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11 December 2007
Miscarriage Myths Persist

Writing in the Archives of Women's Mental Health, Ohio State University researchers have lamented the fact that a great deal of folklore still persists around pregnancy. They noted that more than a third of women surveyed thought that a pregnant woman's foul mood could negatively affect her baby.

One in four of these women thought a pregnant woman's exposure to upsetting situations could hurt her unborn child, and one in five believed excessive exercise could cause a woman to miscarry. Ten percent suggested pregnant women are responsible for their miscarriages, and 3 percent said mothers should be blamed for their babies' birth defects. Women with less formal education were more likely to hold mothers responsible for bad pregnancy outcomes.

The study points to the persistence of folklore surrounding pregnancy despite advances in medical interventions and evidence that most miscarriages and defects result from circumstances beyond a woman's control.

"The survey shows that a sizable proportion of the population believes maternal thoughts and actions contribute to adverse fetal outcomes - but despite these feelings, few assign responsibility to the mother," said study author Jonathan Schaffir. "I think it's kind of amazing that people out there still believe that a pregnant woman seeing something frightening could cause her baby to have a birthmark. That was an 18th-century belief and it's still circulating, even today. I had a call not long ago, before Halloween, from a pregnant woman asking if it would be OK to go to a haunted house."

The folkloric beliefs included a pregnant woman's stress, bad mood, viewing of upsetting TV programs or attending upsetting events, excessive exercise, unfulfilled food cravings, or exposure to ugly or frightening sights having a negative effect on her unborn baby.

Interestingly, two survey questions gauged whether respondents thought miscarriages and birth defects should be blamed on mothers. Schaffir expected women who had miscarried or delivered a baby with serious birth defects to be more inclined to believe that they had somehow contributed to their misfortune. But the survey results did not support his expectation. Instead, the level of a woman's education appeared to affect her belief system, with a lower level of education resulting in a higher likelihood of blaming mothers for bad pregnancy outcomes.

Schaffir said that most miscarriages resulted from genetic or chromosomal abnormalities in the fetus, or from medical complications relating to hormonal imbalances or problems with the uterus or placenta. "Most of these things are beyond anyone's control and can happen to anyone," he explained. "In general, minor day-to-day experiences don't have an effect on whether a pregnancy is successful or not."

The mere existence of these beliefs suggests there is an opportunity for education, Schaffir noted. "I do think there is room for educating women more, particularly those who have less formal education, to prevent them from feeling any guilt in association with their pregnancy," he said. "Health care providers can reassure patients that these 'old wives' tales' should not contribute to any feelings of personal responsibility."

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Source: Ohio State University

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