Debunking Old Wives’ Tales About Pregnancy

by Geoff Williams

Debunking Old Wives’ Tales About Pregnancy

Which are fact and which are fiction? Get the truth behind 10 common maternity myths

Don’t look at a mouse when you’re pregnant — if you do, your baby will be born with a hairy birthmark.

Not to alarm anybody, but pregnancy is fraught with peril. If you get really angry, your baby will be born angry. If you have any desire to stuff your swollen feet in high heels, you’d better put the shoes down — now.

Slowly…slowly…good. You just avoided giving birth to a cross-eyed baby. And never eat strawberries. Or do you want a big red splotch on your newborn’s skin?

If you’re newly pregnant, you are starting to discover, and if you’re knee-deep in diapers, then you already know: At no other point in your life will you be offered so many old wives’ tales, that well-meaning advice that is usually utter nonsense.

Some of them are harmless fun. Who wouldn’t enjoy tying a wedding ring to the end of a string, letting it hang over your pregnant belly, and waiting to see if it dangles in a circle or a straight line to predict whether the baby is a boy or girl? But other old wives’ tales are scarier and better off divorced, like the one that says if you stretch your hands above your head, the umbilical cord will strangle your baby (completely false). There’s enough to fret about when you’re expecting and during an infant’s first year without worrying about the impossible, which is why we’re taking a modern look at some of the most common old wives’ tales involving pregnancy and babies.

Carrying High & Down the Drain

If you’re carrying high, it’s a girl. Oh, sure, this is true. Just like if you refuse to eat the heel of a loaf of bread, then you’re having a girl. It’s a boy if your hands are dry. It’s a girl if you crave orange juice. And it’s a boy if your feet are cold.

“Everyone wants to offer their opinion,” says Lyuba Konopasek, M.D., a pediatrician at New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. “When I was pregnant, I had all kinds of people on the street tell me the gender of my baby-to-be.”

While there is absolutely no truth to the carrying high or low wives’ tale, says Jonathan Schaffir, M.D., an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Ohio State University, the myth persists because “you have a 50-50 chance of being right.” The only thing carrying high means is that it is probably your first pregnancy. The girdle-like muscles that hold the uterus against the spine and keep the baby high above the pelvis become more elastic with each pregnancy, so the belly may hang lower each time (you may start showing earlier, too).

The stuff that unclogs your drains can also predict the sex of your baby. Of all the more modern-day old wives’ tales relating to pregnancy and, more specifically, gender prediction, the oddest might be the one connected to Drano, the well-known consumer product that unclogs sinks. Supposedly, if one mixes it with urine, it can determine the sex of your baby. If you pour it down the toilet, and it turns blue, you have a boy; pink, it’s a girl.

Susan Skinner, C.N.M., a nurse midwife at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, says that the Drano old wives’ tale has been around “for at least 20 years. I actually tried it just for fun with my last one.” The all-knowing Drano told Skinner she would have a girl; she had a boy. So, just like carrying high can’t predict your baby’s gender, neither can the clog-removing power of Drano. Plus, the company advises consumers not to use their product in toilets.

Heartburn & Food Cravings

Have a lot of heartburn? Your baby will be born with a lot of hair. No. Well, yes. But no. Yes, you may have a lot of heartburn, and your baby may have a lot of hair, but, no, there’s no connection between the two. And while it might sound silly to even believe that there would be, this is a widely believed myth. It probably came about because pregnant women generally experience heartburn, sometimes a lot of it, and many babies are born with hair. Somebody likely made the connection, and the myth has stuck. But it’s completely false. Author Vicki Iovine said it best in her book, The Girlfriends’ Guide to Pregnancy, when she adamantly maintained, “No matter what people try to tell you, heartburn does not mean that your baby will be born with lots of hair. I had heartburn so badly in all four of my pregnancies that I could spit fire, and all my kids were born as bald as Uncle Fester.”

If you crave ice cream, your body needs calcium. Oh, it’s pineapple you crave? Pickles perhaps? While it’s true that the changing hormones of pregnancy can make women have strong cravings, and even crave foods that they never before liked, the cravings don’t really mean that your baby is trying to tell you something. “People think that if they want a type of food, the baby must want it,” says Dr. Schaffir. But sadly, he says, that notion is just an old wives’ tale — one that could have unhealthy consequences: “Women can overeat and gain too much weight.”

There are, however, some women who crave laundry detergent, paint chips, or clay. These odd cravings (called pica) have been associated with iron deficiency, says Dr. Schaffir, and you should talk to your doctor immediately if you experience them.

Other than that exception, he adds, “if you want carrots, it doesn’t mean you need vitamin A.” Just take your daily prenatal vitamin and indulge your cravings in moderation.

Taking Baths & Taking Walks

Taking a bath can drown your fetus. “The lungs of fetuses are already full of water, so they can’t drown,” chuckles Dr. Konopasek. “Babies get their oxygen through the mother’s placenta,” she explains. Plus, water can’t enter the amniotic sac from outside anyway. “So it’s impossible to ‘drown’ a baby in utero.”

In fact, you may be giving your baby a treat when you take a bath. In a tub, says Skinner, moms-to-be have more buoyancy, and the baby might feel more free to move.

But don’t grab the soap yet. Baths are fine, provided the water isn’t simmering. The water temperature should not go over 98°F to reduce the risk of birth defects, which is why you should definitely avoid hot tubs. Solution: Simply check the temperature of the water before stepping in, advises Skinner.

Walking induces labor. “It’s hard to know exactly how this myth started,” says Dr. Schaffir, “but I think the impression is that gravity will make the baby come down.” In this case, however, the pull of gravity is not powerful enough.

“It won’t hurt anything,” Skinner says of walking. “In one study, women reported that walking made them feel more comfortable, but it doesn’t induce labor.” Dr. Schaffir says that there are a lot of beliefs revolving around inducing labor, including having sex, drinking herbal tea, exercising — and then it just goes downhill from there — being frightened, drinking castor oil, using a laxative, and getting an enema. Says Schaffir: “Sex is one of the only ones with some scientific evidence; it may induce contractions because of a substance found in sperm.”

Cats & Drinking Milk

Cats have a natural urge to smother babies. And have you heard that cats can suck the oxygen out of newborns? The gossip and innuendo around cats is largely unfounded, but there is some actual truth to all of this.

“Cats are not going to suck the breath from your baby, and they’re not going to purposefully sit on your baby,” promises Bernadine Cruz, D.V.M., a veterinarian at the Laguna Hills Animal Hospital in California. But she does say that cats are hedonists and enjoy the pleasures of life. “They will seek out all the comforts that they can — the sunbeam when they’re cold and the softest place to sleep when they’re tired.” If the warmest, softest spot in the house happens to be right next to your child, she adds, your cat will not hesitate to hunker down — and that might just be too close for comfort.

Dr. Cruz suggests training your kitty to stay away from a crib or bassinet and making sure that the cat has an alternative comfortable place to sleep.

In fact, felines pose a greater risk to pregnant women. Cats can carry a parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, a disease which infects multiple organs in the fetus and causes anything from deafness to respiratory problems. The most common way to get the disease is to handle your cat’s feces after it has been lying around for about 48 hours. The easiest way to stay safe: Make your husband clean the litter box while you relax!

Drinking milk will stimulate breast milk. Uh, no. But drinking liquids in general does help, says Gary Edelstein, M.D., a pediatrician at Columbia-Presbyterian Eastside in New York City. “Certainly, a lot of what the mother ingests goes into her breast milk, but milk, over any other type of liquid, doesn’t make a difference in the amount she produces.”

Nursing & Boiling Water

You can’t get pregnant while nursing. False, mostly. Women who breastfeed are less likely to ovulate, menstruate, and become pregnant, but ovulation can begin again at any time, leaving moms at risk, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “It’s not an effective means of birth control,” says Dr. Edelstein.

Melissa Meyer can vouch for that. During the time that the Chandler, Arizona, stay-at-home mom was nursing her then 10-month-old son, she and her husband believed they were completely safe. “We were lucky that it didn’t happen earlier,” laughs Meyer, whose doctor prescribed birth control when she nursed her second son, now 5.

When a woman is in labor, boil water. Throughout television history, when the time to head to the hospital comes, the dad is a frazzled mess. The couple’s close friends — from Fred and Ethel to Joey and Chandler — collide into each other in their attempts to help the mom-to-be. And through it all is almost always the rallying cry: “Boil water!” But should you actually do that?

If you’re stuck at home, then asking your partner to boil water may not be a bad idea, admits Skinner. “Some say it’s done to sterilize the equipment. But, really, it’s to give the men something to do. It’s a way to keep them busy.”

Geoff Williams is a freelance writer based in Loveland, Ohio.