By Dhara Thakar Meghani
Fact or fiction?
Eating papaya induces early labor and should be avoided during pregnancy.
Answer: It depends!
According to animal studies, while ripe papaya has been found to have some benefits (e.g., aiding in digestion) during pregnancy, consuming unripe/raw papaya may mirror the effects of hormones that produce uterine contractions – so it is advisable to stay away from papayas when they are dark green and firm (but certainly consult your doctor about this and similar questions if pregnant).News of pregnancy in most families is typically received with excitement, a flurry of planning, and – perhaps most routinely – well-intentioned advice for the mother-to-be.
Despite progress in science and technology to help guide behaviors and knowledge about prenatal and fetal health, for many South Asian families, it is “traditional beliefs zindabad.”
Look beyond the South Asian culture, and you will see many analogs in other societies,, with the common theme of avoiding certain people, places, and/or foods during pregnancy to limit the negative effects on the baby. These practices are likely remnants from generations that yearned to explain – and prevent – the unfortunate outcomes of miscarriage, congenital birth defects, and genetic abnormalities. In addition, superstitions have the notable strength of reflecting popular cultural preferences for acceptable personality traits and appearance.
Even the modern, skeptical South Asian woman might be swayed enough by the general threat of delivering a newborn that is deemed to be ‘imperfect’ in some way that she will perpetuate the most unusual practices during her pregnancy (such as keeping a nail clipper under one’s pillow for protection during an eclipse)!
To get a sense of the superstitions and advice currently floating around, we Borrowed Knowledge from nearly 40 South Asian moms and asked them to share the advice they heard while pregnant, whether they followed it or not. A majority of responses focused on food consumption and ‘prescriptions’ regarding mom’s behavior and have been assembled by topic below.
Problematic outcomes that were most frequently identified as reasons for certain practices had to do with pregnancy complications, the newborn’s vulnerability to evil spirits, and, believe it or not, the risk of giving birth to a dark and/or hairy child.
- For a fair-skinned baby, eat:
- Mint tea
- Avoid the following since they could lead to a dark-skinned baby:
- Coffee & Tea
- Any dark foods
- Eating sour foods could result in a hairy baby
- Spicy foods will cause the baby to be short tempered
- Drink milk with ghee (clarified butter) to facilitate a smoother delivery
- Don’t take fruits from others’ hands or give fruit to anyone with your own hands
Behavior-related advice (many more “don’ts” than “do’s”)
- During an eclipse,
- Don’t go out of the house or look up at the sun;
- Don’t cook, sleep, eat, or drink anything (even your own saliva);
- Don’t use sharp objects or tie your hair back
- Keep a nail clipper (or other metal) under your pillow
- Avoid seeing…
- Another pregnant woman (especially if she is your sis-in-law) during your pregnancy, or only one of you will have a healthy baby
- Another’s newborn
- Don’t wash your hair during pregnancy or in the first week after delivering
- Don’t cut or break big fruits (e.g., coconut, watermelon, muskmelon)
- Hang pictures of beautiful babies with fair-skin and light-colored eyes on the walls to increase your baby’s chances of having similar features
- To avoid the evil eye and associated spirits…
- Don’t disclose the baby’s gender if it’s a boy
- Keep garlic hidden in your clothing when going out
Although there are no scientific studies backing a majority of the claims above, what has been established definitively is that stress experienced by the mother during pregnancy negatively impacts the baby’s development in utero and may even have longer term effects beyond birth. While superstitions might simply lead to the occasional eye-roll or giggle, they could also give rise to significant tension and stress if forcefully imposed by family members or friends.
So mothers-to-be, listen up: do engage in self-care, seek support in your partner, family, and friends, and follow your instincts and doctor’s sage advice when it comes to your prenatal health and wellness – the payoff is likely to be rewarding well beyond the promise of superficial characteristics.
Dhara Thakar Meghani would like to express her gratitude to all the mothers who participated in this informal, but very informative study!
 Adebiyi, A., Adaikan, P. G., & Prasad, R. N. V. (2002). Papaya (Carica papaya) consumption is unsafe in pregnancy: fact or fable? Scientific evaluation of a common belief in some parts of Asia using a rat model. British Journal of Nutrition, 88(02), 199-203.
 Irish traditions in pregnancy. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.hawaii.hawaii.edu/nursing/RNIrish07.html.
 Phillips, W. (2005). Cravings, Marks, and Open Pores: Acculturation and Preservation of Pregnancy‐Related Beliefs and Practices among Mothers of African Descent in the United States. Ethos, 33(2), 231-255.
 This pregnancy belief also exists in Irish folklore, where it is thought that seeing another newborn, who has recently arrived from the “spirit world,” can increase the chances of a miscarriage: http://www.hawaii.hawaii.edu/nursing/RNIrish07.html.
 Some potential reasons for not washing hair are discussed here: http://www.babycenter.in/x1029047/will-washing-my-hair-during-pregnancy-harm-my-baby
 Possible reasons for this one are because big round fruits resemble a pregnant belly and cutting them would represent harming the mother and baby: http://aamjanata.com/superstitions-and-pregnancy/