Superstitions Surrounding Childbirth in the British Isles
Pregnancy & Childbirth - Superstition & Old Wives Tales
Pregnancy and childbirth are still surrounded by superstition, but never so much as during the 19th and 20th centuries. Some old wives tales are rooted in commonsense but others appear completely random and without any grounds at all. If you are pregnant or thinking about having a baby, you might want to click away now!
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One of the overriding aspects of being pregnant was that women were vulnerable to the ill-wishes of humans and fairies. The human ill-wishers were generally witches, enemies or both. Expectant parents were careful not to draw too much attention to the wife's condition in order to avoid unwanted consequences. They were warned not to boast or to make claims about good fortune regarding the baby for the same reasons. A pregnant mother was advised never to tell of her pregnancy until after the first trimester was safely passed as an ill-wish could cause her to lose the baby.
It was also widely thought that a baby's future physical condition was influenced by many things during gestation, including what the mother happened to see.
"If a pregnant woman sees a hare in her path, she must immediately stop and make three tears (rips) in her petticoats lest the child be born with a hare-lip" c.1875
I met a woman back in the 80s who was convinced that a darkened area of skin on her arm was the result of her mother having been frightened by a mouse when pregnant Later she had to have the mark surgically removed as it turned out to be a malignant melanoma.
A pregnant mother's food cravings were always indulged as much as possible. If they were not satisfied, it was another chance that the baby would be marked or otherwise disadvantaged.
Pendulums have been used for hundreds of years to determine the sex of an unborn child... and this method is still commonplace today. Very often a young wife would suspend her wedding ring by a thread and whichever way it swung would indicate whether the baby was a boy or a girl. The trouble is, no-one can agree which direction is applicable to which sex. I read a while back that the mother should simply write down whether clockwise indicates girl or boy and go from there.
When I was pregnant in 2001 with my third child, I used a deck of tarot cards to tell me. I knew which cards were feminine and which cards were masculine. The card was the Two of Cups - definitely feminine. We had a girl.
A Cradle Story
If bad luck and an ill-fated pregnancy were to be avoided then it was paramount not to bring baby clothes, a cradle, crib, cot or a perambulator into the house before the baby was born. To do so would be tempting fate. It was also an absolute no-go to rock an empty cradle for fear of causing the death of the baby if already born, or adversely, to cause the woman of the house to become pregnant again too soon.
The first born child should never be put into a new cradle. A cradle was always borrowed for the oldest child in a family. A cradle was always supposed to be completely paid for before a baby could be laid in it. Otherwise the baby will be debt-laden all his or her life.
Birth Day and Afterwards
"Monday's child is fair of face,
Tuesday's child is full of grace,
Wednesday's child is full of woe,
Thursday's child has far to go,
Friday's child is loving and giving,
Saturday's child works hard for his living,
And the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay."
First published 1838
If a child was born with a 'caul' (part of the amniotic sac) over their head and/or face were, and still are, thought to be kept safe from harm - for as long as the caul itself is looked after. As the owner of a caul was immune from physical bad luck, there was once a roaring trade in cauls, particularly in times of warfare, and advertisements, 'caul wanted' and 'caul for sale', were common sights in newspapers and shop windows.
After a child was born it was the practice that the first person to take the baby away from its mother would carry him or her upstairs, or up three steps of a ladder. This was so the child started off right, i.e. on his or her way up in the world. This tradition continued into the 20th century.
Another, rather unsanitary, practice was not to wash a baby's hands until its first birthday for fear of washing away good fortune. This tradition varied - sometimes it applied only to the right hand and sometimes it was only up to the date of Christening. The way a baby held his or her hands during the first few weeks of life was also duly noted. A tight, closed fist meant that the baby was capable of holding onto money and was considered a good thing. Similarly, babies were given silver coins to hold at the Christening celebration and I remember this being the case at my God-daughter's Christening in the mid 1980s.
Kiss Me, Baby, Baby, Kiss Me
The choice of first person to kiss the baby was considered very important as it would affect the baby's character for the rest of his or her life. A good tempered, easy-going person was preferred. This was known as 'tempering' the child.
It was important to dress the child appropriately. In many cases the appropriate garment for a newborn was an old flannel petticoat or nightshirt. The reasons for this are unclear but among those put forward are to prevent pride in adult life and to provide protection, particularly if the garment belonged to the baby's father. Dressing the baby in a garment belonging to someone of the opposite sex was said to make the baby more attractive to potential partners in adulthood.
When childbirth was riskier for both mother and child, it was of paramount importance that baptism should take place as early as possible. There were two main reasons, firstly that an unchristened baby would not make it into heaven and secondly, that the child was vulnerable to being cursed by witches and fairies. Parents were warned not to take an unbaptized child out of the house in case the fairies took it and swapped it for a changeling. Baby could not be addressed by his given name until the ceremony had taken place.
Christening also had the power to cure ill-health and to correct the temperament of a miserable baby. It was important that the baby cry during the ceremony to indicate that the Devil had been cast out from his or her little body. If the baby didn't cry then it was whispered that the child would not have long to live.
If twins of both sexes were to be christened or if there was a multiple christening, the boys were always baptized first in order that they would grow up to have a beard. It was 'unmanly' to be second in line to a female.
Churching was, and still is, a controversial subject. The idea that a woman was unclean after the birth of her baby until she had been 'churched', i.e. made her first visit to church sits uncomfortably with modern views of equality. There was even a distinction between having given birth to a boy or girl. Apparently having a boy baby was less 'dirty' than having a girl. If you had a boy then you were considered unclean for seven days after the birth. A girl, however, kept you mucky for two whole weeks. Many communities stipulated that an unchurched woman could not leave the house; others said that she could go out but required that she must not enter another home or even look another person in the face.
In some parts of the world, an unchurched woman was not protected by law and could be attacked and killed without the perpetrator answering for his crime.
In some circles, the time after birth was seen as more positive and cause for celebration and relief for the mother, and was when women got together and men were kept away.
Baby's First Year
There were many superstitions surrounding baby's life up until his or her first birthday. One concerned fingernails. Mothers were adjured not to cut their baby's fingernails until the year was up to prevent their child from becoming 'light-fingered' or, in other words, a thief.
To help the baby cope with the pain of teething various necklaces were placed around its neck. Material used included human teeth, animal teeth, glass beads and deadly nightshade berries (!) among other things. The most common was a necklace made of coral. Coral also protected against witchcraft. If a baby was born with teeth or if he or she teethed early, then it meant that another baby would soon be on the way. Other superstitions decreed that an early teether would die young or even grow up to be a murderer.
One last superstition was a belief that the baby should not be weighed until its first birthday to prevent premature death or, at best, future weakness and ill-health. This one has been all but laid to rest due to increased monitoring and healthcare but was still adhered to by some as late as the 1930s.
I hope you are as fascinated as I was to discover all these strange superstitions surrounding childbirth.