Wednesday, 7 March 2012

#20 Pregnancy superstitions around the world

Are you superstitious?

Even though I think of myself as a rational person with a scientific approach to life, I still can’t help following superstitions which I know to be totally ridiculous - I admit to feeling slightly uncomfortable if I have to walk under a ladder. And during pregnancy I probably gave in to my superstitions more than normal.

In our culture we seem to be particularly driven by the fear of tempting fate during pregnancy, for example not bringing the cot or pram into the house before the baby is actually born.

Would you walk under this ladder?
In the 1950s we would have followed even more; we would have stopped knitting during pregnancy and we would have avoided hanging up the washing or lifting our arms above our heads for fear of the umbilical cord getting wrapped around the baby. Nowadays these old wives tales have mostly disappeared. My theory is that the number and strength of superstitious beliefs decreases with improved scientific understanding. (Mind you, few of us knit these days and most of us use a tumble dryer…)

In many non-Western cultures there are still an enormous number of superstitions about what a pregnant woman should or shouldn’t do. In the absence of any other knowledge, superstitions are a way of taking care of themselves and protecting their babies. In some ways it is similar to us following the advice we receive from our doctors. (In fact I do think that some dietary advice is the modern equivalent of a superstition. If something bad happens then you might blame it on that one peanut you ate, or that extra glass of wine you had once, but in reality it may be nothing more than a coincidence).

It is not surprising that pregnancy is an area rife for superstition. It’s a long old time between conception and birth (speaking from experience it can seem like an eternity waiting to know how everything is going to turn out) and our babies grow behind closed doors. 

With Western medicine we do get to peep behind those doors in a manner of speaking; we see a blue line to confirm our pregnancy, we hear the reassuring woosh-woosh, woosh-woosh of our baby’s heartbeat, and with ultrasounds we even get to see inside maybe two or three times before the baby is born. 

But without these tools, women know very little about how their unborn baby is developing and what's going on behind those closed doors. I am sure this is why so many superstitions have devoloped. They are a way of explaining the complications and misfortunes or pregnancy and childbirth.

The huge number of superstitions might suggest that pregnant women live in a very fearful state trying to keep to all these rules. For some women they provide reassurance, while other women carry on as normal and these superstitions are more commonly thought about after birth to provide retrospective explanations for any problems that occurred. A Maisin woman from Papua New Guinea whose baby is born with the cord around its neck may then remember having walked through a spider’s web during her pregnancy, rather than spending the whole pregnancy trying to avoid walking through spider webs.

Here are a few common themes found around the world;


The Minangkabau of Indonesia have a long list of actions that a woman should or shouldn’t do when pregnant in order to ensure an easy birth including “She shouldn’t sit in a door entrance or gateway because then the baby may find it difficult to come out, if she goes down to the river to bathe she mustn’t come back until she is finished, if she’s forgotten something she shouldn’t come back to the house for it as this could delay delivery.” Similar superstitions about avoiding sitting in doorways or steps are found in Malaysia and across Indonesia, while Thai women eat lotus buds which have been chanted over by a Buddhist monk so that their bodies will open up like a lotus flower and they will give birth easily, and if someone fells a tree or puts something in the path of a pregnant Karen woman (Thailand) they must give the woman a chicken in recompense, otherwise the birth might be obstructed.   


In Latin America it is said that the sun and the moon, particularly when eclipsed, can deform an unborn child. In Guatemala expectant mothers shouldn’t go outside at midday when the sun is at its highest, nor should they look at an eclipsed moon, or point at a rainbow as doing any of these could cause abnormalities in the baby. The Tarahumara, one of the largest indigenous groups of Mexico, believe that deformities such as cleft lip or club foot are caused by the expectant mother looking at an eclipsed sun or moon – their explanation being that the sun or moon is annoyed at being eclipsed, and ‘eats’ part of the foetus in revenge. In Malaysia pregnant women supposedly lived in fear of a lunar eclipse which brings unnamed terrors in its wake, and in Thailand women believed that if they saw an eclipse the child might be born with a squint or to have a misshapen mouth resembling the eclipsed sun or moon.


This superstition may actually be medically beneficial as research supports the idea that a mother’s emotions can affect the baby’s environment, and that in particular stress and trauma increase the mother’s heart rate as well as affecting blood flow to the placenta and hormone production, all of which can negatively affect foetal functioning.

An expectant Balinese woman should behave with a pure heart at all times, a pregnant Guatemalan is required to avoid all strong negative emotions such as anger, fright or sadness and to maintain an emotional equilibrium to avoid a miscarriage, a Beng woman (West Africa) is told that her actions during pregnancy will affect her baby’s character so that if she is good her baby will be good, but if she steals something, then her baby will be become a thief. In Egypt this ideal is advantageous to women as the general belief is that the mother’s emotional state affects the baby’s comfort in her womb, and that if she is unhappy she may suffer a miscarriage and so husbands are expected to treat their wives especially well during pregnancy. In Thailand it is believed that every sound, sight, touch, taste, smell, thought and action experienced by the mother will have some reaction on the child so she takes every opportunity to associate herself with objects and people which have a positive effect on the child and with words and actions which imply success giving birth. 


Akan expectant mothers from Ghana must avoid looking at blood, monkeys, other ugly animals and even ugly carvings, and along with Jamaican and Beng mothers must avoid seeing a human or animal corpse, and many North American Indian mothers were meant to avoid seeing any ugly or dead animals.  A Nigerian mother is encouraged to avoid places where people fight and quarrel so that her baby is peace-loving, and no ugly or wicked person should walk behind a pregnant women. A pregnant Saami (Lapland) woman is not meant to see anything ugly or be startled, and no one is supposed to even talk about deformed children, childbirth or reindeer calving in her presence.

There are even more superstitions about diet, but I'll leave those for another day.

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If you would like to read more, take a look at;

Jacqueline Vincent-Priya  (1991) Birth Without Doctors: Conversations with Traditional Midwives London : Earthscan Publications

Warren, Dennis M. (1975) The Techiman-Bobo of Ghana: an ethnography of an Akan society Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Pub. Co.

Itkonen, Toivo Immanuel (1948) The Lapps in Finland up to 1945. Vol. 2 Porvoo, Helsinki: Werner Söderström Osakeyhtiö

Tietjen, AM (1984) Infant care and feeding practices and the beginnings of socialisation among the Maisin of Papua New Guinea Ecology of Food and Nutrition Vol 15 p39-48

Oakley, A in Chard, T and Richards, M (1977) Cross-cultural practices in Benefits and Hazards of the new obstetrics William Heinemann Medical Books : London

Ed MacCormack, Carol P (1982) Ethnography of Fertility and Birth Academic Press : New York

Hobart, A Ramseyer, U and Leemann, A (2001) The Peoples of Bali Blackwell Publishers Ltd : Oxford
DeLoache, J. & Gottlieb, A (2000) A world of babies; Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies   New York:  Cambridge University Press

Margarita Artschwager Kay (1982) Anthropology of Human Birth F.A. Davis Company : USA

Ed Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1987) Child Survival Reidel Publishing Company ; Dordrecht Holland



  1. Interesting!

    I'm glad I live in Northern Ireland where superstitions aren't quite so odd.

    Looking forward to reading your post about diet superstitions in the future.

  2. I live in Thailand and was once told, rather matter of fact, that homosexuality is caused by mothers who wished for a boy but gave birth to a girl (and vice versa). Not sure how widespread that belief is. I also once read that it was widely believed by the English in Victorian times that if a pregnant woman drank from a chipped teacup that her baby would have a cleft palate. I read a newspaper article about rural healthcare in China that said that the prettiest nursing students are often chosen to work as midwives in the maternity wards so as the first face a newborn sees is attractive. There are so many of these sorts of customs. Thanks for the posts. Very entertaining and interesting!

  3. Glad to hear from you. Another substantial read.