Picture it: Massillon, Ohio, 1989. I'm but a wee thing visiting my grandmother at the single remaining five-and-dime shop where she worked. She and her friends allowed me to sit on the countertop eating lollipops and drinking fountain cola. A hugely pregnant woman reaches to grab something off the top shelf. Quick as you like, my tiny grandmother goes for her while yelling, "Don't reach that high, you'll strangle your baby!" I was confused at the time, but it turns out, that's a popular superstition. But can lifting your arms above your head really strangle your baby?
Historians of superstition, (yes, such a thing exists) cannot pinpoint exactly where this myth began, but there are similar myths dating back to the premodern era from Shetland to Slovakia and beyond. The hypothesis behind the theory is that when you raise your arms above your head, your baby is able to stretch out a bit more than usual, giving them room to do the gymnastics required to strangle themselves fully while in utero. Fortunately, there is no scientific connection between maternal arm position and cord strangulation.
However, this myth has sailed through time and remained a popular bit of superstition. There are pages and pages of answers to this question on the Snopes boards.
When a baby's cord is wrapped around its neck, it's called a "nuchal cord." It's actually incredibly common and not generally a cause for concern, according to BioMed Central Pregnancy and Childbirth. Most of the time it happens and self-corrects before anyone knows that it does, or it's present at birth with no ill effects observed. According to the article, it happens in up to 37 percent of pregnancies. While there are times, researchers noted, that it is dangerous and does cut off blood flow to the brain, this is rare.
So why has this superstition stuck the way it has? Why is it that one of my only truly clear memories of my grandmother from that time revolve around her chasing down a pregnant woman twice her size with a retractable hook like a Vaudevillian stage manager? (Other than the fact that it was freaking hilarious in hindsight.) Probably because all of her co-workers, mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe in their mid to late 60s, were all in agreement. They nodded their highly coiffed hair and pursed their overly made-up lips. (Allow for hyperbole in my recollection. I was very young, and they wore a lot of perfume. The fumes may have gotten to me.)
As it turns out, there's a whole psychology surrounding superstitions that I was unaware of. Jane Risen, a University of Chicago Booth School of Business psychologist told Vox, “Even smart, educated, emotionally stable adults believe superstitions that they recognize are not rational." It has to do with our ever-evolving minds and the way they process information.
Menachem Hobromowitz, PhD and professor of theology and the Midrash tells Romper, "We have to be able to look at something and have some idea why it happened. If you step on a crack... you get the point. It's not logical, but at least it's not unexplained." He says it's not so different from religion, and may actually be religion's predecessor. "Before we believed, we suspected," he says.
This actually makes a lot of sense. Somewhere, some midwife of a mother had a baby born with a fatal nuchal cord, and she (or he, could be the father), rolled it around in their brain a while and came up with this response that lifting your arms can really strangle your baby — however untrue it may be. It gave them something to point to as a reason, as a blame. As for you? You can spend all day reaching up and down and just end up tired. Your baby will be fine.
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