Fueling Modern Pregnancy Myths

One study shows how new research can create modern pregnancy myths.

January 13, 2009, 4:45 PM

Jan. 14, 2009— -- Last April, researchers in Britain reported that women who ate more breakfast cereal were more likely to conceive sons. Today, a team of scientists cried "hooey."

"In statistical terms, it's a false positive," said Stanley Young, a co-author of a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B and a statistician trained in genetics with the National Institute of Statistical Sciences Research, Triangle Park, N.C.

Young's team had several reasons to question the cereal-eating moms study, but one major red flag was that the researchers asked too many questions in their 133-option diet questionnaire. Put enough variables into a study, Young said, and meaningless statistical flukes can arise.

"If you just ran these studies over and over and over again, you'd always find a food that predicted boys and girls, but it would be a different food every time," said Young. "The gender of humans is determined by the x, y chromosomes of the sperm -- the woman has nothing to do with it."

Modern day pregnancy myths abound among patients with high school sex education classes and some Google researching under their belt.

"The reason we picked up the paper is that there are a lot of claims that appear in the newspapers that just don't look right," said Young.

Doctors said most of these myths, whether they're adapted from news or thought up at home, fall into distinct categories: what people want and what people fear.

"The biggest myths about pregnancy are all the ways you can or cannot get pregnant," said Dr. Donnica Moore, a women's health expert and advocate, and founder of drdonnica.com.

"Then there are all the myths of how you can ensure that you have a boy or ensure that you have a girl," she said.

Dr. Richard J. Paulson, chief of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, said he hears the same myths about gender selection year after year.

Paulson said many of the misconceptions about controlling a baby's sex come from a single book: the late Dr. Landrum Shettles' "How to Choose the Sex of Your Baby."

The book has sold more than 1.5 million copies and is the first source for the idea that male sperm are sprinters and female sperm are marathon runners.

"I'm not even sure what research this was based on, but because he was a doctor, people believed it," Paulson said.

Paulson has never seen research that could confirm this idea, or research proving that the methods in Shettles' book work, but he has seen plenty of patients who tried to change the odds for having a boy or a girl.

Vain Attempts to Ensure Baby's Sex

By the Shettles method, couples wanting a boy should try to conceive right after the woman has ovulated, presumably to give the faster, yet short-lived male sperm a better chance to get to the egg.

If a couple wants a girl, the Shettles method says to try to conceive a few days before the woman ovulates to let the male sperm die off and give the so-called heartier, yet slower, female sperm a chance to make it to the egg.

"This thing has absolutely percolated into the population and everyone believes it," said Paulson.

"Guess what? It doesn't work," he said. "There's never been one shred of evidence that it works."

Moore said she has heard many more myths about how to guess the sex of the baby after conception, including myths that suggest carrying high or low can predict the gender, and bad morning sickness means a baby girl.

"The other one that drove me crazy is if you had terrible indigestion, it's a girl, or the baby will have a full head of hair," said Moore.

"In the year 2009, the best way to tell if it's a boy or a girl is an ultrasound," said Moore.

Moore, who spent years working as an obstetrician, thinks awe, more than ignorance, fuels many of these pregnancy myths.

"As much science as we know about pregnancy and childbirth, it's all really unbelievable. It's a miracle," said Moore. "Every single time ( at birth), part of me was feeling like, 'there's no way a baby's coming out of there."

"We want to be able to explain things that we can't otherwise explain," she said.

Explaining What We Don't Understand

Young feels the same sentiment fueled the study about cereal and the baby's gender.

"There's sort of a bias that comes into this," said Young. "Human beings like a rational explanation; they don't like a random cause."

However, that same search for an explanation may fuel myths about miscarriages, too. Moore said many women, and doctors, have trouble explaining what happened in a miscarriage.

"At this point, science can't give us a clear explanation for why one in nine pregnancies end in miscarriages," said Moore. "In most cases the cause is just unknown, and doctors assume that most likely it was some sort of genetic abnormality."

Just like pregnancy and gender, misconceptions abound about what causes a miscarriage or an early labor.

Spicy food, exercise, any sex at all and sleeping on your back are all popular misconceptions about troublesome labor, or danger to the baby.

Moore once had a patient who preemptively ended a pregnancy because she was convinced she had damaged the baby.

"She had chest X-rays and later found out she was pregnant and then had an abortion because she thought she had caused damage to the baby," said Moore. "Then, tragically, she had complications with the abortion."

While it's not a great idea to get X-rays during pregnancy, Moore said the fetus was likely OK.

"If a fetus is exposed to enough radiation to cause damage, it probably would be major damage like the Hiroshima bomb or Chernobyl," she said.

Moore thinks the myths about miscarriage and damage might be the most damaging.

"It's the opposite of the miracle explanation," said Moore. "As a result of many of these myths, many women suffer from tremendous guilt that they may have done something wrong."

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