More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Old Wives' Tales
June 4, 2004,

Old wives' tales are perhaps as old as language itself. They're part of our oral tradition, originating long before pen and ink, books and movies, and certainly before the Internet. Why do we cling to such tales about common ailments and our health when we live in a world rich with medical expertise and proven treatments and cures?

Some probably have survived through the ages because they offer comforting advice about experiences that we all share, have little control over, and usually worry about, such as birth and sickness.

Many old wives' tales, especially those surrounding pregnancy and childbirth, have been proven false or ineffective by advances in medicine and technology. One example is the use of prenatal ultrasound to detect the sex of a fetus instead of dangling a ring suspended on a string over the expectant woman's belly. According to the tale, if the ring swings from side to side, it's a girl, and if it swings in a circle, it's a boy. An ultrasound reading may not be as much fun, but the test results are certainly more accurate.

Some old wives' tales about health and sickness have some basis in fact, whereas other, newer ones seem to reflect a kind of technophobia, such as those related to watching television. Some old wives' tales are true, most are harmless - and at least one described here is dangerous.

Tales About Pregnancy and Child Care
If the fetal heart rate is under 140 beats per minute (BPM), it's a boy.
False. A baby girl's heart rate usually is faster than a boy's, but only after the onset of labor. There's no difference between fetal heart rates for boys and girls, but the rate does vary with the age of the fetus. By approximately the fifth week of pregnancy, the fetal heart rate is near the mother's - around 80 to 85 BPM. It continues to accelerate until early in the ninth week, when it reaches 170 to 200 BPM and then decelerates to an average of 120 to 160 BPM by the middle of the pregnancy. Normal fetal heart rate during labor ranges from 120 to 160 BPM for boys and girls.

Extra weight out front means a girl; weight around the hips and bottom indicates a boy.
False. If a woman has a short torso, there's no place for the baby to grow but out. A long torso may mean roomier accommodations for a baby, making it less likely for a woman's belly to bulge outward. And a wide belly may just mean that the baby is sideways.

If a woman's carrying low, it's a boy; if a woman's carrying high, it's a girl.
False. If a woman's carrying high, this may be her first pregnancy or her body's in good shape. Stomach muscles have a tendency to become more elastic with each pregnancy, so a belly that's seen more than one pregnancy may hang a little low.

Dark nipples indicate a boy.
False. This color change has nothing to do with the sex of the child - an increase in progesterone (a steroid hormone secreted by the placenta and ovaries) and the melanocyte-stimulating hormone (which regulates skin pigmentation) causes dark areas of the body to become more pronounced in most pregnant women. Nipples, birthmarks, moles, or beauty marks may appear darker during pregnancy. A dark line also may appear down the middle of the belly.

Called the lina nigra (black line), it runs from above the navel to the pubic area. Darkened areas usually fade soon after childbirth.

Don't breast-feed a toddler during pregnancy because the new baby needs all the nourishment it can get.
False. If a woman is healthy, breast-feeding during pregnancy won't harm her, the fetus, or her toddler. (A doctor may recommend that a pregnant woman not breast-feed, though, if she has a nutritional deficiency, is underweight, or is at risk for pre-term labor.)

Wearing shoes will help a baby learn to walk sooner.
False. Just the opposite is true in this case. Keeping a baby barefoot can help strengthen his foot muscles and help him learn to walk earlier. Once a toddler is walking, though, he needs comfortable shoes that fit well - they shouldn't be rigid. Shoes should conform to the shape of a child's feet and provide a little extra room for growth.

An infant walker will help a baby learn to walk sooner.
False. A baby who spends his active hours in a walker may learn to sit, crawl, and walk on his own later than a child who has to learn these skills on his own if he wants to get around. Sitting in an infant walker, with its wide tray and small leg openings, blocks the visual feedback so important to a baby learning about muscle coordination. More significantly, baby walkers are dangerous.

Every year, nearly 29,000 children require emergency medical treatment for walker-related injuries. Stairway falls can be especially severe because an infant tends to remain in the walker. In its policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended a ban on the manufacture and sale of mobile infant walkers in the United States.

Cats can steal the air from a baby's mouth.
False. This tale goes back hundreds of years to a time when cats were associated with witchcraft and evil spirits. Cat-lovers, rest easy - it's anatomically impossible for a cat or other animal to suffocate a baby by sealing the baby's mouth with its own. Even so, cats and other pets should be supervised around small children and introduced to a baby gradually.
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