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Challenging myths about . . . pregnancy

Registered midwife Lesley Gilchrist helps bust the most prominent misconceptions of pregnancy

The idea that pregnant women must keep away from cats has been misconstrued over the years. Photograph: Pidjoe
A series about debunking myths. Photograph: Aquir/iStock

Some of the most obscure myths surrounding pregnancy are so steeped in superstition that they have become naturally unbelievable. A baby girl won’t steal away a mother’s beauty, stepping over a rope or wire won’t result in a nuchal cord, and constantly rubbing and caressing your pregnant belly will not mean your child will be spoiled.

And yet, pregnancy is one of the most prolific conditions in which myths, superstitions and misconceptions abound. Such myths can help fuel parent-shaming and cause stress to couples who are navigating the already difficult road to pregnancy and birth. Eating for two, giving up spice and avoiding dying their hair, are just some of the things mothers-to-be still believe, but to what extent, if at all, are they true?

Lesley Gilchrist, registered midwife, and co-founder of My Expert Midwife, helps bust the most prominent myths in pregnancy. “Pregnancy myths and old wives’ tales are as common today as they’ve always been,” says Gilchrist, “and can lead to some confusion as to what to expect and how to manage expectations throughout pregnancy, birth, and beyond”.

1) Myth – Morning sickness only happens in the morning

Sharing tales of the unpleasantness of nausea and vomiting in early pregnancy is almost a rite of passage of becoming pregnant. Accompanied by dizziness and headaches, morning sickness is common, but it’s badly referred to since nausea in pregnancy is not restricted to the morning time.


“Feeling nauseous in pregnancy is common as there are many changes occurring in your body,” says Gilchrist. “Up to 80 per cent of women experience some nausea or vomiting during their pregnancy. Often referred to as “morning sickness”, nausea and vomiting can actually happen at any time of the day or night. Some women may feel nauseous or vomit for their entire pregnancy, but the good news is that it usually disappears around 12-16 weeks of pregnancy.”

2) Myth – I am eating for two now

Relatives encouraging you to eat the extra and last slice of cake because you are eating for two now, is a common myth in pregnancy. While a woman’s calorie intake should likely increase during pregnancy, it doesn’t need to be doubled to accommodate an extra mouth.

“It’s true that there are at least two of you now,” says Gilchrist, “but you do not need to eat twice as much. In fact, the advice is to eat as normal until the third trimester (28 weeks) and then to increase by just 200 to 300 calories daily. During the first trimester of your pregnancy hormonal changes take place, which can either increase or decrease your appetite and in the second and third trimesters, as your bump grows, eating smaller portions more often may work better to avoid feeling uncomfortable from big meals.”

3) Myth – I have to keep away from cats when pregnant

The idea that pregnant women must keep away from cats has been misconstrued over the years and the risk amplified incessantly. The fear derives from the possibility of passing on an infection called toxoplasmosis to your unborn baby.

“In pregnancy, immune systems are lowered making you more susceptible to infection including toxoplasmosis, a serious infection which can cause miscarriage,” says Gilchrist. “It is carried in faeces of infected cats and in soil contaminated by that poo.”

However, when it comes to contracting toxoplasmosis, your cat is not your greatest threat. “You cannot catch toxoplasmosis from stroking cats or being around them,” says Gilchrist. “If you do have to clean out a litter tray, or do some gardening, wear gloves but ideally get someone else to do it for you.”

4) Myth – Pregnant women glow with happiness and joy

One of the most damaging myths of pregnancy is the belief that a pregnant woman glows and blooms in pregnancy. The effect of glowing is a byproduct of hormones, which don’t always guarantee a happy and joyful pregnancy.

“Whilst we know increased blood flow and hormonal changes can cause ‘flushing’, increased oil production and plumping of the skin which can make you appear to glow, not all women experience this,” says Gilchrist. “Some women find quite the opposite with hormonal fluctuations aggravating their skin, making them prone to spots and heat rashes which can impact on their self-confidence. Hormones are powerful and can also affect feelings and cause low mood, if this doesn’t improve, women can ask their midwife to signpost to helpful resources.”

While the glow itself can be explained, the underlying belief that pregnancy is a happy time, can negatively affect a person’s mental wellbeing when pregnancy difficulties occur. Growing a human being is a difficult and dangerous time in a woman’s life and it is not without its concerns or worries.

5) Myth – Sex while pregnant is risky

Penetration will hurt the baby, oral sex is dangerous and sex will bring on the baby, are just some of the myths couples’ question during pregnancy. So, is it safe to have sex with a baby on board?

“Sex in pregnancy is usually very safe,” says Gilchrist, “however there are times you may be advised not to have sex. The amniotic sac, cervix, and mucous plug all help to keep baby safe from infection and harm. As your bump grows, you may need to become a little more creative with positions to find what works for you, there are occasions when you’ll be advised to abstain from sex, for example, if you have had active bleeding, your waters have gone, you have a low-lying placenta, or have risk factors where sex could potentially cause complications or premature labour.”

6) Myth – I can’t exercise, go on a plane, eat spicy foods or have my hair coloured

Limiting their activities during pregnancy for fear of putting their baby at risk is common for the many couples who question the overbearing myths surrounding them. Gilchrist takes a few of these common misconceptions and sets the record straight.

“Exercise in pregnancy is good as it can help you cope with the demands of labour and help you recover postnatally,” she says, “but you should discuss with your trainer and make adjustments as your pregnancy progresses. Obviously sports that could involve falling such as climbing, horse riding or contact sports such as rugby carry their own risk factors during pregnancy.”

When travelling, Gilchrist recommends to “check with airlines and insurance companies that they are happy for you to travel, take your maternity notes with you, keep well hydrated and wear anti-embolism stockings whilst flying”.

Debunking the myth of dying your hair in pregnancy, Gilchrist suggests that “having your hair coloured is usually safe in pregnancy as chemical levels in most dyes are well below any that could cause harm to your baby. Hormonal changes may affect how some colours take and how you may react so take a patch test.”

Finally, when it comes to spicy food, Gilchrist suggests that there is little to no evidence that spicy food can cause complications. “However,” she says, “hormonal changes in pregnancy can affect digestion so side effects such as wind, heartburn and gastric upsets can be more common. Babies are not harmed by spices, but they may develop a liking for them as they can taste them in the amniotic fluid which they swallow.”

Myths Series

  1. Ageing
  2. ADHD
  3. Grief
  4. Sexual health
  5. Loneliness
  6. Introverts
  7. Imposter syndrome
  8. Mental health
  9. Rage in motherhood
  10. Therapy
  11. PTSD
  12. Food safety
  13. Endometriosis
  14. Pregnancy
  15. Frozen shoulder
  16. Thyroid gland
  17. Eating disorders
  18. Chronic pain
  19. Pelvic floor
  20. OCD
  21. Happiness
  22. Physiotherapy
Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh

Geraldine Walsh, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family