Weird Historical Notions and Beliefs About Pregnancy

Ask any parent: pregnancy is a pretty scary ordeal. There's so much that can go wrong, even with 21st-century science and medicine. So it's easy to see how weird pregnancy beliefs formed thousands of years ago: young parents were scared out of their minds without reasonable explanations for much of what was going on.

Many backward beliefs about pregnancy in history are misogynistic in nature; some, however, are just indicative of how little we knew about the human body (tiny little preformed humans living in sperm?). It's fun to look back on bizarre historical pregnancy beliefs and breathe a sigh of relief that those days are gone (unless you're former Congressman Todd Akin, apparently). Read on to learn about some of the wildest pregnancy beliefs throughout history.


  • You Won't Get Pregnant If You're Constipated (Or If You Have Diarrhea)

    This one dates back to Soranus of Ephesus, a famous ancient Greek physician. In the second century, Soranus's treatise Gynaikeia was considered to be the definitive guide on the topic of gynecology. Soranus thought that the bowels were critical in the conception process. How so? Constipation, he argued, would suffocate the fetus. Diarrhea? It would wash it away, of course. He also thought that men seeking a fertile partner should look for one who isn't "mannish" or "flabby," according to Randi Hutter Epstein, author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth From the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.

  • Being Shaken Violently Can Help Induce Labor

    Being Shaken Violently Can Help Induce Labor
    Photo: Chriggy / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Sue Blundell writes in Women in Ancient Greece that sometimes labor was induced with a little help from your friends... shaking the hell out of you. Specifically, "four female assistants" were recommended for the task. They would "seize the woman by the legs and arms" and shake her "at least ten" times. Once the poor pregnant lady was all shook up, she would be placed on the bed and left alone. Actually... nope. The female assistants would "subject her to more shaking by the shoulders."

  • Conception Requires a Woman's Orgasm

    Conception Requires a Woman's Orgasm
    Photo: KOMUnews / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Remember when Representative Todd Akin (R-MO) said on the campaign trail in 2012 that “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down"? There's a long history behind that bizarre belief, as illuminated by Jennifer Tucker in a wonderful New York Times column.

    It dates back to Aristotle and ideas about "hot" men and "cold" women. In order to conceive, the logic went, women needed the "heat" of orgasm. Hildegard of Bingen, a prolific writer and head of a convent in 12th-century Germany, put it this way:

    “And when the seed has fallen into its place, that vehement heat descending from her brain draws the seed to itself and holds it, and soon the woman’s sexual organs contract, and all the parts that are ready to open up during the time of menstruation now close, in the same way as a strong man can hold something enclosed in his fist.”

    Until the 18th century, basically, women who were raped and became pregnant were presumed not to have been raped at all. Ugh.

  • Sweet Smells Can Attract the Womb to the Sperm

    Sweet Smells Can Attract the Womb to the Sperm
    Photo: Hey Paul Studios / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Yes, you read that right: womb to the sperm, not sperm to the womb. In ancient Greece, the uterus was considered a separate entity. Has anyone ever told you to not get hysterical? Well, way back when, that meant something entirely different. The ancient Greeks thought the "wandering womb" could travel through a woman's body and go straight to her head, causing "hysteria." They also thought that sweet odors, inserted into the vagina, could attract the "wandering womb" to the sperm. Foul odors, of course, had the opposite effect.