10 Best Pregnancy Old Wives' Tales
Sorting pregnancy fact from fiction.
Long before medical professionals and modern science, women learned about the ins and outs of pregnancy from other women. Older generations passed down their insights to help expectant parents … well ... know what to expect. These collective beliefs are more often known as “old wives’ tales,” and many new moms still look to them for guidance on anything from how to predict a baby’s gender to what can spark labour.
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But while some of these shared stories have a bit of science to back them up, others are likely nothing more than a coincidence, says Dr. Kate Killoran, an OB-GYN from Your Doctors Online, who practices in Maine. We rounded up 10 common old wives’ tales about pregnancy and investigated whether there’s any evidence to support them. Here’s what we found.
Predicting your baby’s gender
Some believe you don’t need a doctor or ultrasound tech to tell you if you’re having a boy or girl. Here’s what the old wives’ tales say.
1. Carrying high? It’s a girl!
Mum and CEO of Upparent Alexandra Fung is pregnant with her fourth child. She’s carrying all in the front, like a basketball under her shirt, and people aren’t shy about their predictions.
“Random strangers are always — and frequently — telling me that I am pregnant with a boy based on the way I carry the baby,” Fung says.
So the tale goes: Carrying high and all over means you’re pregnant with a girl, while carrying low and in front means the baby is a boy. And, in fact, Fung is pregnant with a boy.
That, however, is likely just a coincidence, says Dr. Mitchell Kramer, OB-GYN, of Huntington Hospital in Long Island, New York. There’s “no scientific or physiologic reason that this would be the case,” he says.
Dr. Tiffany Pham, an OB-GYN at Partners in OB/GYN Care at Texas Children’s Pavilion for Women in Houston, agrees. She says how the baby bump takes shape has likely more to do with the tone and strength of a mom’s own abdominal muscles than the sex of the baby.
2. Low fetal heart rate? It’s a boy!
If a baby’s position isn’t really predictive of their sex, then what about their heart rate? Some believe that a heart rate over 140 beats per minute (bpm) means the baby is a girl, while a rate under 140 bpm signals a boy.
Kramer has heard that one, too: “The fetal heart rate is not gender-dependent,” he says.
Most growing babies have a heart rate of 110 to 160 bpm, but that can fluctuate from one moment to the next, regardless of the baby’s sex.
3. Lots of morning sickness? It’s a girl!
Emilia Lewis, a mom blogger at Pursuetoday.com in Boston, had horrible morning sickness during both of her pregnancies.
“Everyone thought I was having a girl because I was so sick,” she says.
Lo and behold, both pregnancies resulted in baby girls.
But while the old wives’ tale might have foretold Lewis’ daughters, it didn’t for Vered DeLeeuw, a mom blogger at HealthyRecipesBlogs.com in San Francisco.
“During my second pregnancy, I had almost no morning sickness,” DeLeeuw says.
Her friends and family were convinced she was carrying a boy, but they were wrong. Her second baby was a girl.
Whether the morning sickness test is predictive or not might just be the luck of the draw. Most pregnant women (70% to 80%) have nausea or vomiting at some point during their pregnancy, but not all of them will give birth to girls.
4. Craving salty foods? It’s a boy!
Cravings are a big part of pregnancy for many women, and some think that having the urge to eat certain foods is a telltale sign of your baby’s sex. But does craving salty foods mean you’ll have a boy and sweet foods a girl?
It’s just another myth, Killoran says. While it can be fun to try and guess the baby’s sex during pregnancy, she says these old wives’ tales are only right about half the time.
“There is a 50/50 chance of getting the gender right,” Killoran says.
With odds like that, she says, it’s easy to see why the myths persist.
Affecting your baby’s looks or health
There’s a reason OB-GYNs hand newly pregnant patients a long list of dos and don’ts during pregnancy: Lifestyle habits can have a profound impact on your health and that of your baby. Eating some foods (like raw meat) can put you at risk for food poisoning, and certain activities (like smoking or drinking alcohol) might hurt the baby’s growth and development.
But while some warnings during pregnancy are rooted in science, others are myths with little evidence behind them. Here are a few.
5. Your pregnancy diet and baby’s risk for food allergies
Killoran says a common concern she hears from parents is whether eating something during pregnancy (like peanuts, eggs or dairy) will make the baby more likely to be allergic.
“Sometimes allergies occur, and women can think back and may feel like they caused the allergy because of what they were eating in pregnancy,” Killoran says.
But according to Dr. Candice Fraser, an OB-GYN at Trinity Medical Care NY in New York, there isn’t much evidence to support this idea.
“Eating peanuts or drinking milk during pregnancy will not cause allergies,” Fraser says.
In fact, the opposite might be true. According to Fraser, there is some evidence that eating peanuts during pregnancy (if you're not allergic) might actually lower the chance of children having peanut allergies.
Pham says rather than cutting out otherwise healthy foods, women wanting to protect the health of their babies should instead focus on getting a well-rounded diet to ensure both mom and baby get the nutrients they need.
6. Petting your cat during pregnancy
Cats can sometimes be infected with diseases — like toxoplasma, a microscopic parasite that can be dangerous to babies in the womb — which is why a lot of women believe you should avoid cats during pregnancy.
While the risk of toxoplasmosis is a very real one, Killoran says the parasite is primarily spread through feces and raw meat, not your cat’s fur.
“[Pregnant women] should not clean a cat's litter box,” she says. “But otherwise, your cat poses no risk.”
7. Heartburn and baby’s hair
Adri Kyser’s grandmother pointed to her heartburn as a sign that her baby would have lots of hair. Her grandma ended up being right.
“[My daughter] was born with a head full of black hair,” Kyser says.
The idea that heartburn is somehow linked to a baby’s hair growth is a common belief, Pham says. She heard it so often from patients that she did a little digging to see if there was any validity to it. To her surprise, she found a study that looked at the supposed heartburn-to-hair connection and actually found it to be (possibly) true.
Most of the women in the study with moderate or severe heartburn during pregnancy did, indeed, give birth to babies with more hair, while most women with little to no heartburn had babies with little hair. The study’s authors thought the link could be due to hormones during pregnancy that simultaneously affect mom’s digestive tract (increasing heartburn) and stimulate hair growth in the baby. The study was far from conclusive, Pham says, including a non-diverse group of just 64 women. But she says it was interesting to see that there’s at least a little scientific support for the belief.
8. Hot baths and baby’s health
Many pregnant women have heard they should avoid hot baths during pregnancy, but like a lot of myths, this old wives’ tale only has a seed of truth in it.
“You don't want to raise your core body temperature during pregnancy, so prolonged heat exposure should be avoided, like hot tubs and saunas,” Killoran says.
But she says that’s no reason to avoid a good soak in the tub.
“A bath — even if it's hot to begin with — doesn't stay hot enough to raise core temperature,” she says.
Mamas can enjoy their bubble bath, so long as they avoid the sauna.
Going into labour
Whether you’re trying to hold off early labuor or help move things along when you’re way past due, it can be tempting to look for ways to try (or avoid) inducing labour naturally. There are myths around this, too.
9. Eating your way into labour
Does eating pineapple really soften the cervix? Is the cramping you get from spicy foods and castor oil enough to kick-start contractions? The theories might seem rooted in biology, but there’s little science to back them up, Pham says.
Pineapple does have an enzyme called bromelain that digests proteins, making it an effective meat tenderiser, but she says there’s no evidence eating it will actually soften the cervix. And while spicy foods and castor oil can upset the stomach, there doesn’t appear to be any link between gastrointestinal discomfort and going into labour either.
10. Sex inducing contractions
There’s actually truth to the adage “what gets the baby in, helps the baby out.”
“Intercourse can irritate the cervix, and that can stimulate contractions,” Pham says.
For this reason, doctors might advise you to hold off on having sex if you’re at risk of going into labour too early. But if you’re past your due date and your doctor gives you the OK, having sex might be more effective at inducing labour than, say, eating a whole pineapple.
Old wives’ tales can be fun to seek out and share, but they aren’t always harmless. Protect yourself and the baby by running any well-meaning advice by your doctor or midwife. They can help you sort out which tales to try, and which you might want to (politely) ignore.
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