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Pregnancy myths and superstitions

Joseph Merrick, c. 1889

Joseph Merrick, c. 1889

Credits:© Royal London Hospital Archives and Museum

Medical advances have revealed much about the science of pregnancy. New technology allows a mother-to-be to hear the beating heart of her baby. Ultrasound scanning lets her see its face too. What once was hidden for nine months is now revealed. However, many myths, taboos and superstitions at one time linked to pregnancy remain in popular culture.

How often or hard the foetus kicks, the shape of the bump and the food a pregnant woman craves are often thought to relate to the sex of the child. Other beliefs are more sinister. Wearing necklaces during pregnancy is avoided by some who feel it increases the chances of the umbilical cord wrapping around the baby’s neck. Geographic variations exist. Pregnant women in Sierra Leone are warned against standing or sitting in open doorways because it is thought to encourage a difficult birth with an obstructed baby.

One of the most widespread and ancient beliefs was ‘maternal impression’, which once gained serious scientific credibility. This is the belief that the appearance and character of a child is influenced by a powerful emotional stimulus experienced by its mother during pregnancy. Birth defects and congenital disorders were consequently explained. Many believed the popular story that the mother of Joseph Merrick, known as the Elephant Man, was frightened by an elephant while she was pregnant. Only this could explain his striking deformity.


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P Wilson, ‘Eighteenth-Century "Monsters" and Nineteenth-Century "Freaks": Reading the Maternally Marked Child’, Literature and Medicine, 21/1 (Spring 2002), pp 1-25

I Stevenson, ‘A New Look at Maternal Impressions: An Analysis of 50 Published Cases and Reports of Two Recent Examples’, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 6 (1992), pp 353-73