause blindness, but there is no link between the spiciness of the food an expectant mother eats and her baby’s hair or eyesight. On the other hand, eating spicy foods can make the mother uncomfortable. For example, they can cause water retention and swelling, and often contribute indigestion and heartburn, especially in the last trimester. If you aren’t used to eating spicy foods, pregnancy is probably not the best time to experiment with them.
You may have heard that pregnant women should not eat sushi or raw fish. This is true because eating raw fish and meat carries a risk of bacterial infection and a woman’s immune system is more susceptible during pregnancy. Unfortunately, due to industrial waste, raw fish now also poses the risk of mercury poisoning, which can be harmful to the foetus.
The saying goes “You are eating for two”—and it is true to a point. Pregnancy is a time to really listen to your body, eat the food you crave, and not restrict the amount. However, while a developing baby requires nourishment, it needs much less than a fully grown adult. The average recommended increase is about 200 calories per day. This number will vary depending on the individual.
Pregnancy is definitely not the time for weight loss and dieting. Eat a healthy, balanced diet for you and your child.
According to another myth, lifting your hands above your head when you are pregnant will lead to complications during birth. Some even go so far as to say that this will cause the umbilical cord to break. This is not true.
The female body is much better adapted to carrying a child than people used to believe. In fact, no short-term body position, including challenging yoga poses, can truly influence the baby—it is floating safely in a sac filled with buoyant, cushioning amniotic fluids.
Another bizarre superstition is that you should avoid rope and string during pregnancy to prevent the umbilical cord from twisting into an undesirable configuration in the womb. This is false. On the other hand, working with ropes could be challenging and involve the inhalation of dangerous fibres. Physical exhaustion and inhaling harmful fibres can lead to complications but being around string or rope cannot.
Many superstitions forbid women from swimming, and sometimes from even being near open water for fear of water spirits.
Swimming is perfectly safe, and even recommended during pregnancy. Water activities can provide a low-impact whole-body workout and help build strength and endurance. Chlorine in public pools does not pose any risk during pregnancy, but of course one should avoid swimming in polluted water. Swimming in unknown places and pushing your strength to the limit is dangerous, but pregnancy has little to do with it.
Relaxing baths are highly recommended.
People sometimes worry about water from outside coming in contact with and harming the developing baby. There is no basis for this. The foetus is protected by several layers—the amniotic sac, the uterus, and the mucus plug that provides an extra barrier to the cervical opening.
The moon—especially a full moon—has been linked to many mysteries. Stories about werewolves are a reflection of the power we associate with the full moon. Pregnant women were once advised to stay indoors during a full moon and to avoid spending time in the moonlight to avoid having their babies succumb to mythical health issues. These are myths. The moon has no ill effect on the health of baby or mother and will not turn anyone into a werewolf either.
On the other hand, a connection has been drawn between the phases of the moon and the menstrual cycle—both are roughly the same length and we get the words menses and menstruation from the Ancient Greek word for moon, mene, and the Latin word for month, mensis. But even so, studies have shown that there is no correlation between the phases of moon and the menstrual cycle, and the moon does not influence labour and delivery.
However, lunar phases have been shown to have an effect on vaginal Ph levels, which can influence the gender of the child!
While nature is bewildering and magnificent, and still mysterious to us in many ways, there is an explanation for the link between natural cycles and strange phenomena—our brain. Our minds are wired to look for connections in everything to keep us safe by alerting us to potential dangers. Instinctually resorting to fight, flight, or freeze can keep you out of harm’s way if you come across a snake or a lion. But knee-jerk contextual connections are not always accurate—if it happened before, it can happen again, but then again it might not. Just because some women have given birth during the full moon doesn’t mean a full moon induces labour.
Some cultures have prohibited pregnant women from attending funerals to protect the baby from the spirits of the dead. Child mortality rates were much higher in the past, so many cultures came up with rules in hopes of protecting expectant mothers and their children.
Funerals can be emotionally charged, and emotional distress can affect pregnancy. Any kind of high-stress situation—physical or emotional—can be harmful to anyone, let alone a developing human. However, grieving is a healthy and necessary emotional process for those who have lost a loved one and attending a funeral demonstrates respect and support for the grieving family and can bring people together. An expectant mother should be free to make her own choices on such matters.
Pregnant women are often told to ask their mothers about their pregnancy and birth experiences to know what they should expect. Genetic factors certainly come into play when it comes to pregnancy and hormones. It is often expected that puberty—when you first get your period and when your breasts being to develop—will be similar for daughters and mothers, and that their pregnancies will be similar as well.
In truth, any woman who has experienced more than one pregnancy will tell you that no two pregnancies are the same, even for the same woman. There are too many variables. While it is worth listening to the advice of women mentors in your life, their experience may not always apply to you.
In the 21st century, pregnancy is no longer a mystical process influenced by the moon and by supernatural beings. Be cautious by all means, but don’t let superstitions and well-intentioned but unsolicited advice overwhelm you. Enjoy the journey and remember—you are not the first and will not be the last. There is support available if you need it!
Learn more about various aspects of pregnancy here.
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