Rooted in Oral Traditions
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 we all share, have little control over, and usually worry about, such as childbirth and sickness.
Many old wives' tales, especially those surrounding pregnancy and childbirth, have been proven false or irrelevant 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. Though some old wives' tales are true, most are harmless — and at least one described here is dangerous.
Tales About Pregnancy
If the fetal heart rate is under 140 beats per minute (BPM), it's a boy.
False. A baby girl's heart rate is usually 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 she'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 the hormones 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 linea nigra (black line), it runs from above the navel to the pubic area. Darkened areas usually fade soon after childbirth.
Don't breastfeed a toddler during pregnancy because the new baby needs all the nourishment it can get.
False. If a woman is healthy, breastfeeding during pregnancy won't harm her, the fetus, or her toddler. (A doctor may recommend that a pregnant woman not breastfeed, though, if she has a nutritional deficiency, is underweight, or is at risk for pre-term labor.)
Tales About Caring for Babies and Toddlers
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 or her foot muscles and help the child learn to walk earlier. A toddler who is walking, though, 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. Babies who spend their active hours in walkers may learn to sit, crawl, and walk later than children who have to learn these skills on their own if they want 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 muscle coordination. More important, baby walkers are dangerous. Nearly 14,000 injuries are treated in emergency rooms every year as a result of walkers. And 34 children have died since 1973 because of baby walkers. Stairway falls in walkers can be especially severe. In a 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. You should also keep cats (just as you should keep other pets and items such as blankets and plush toys) out of your baby's crib or bassinet.
Tales About Foods and Drinks
Feed a cold, starve a fever.
False. Both high fevers and colds can cause fluid loss. Drinking plenty of liquids such as water, fruit juice, and vegetable juice can help prevent dehydration. And with both fevers and colds, it's fine to eat regular meals — missing nutrients may only make a person sicker.
Wait an hour after eating before swimming.
False. According to the American Red Cross, it's usually not necessary for you or your child to wait an hour before going in the water. However, it is recommended that you wait until digestion has begun, especially if you've had a big fatty meal and you plan to swim strenuously. The Red Cross also advises against chewing gum or eating while in the water, both of which could cause choking.
Coffee stunts your growth.
False. Coffee won't affect growth, but too much caffeine doesn't belong in a child's diet. Excess caffeine can prevent the absorption of calcium and other nutrients.
Fish is brain food.
True. Fish is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids that have been found to be very important for brain function. Certain fish, however, have significant levels of mercury. Therefore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests that pregnant women and women of child-bearing age decrease their exposure to mercury by either not eating swordfish, shark, and tuna, or limiting their consumption of these fish to once per month.
Chocolate causes acne.
False. Although eating too many sugary, high-fat foods is not a good idea for anyone, studies show that no specific food has been proven to cause acne.
Spicy foods can cause ulcers.
False. Spicy foods may aggravate ulcer symptoms in some people, but they don't bring about ulcers. A bacterial infection or overuse of pain medications such as aspirin or anti-inflammatory drugs is the usual cause.
Eating carrots will improve your eyesight.
False. This tale may have started during World War II, when British intelligence spread a rumor that their pilots had remarkable night vision because they ate lots of carrots. They didn't want the Germans to know they were using radar. Carrots — and many other vegetables high in vitamin A — do help maintain healthy eyesight, but eating more than the recommended daily allowance won't improve vision.
Tales About Health and Medical Conditions
If you go outside with wet hair, you'll catch a cold.
False. Cold weather, wet hair, and chills don't cause colds; viruses do. People tend to catch colds more often in the winter because these viruses are spread more easily indoors, where there may be more contact with dry air and people with colds. Dry air — indoors or out — can lower resistance to infection.
Reading in dim light will damage your eyes.
False. Although reading in a dimly lit room won't do any harm, good lighting can help prevent eye fatigue and make reading easier.
Too much TV is bad for your eyes.
False. Watching television won't hurt your eyes (no matter how close to the TV you sit), although too much TV can be a bad idea for kids. Research shows that children who consistently spend more than 10 hours a week watching TV are more likely to be overweight, aggressive, and slower to learn in school.
If you cross your eyes, they'll stay that way.
False. Only about 4% of the children in the United States have strabismus, a disorder in which the eyes are misaligned, giving the appearance that they're looking in different directions. Eye crossing does not lead to strabismus.
Thumb sucking causes buck teeth.
True ... and false. Thumb sucking often begins before birth and generally continues until age 5. If a child stops around the ages of 4 to 5, no harm will be done to the jaws and teeth. However, parents should discourage thumb sucking after the age of 4, when the gums, jaw, and permanent teeth begin their most significant growth. Therefore, after this age it's possible for thumb, finger, or pacifier sucking to contribute to buck teeth.
Cracking knuckles causes arthritis.
False. However, habitual knuckle cracking tends to cause hand swelling and decreased grip strength, and can result in functional hand impairment.
Too much loud noise can cause hearing loss.
True. Just 15 minutes of listening to loud, pounding music; machinery; or other noises can cause temporary loss of hearing and tinnitus, a ringing in the ears. Loud noise causes the eardrum to vibrate excessively and can damage the tiny hairs in the cochlea, a cone-shaped tube in the inner ear that converts sound into electrical signals for the brain to process. Although temporary hearing loss usually disappears within a day or two, continuous exposure to extreme noise can result in permanent hearing loss. For example, if a child is wearing headphones — and those around him or her can hear the music — the volume is too high.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: March 2008