Wednesday, 28 March 2012

#21 Don't change your bedding on unlucky days

FACT OF THE DAY:  Women in Hong Kong, China, are encouraged to follow a list of over 75 superstitions during pregnancy, believed to protect them and their baby

In the last post I described some of the more extreme pregnancy superstitions found around the world.

From what I’ve read, generally the more Westernised (and medicalised) a culture, the fewer the number of superstitions that are followed, in daily life as well as during pregnancy.

But it seems this is not always the case.

I’ve been reading a fascinating account of the superstitions that are still going strong in Hong Kong, even among women who are receiving Western obstetric care.

Apparently Chinese culture has records of antenatal taboos going back to AD265-316 and their attitude is that it is the pregnant woman’s duty to safeguard the health and safety of the foetus by following a huge range of dietary and behavioural taboos.  

The authors of the study describe how many of these women are caught between two worlds with very different attitudes to looking after their unborn baby the best they can. They are under great pressure from their mothers and other older relatives to obey this long list of pregnancy taboos, whereas many of the women themselves believe they will give their babies the best possible chance by attending Western antenatal screening and health checks.  

There seems to be little overlap between the Western pregnancy advice and the traditional superstitions. It would be rather neat if they coincided, but actually many of the behaviours on the list would seem unfounded from our point of view – such as no hugging children, or no using scissors in bed.

It is particularly tricky when advice from the two different worlds conflict. For example Western advice recommends regular exercise during pregnancy, whereas according to the traditional Chinese taboos, a pregnant woman is expected to avoid exertion.

During this study (done in 2005) they interviewed 827 pregnant women, and from these interviews came up with a list of 75 antenatal superstitions or taboos that were commonly mentioned. These ranged from “only changing bedding on lucky days” to “not eating snake”. They then asked the women to say whether or not they had kept to the superstition. (I have attached the table at the end of the post).

I was interested to see that nearly all the women in the sample were pretty well educated, 62% had attended 11 years of education and a further 17% had gone on to university education.

Clearly some of these superstitions are easier to keep to than others. The taboos most commonly followed included;

  • not eating snake (92%),
  • not drinking herbal tea (91%)
  • not jumping (89%)
  • not moving heavy objects (84%)
  • not wearing high-heeled shoes (84%)
  • no iced food (83%)

Other taboos that were also strongly observed included no hammering of nails, no wall drilling, and no dismantling/moving beds (66-69%).

Taboos that were least commonly practiced were;

  • only change bedding on lucky days (11%)
  • avoid travelling in bumpy vehicles (15%)
  • conceal ugly toys (18%)
  • do not break soy sauce containers (19%)
  • no lettuce (23%)
  • do not use broken bowls or cups (24%)

Apart from it being interesting that there is such a huge range of superstitions that modern day Hong Kong women take seriously (it makes our reluctance not to have the pram in the house before the baby is born seem quite moderate!), the people doing the study also found some other interesting results;

Firstly they were interested to know why the women followed these taboos despite their education and understanding of alternative obstetric care.

The reasons for obeying these superstitions were as follows;

  • 488 participants (59%) said it was for the sake of the baby’s health and safety
  • 114 participants (14%) said it was so that the family would not be worried.
  • 171 participants (21%) said they observed the taboos for their own sake

From it seems that most of the women must believe to some degree that not following the taboos could put them or their babies at risk.

Secondly they wanted to know how these taboos affected the women, and sadly it is not so positive.

  • 221 (25%) felt that they had lost some of their freedom
  • 220 (26%) felt unhappy about the restrictions and
  • 80 (10%) had argued with the family regarding the observation of the taboos

In fact one of their conclusions was that these superstitions were a cause of stress and depression for about a quarter of the women, who felt they had to follow them to keep their families happy, but resented doing so. Interestingly, the women who felt unhappy about following these superstitions or who had argued with their families about them were found to have significantly higher levels of depression at 32 weeks gestation and after birth.

"What harm can it do?" is something you quite often hear said about superstitions. However for many of these womens superstitions or taboos are not harmless, but are actually affecting their health in a negative way.

As the author says;

“On the one hand Hong Kong women are highly urbanized and economically independent; on the other hand they continue to be governed by [traditions] that put their personal welfare behind those of their families and children.
Taboos in pregnancy seem to define health in an essentially negative way. The various prohibitions imposed upon pregnant women may intensify their anxiety in addition to the stress brought about by pregnancy itself... When the taboos are imposed by older members of the family, the inter-generational dispute can also put other family members, such as partners and in-laws, under stress.”

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

Lee, Dominic TS et al (2009) Antenatal taboos among Chinese women in Hong Kong Midwifery (2009) 25, 104-113

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