Pregnancy Superstitions | Digital Traditions

by Mallory Turner. Turner is an Anthropology student in the South Carolina Honors College at USC. This paper was written for the Fall 2011 class "Folklife in America."

Pregnancy is a time of immense change, anticipation, and uncertainty – making it a breeding ground for superstitions. Superstitions are a form of customary folklore that generally center on cause and effect. The most common formula is “if one does X, then Y will happen unless one does Z.” Wayland Hand, an American folklorist, collected and separated superstitions into those dealing with the human life cycle, the supernatural, folk religion, and cosmology and the natural world. Pregnancy superstitions primarily fall under the human life cycle.

Pregnant women comprise a folk group. They are connected by this shared, unusual and frightening experience of growing a life, and talking to others who are experiencing similar feelings is often more helpful than talking to those who are more disconnected from the experience, like a husband. This folk group shares stories and advice, and it is perpetually changing as more women join it. Women who have already given birth are also a significant part of the folk group because they can still contribute with their past experiences. Superstitions are a common topic of discussion for this folk group, and they persist for three main reasons. First, people have a tendency to try to control all aspects of life, whether or not they are actually under one’s control. This point is especially valid for pregnancy, a time when women feel like they have very little control over their bodies or the future. Second, humans have an innate desire to believe in something supernatural. Many pregnancy superstitions deal with supernatural beliefs. Finally, humans tend to ignore information that disproves superstitions and believe information that confirms them. When sharing stories about pregnancy and what superstitions were or were not true, the ones that confirm the superstitions can make women believe the practice is worth following – just in case.

In this project, I will first explore what reputable sources that women might seek for answers have to say about pregnancy superstitions. I will then examine more general, less reputable sources where superstitions are much more bountiful. Finally, I will interview both women who have had babies and those who have not about their experience with pregnancy superstitions. The interviews with those who have not given birth are on a video.

A plethora of “reputable” articles have been written about pregnancy “myths,” which are actually technically superstitions according to folklorists because most follow a cause and effect pattern and are mostly more customary, rather than narrative in nature. The articles, found in what most people would consider reliable sources, like Time, Scientific American, an interview with Dr. Phil, and CBSNews, are generally written to prove or disprove the superstitions. I will examine the superstitions they choose to test to determine and analyze what fairly reputable sources perceive as the most common superstitions.

One area of superstitions many “reputable” articles deal with is determining the sex of the baby. A common superstition both Dr. Phil and Scientific American explore is that if the baby bump is mostly low and in the front, the baby is a boy, while if it is more evenly rounded, the baby is a girl (“Myths”, Ballantyne). Time Healthland also names the position of the baby in the womb to be a common superstition about determining the baby’s sex, along with the line on the skin below the belly button (Luscombe). All three of these sources claim that this superstition is false and that the baby’s position depends on the mother’s body type. Another false superstition about the baby’s sex, according to Dr. Phil, is that having acne while one is pregnant means the baby will be a girl (“Myths”). In addition, CBSNews reports that having a ravenous appetite while one is pregnant indicates that the child will be a boy (CBSNews). Whether or not any of these superstitions are true, the large number of superstitions regarding the baby’s gender shows a great interest in the gender on the part of the mother and those involved in the baby’s life. Ultrasounds are now advanced enough that the sex of the baby is easy to detect fairly early in the pregnancy, but for the time before the fetus is not developed enough to tell, and for those who choose to not find out the baby’s gender until the birth, the period of not knowing invokes immense curiosity. This curiosity and desire for control probably are the roots of the large number of gender pregnancy superstitions.

Another area commonly discussed in articles about pregnancy regards eating habits during pregnancy. For example, both CBSNews and Scientific American inquire whether eating peanuts and other allergenic foods during pregnancy makes the baby more likely to develop an allergy to those foods (CBSNews, Ballantyne). They both proved this superstition to be false. Other foods are questioned for various reasons, from coffee, to hot dogs, to raw fish. While some of these beliefs are based in truth due to harmful contents like mercury, others have been found to be untrue (Luscombe). In addition, cravings are a trademark of pregnancy. Dr. Phil brings up the common belief that all pregnant women crave pickles and ice cream (“Myths”). This belief is a quintessential example of humans’ tendency to pay attention to evidence supporting the superstition and ignore evidence disproving it. While many women may crave this bizarre combination, many do not. However, cravings are ridiculed and not completely understood, so solid facts such as this one may be comforting to women who have this particular craving. Superstitions about food probably derive from the lack of scientific consistency in this area. Because a new article about what one should and should not eat is published daily, superstitions develop easily when people misconstrue facts or just make up their own. Expecting mothers want to do what is best for their babies, and separating the lies from the truth can sometimes be difficult. Thus, it may be easier for them to follow the advice from all of these superstitions because avoiding many of the foods is not detrimental to the woman’s health, and doing so could only help if the superstition were to be true.

Other superstitions about nutrition deal with the mother and baby’s weight. Time, Dr. Phil, and CBSNews all report that many women believe that they must eat for two people while they are pregnant (Luscombe, “Myths”, CBSNews). Scientific American discusses how some people think heavier pregnant women are more likely to have overweight babies (Ballantyne). Time also expresses the belief that bigger babies are better than small babies (Luscombe). Superstitions regarding weight are probably common because pregnant women are often self-conscious of the weight they gain during pregnancy, and this discomfort creates the desire for concrete facts where they may not exist.

While more reputable sources report many superstitions, superstitions abound in less organized forums. Countless websites, from parenting websites to personal blogs, describe various superstitions regarding different stages of pregnancy. Gender predictions, again, are one of the most common topics of superstitions in this setting. According to several websites, jewelry can be used to predict the baby’s gender. If a woman swings her wedding over her stomach and it swings in a circle, the baby will be a boy. If it swings in a line, the baby is a girl. When swinging a necklace over the hand of a pregnant woman, a circle indicates a girl, while a line indicates a boy (Bells). Several websites also cite the urine test. Supposedly, when a pregnant woman urinates into a cup of Drain-O, the mixture turning green means the baby is a girl, and a blue mixture means a boy (“Gender”). Additionally, if a fetus has a fast heart rate, it is supposedly a girl (Bells). Cravings are also said to point to the baby’s gender. If a woman craves sweet foods, she is having a girl. Both salty and sour cravings are said to indicate a boy baby (Bells, “Gender”). A final common gender predictor says that if a woman has acne, she will give birth to a girl (“Gender”). Many more ways of determining the baby’s gender exist, but these examples are some of the most common.

Another major area of focus of pregnancy superstitions in the Internet community is what women should not do while pregnant. A popular superstition is that if a woman lifts her hands above her head, the umbilical cord will strangle the baby (Bells). A variation of this folklore in Hawaii is that wearing a lei causes the umbilical cord to strangle the infant (“Pregnancy”). These superstitions are probably common because sometimes babies are born with the cord wrapped around their necks or die during the pregnancy because of such strangulation, and the reason is not always clear. Ambiguity and uncertainty are a major source of superstitions. Pregnant women are frequently warned not to take baths because the bacteria in the water can infect the baby. This superstition is most likely based off of false beliefs about how the body works, as water does not actually enter a woman’s body when she bathes (Bells).

Since experiences with labor vary so much, naturally superstitions arise in this area, probably as an attempt at control. For example, numerous websites say that a full moon will bring about labor. Another common belief is that having sex will make labor start, which most websites say is actually true (“Pregnancy”). When scientifically, women have very little control over when their labor begins, coming up with ways of “knowing” may make the process seem less frightening and less random.

Women often respond with comments about their own experiences on these more general websites. In fact, a community of this folk group has formed on the Internet. Women discuss and give examples and feedback of what they have heard about pregnancy. Some women just practice the folklore for fun but do not actually believe in it. Others swear by these practices, and others seem to use them because they are really looking for answers. For instance, several women reported on their experiences with the jewelry tests. One woman, Renae, who did a variation of it did not seem to take it very seriously. She wrote:

            I am 11 weeks pregnant and I’ve tried a few of these. My Grandmother and I did one called the pencil test, where you have a pencil tied to a string and you hold it over your wrist and if it goes from side to side its a girl, and if it goes front to back its a boy. When she did it, it said it was a girl,                and when I did it, it said it was a boy… so I guess we will find out in a few weeks 

 Another woman called Iris appeared confident about the effectiveness of the test – but she was a strong believer in a variation of it:

          Your explanation of the ring test is wrong. I did it while I was pregnant with my baby girl and the ring swings around in circles its a Girl. If it goes sides to side its a boy. I'm on my second pregnancy right now and I did the test for the second time on my belly and It swinged side to side and                    ultrasounds confimed Im having Boy.

A woman called April seems truly interested in the outcome of the test:

            ok so I did the whole ring over your belly. What does it mean if it seems lik it doesnt know which way its going like confused if it wants to go in circles or ina line kinda just shakes but with my other pregnancies it went in circles for my 2 grls i dunno just kinda curious (“Gender”)

This online community of the pregnant women folk group provides expecting mothers with a safe place to explore these various superstitions about pregnancy. They can avoid feeling insecure about talking to their friends or family about superstitions they may be embarrassed to believe in or about which they want to know more.

I, myself, have come across superstitions about pregnancy. My favorite superstition that I have heard is a variation of the jewelry tests. When I was sixteen, I was in a play at my community theater in which the cast included several generations of women. One young woman who had never been pregnant taught us what her aunt had taught her, how to predict how many children one will have and what their genders will be. The person who is being tested holds out the hand with which she does not write, with her four fingers together and her thumb extended away from the other fingers, so the hand forms an “L” shape. The tester dips her own necklace between the girl’s fingers and thumb three times. After the third time, she holds the necklace directly over the girl’s hand, keeping her own hand still and letting the necklace swing on its own. A circle signifies a girl, while a line signifies a boy. After the necklace stops swinging, the tester repeats the procedure. When the necklace does not swing at all after being dipped between the fingers, the test is over. 

When the young woman tested me, my results were a boy and then a girl. She repeated the test on me several times throughout the duration of the play’s run, always with the same results. I have had other friends and family perform the test on me since then, and my results have consistently revealed that I will have a boy and then a girl. I am not sure whether I believe in the test – I hope it is wrong because I want more than two children – but the fact that my results have been so consistent makes it hard for me not to believe.

What is more unusual is that the young woman also performed the test on several women who had already had children. One woman had only just started helping with the show, so there was no way that girl performing the test would know about her children – and this woman had been remarried twice, so she had a number of children. The test correctly identified all of them and their genders in the correct order. The entire cast was awestruck as it was happening.

I performed this test on my mother shortly after learning it. My mom originally had my sister and me, but when she remarried, she acquired my two stepbrothers, as well. However, one is between the ages of my sister and me, and the other is younger than us both. The test results showed two girls and then two boys. These results raised the question of whether the test was wrong or whether it gave results in the order in which she acquired the children.

Folklore is very fluid and changes all the time. I got in the habit of performing this test on anybody who would agree, and over time, I included my own twists. For example, I would always wear the necklace for at least an hour before performing the test. I would tell people that it made the necklace more in touch with me. Nobody had taught me this, but I thought it made the process more interesting, so the people I taught probably believed that that was a part of the test. The test has occasionally given me incorrect or inconsistent results, but I have and will continue to ignore them because I want to believe in this test. Superstitions live on because of people like me who only pay attention to positive results and crave the drama of the supernatural.

I interviewed my mother about her experiences with pregnancy superstitions. As she does not live in close proximity, I sent her a questionnaire. Her responses are in bold:

A superstition generally follows the format, "If you do X, then Y will happen [unless you do Z]." Have you ever come across any such superstitions regarding pregnancy? Labor? Please elaborate.

I recall a few superstitions, though not all are if/then warnings. As examples, 

  • directives not to take baths (water flow issues), 
  • more babies being born during the full moon (I was curious, and asked the nurses at the maternity ward. They told me it was true. Now, of course, I cannot remember whether you or your sister were born during the full moon, but I know I was curious as to whether you would be)
  • there were several about ways to prompt going into labor--having sex, driving on bumpy roads, and, though it may be more a fictional (non)memory than anything else, eating spicy foods. Even if I could remember, I wouldn't comment on the first to you, and I didn't do any of the others, as I wasn't particularly uncomfortable or anxious to hurry things along.

Have you ever heard of ways to predict a baby's gender? What were they?

Yes, though I cannot recall most of them. 

  • Some had to do with how you were carrying the baby--more toward the front vs side-to-side, as I recall. I forget which one was supposed to indicate which gender.
  • there was something about the speed of a baby's heartbeat--faster vs. slower indicated one gender or the other [not awfully specific--sorry]
  • I was curious about your sister's gender, and did not know it or want to know it, though my nurse-practitioner did. I didn't want to know your gender either, but the doctor let that info. out probably pretty early in the 2nd trimester. So, I would have paid more attention to the clues, or what the elders conveyed were the clues/superstitions, with your sister than with you. 

During your pregnancy, did you find yourself buying into any superstitions you may have heard? Please explain.

Hard to remember. I probably did some wishful thinking with regard to gender clues/superstitions for your sister, or selective listening. Though I would have loved any baby that emerged, I really did want a girl. I also probably gave some credence to full moon story--and definitely was curious as to whether you two would fit that pattern.

My mother’s responses are in line with the information found in previous sources. Her comments about “wishful thinking” and “selective listening” are great examples of how people help superstitions live on, even though they might not fully believe in them. Superstitions about pregnancy exist in abundance. They serve as a means of dealing with the fear, uncertainty, and excitement that are a significant part of most women’s pregnancies. As a folk group, women who have experience with pregnancy pass on their knowledge and anecdotes to others in the folk group. Some share their superstitions for fun, while others are truly in search of answers or explanations. Whether or not women believe in the superstitions, they certainly abound and are an interesting reflection of people’s thoughts.