Parents Talk Back

Pregnant women are advised to be cautious of many things: sushi, Brie, hot tubs and kitty litter, to name a few. But when I was expecting my first child, I was surprised to receive a concerned phone call warning me about the dangers of an eclipse.

Don’t use a pair of scissors or a knife during an eclipse, my mother said, or the baby could be born with facial birth defects.

Unlike the risks posed by uncooked fish or soft cheese, there is no scientific or medical basis for this sort of alarm. But there are persistent superstitions and myths surrounding celestial events, especially ones as dramatic as the solar eclipse that will cut across the entire continental United States on Aug. 21. Those of us in the center of the moon’s shadow, known as the totality, will see the sky darken for a few minutes in the middle of the day.

In many cultures, including my parents’ South Asian background, pregnant women are told to stay indoors during an eclipse to prevent birth defects. The parenting advice website BabyCenter.com, in a section on traditional Hispanic beliefs and myths about pregnancy, also notes that expectant mothers are told to carry something metallic, such as a safety pin, during an eclipse to protect against cleft palate.

The site suggests the superstition traces back to an Aztec belief that an eclipse is a bite on the face of the moon.

David Baron, author of “American Eclipse,” says that there was a time in the 1970s that the Indonesian government advised pregnant women to stay indoors during a solar eclipse. (That’s no longer the case.)

“There’s nothing to fear but epic traffic,” he said, referring to the cars expected to crowd highways to get a good view when the solar eclipse passes over an area.

The editorial team of BabyCenter India posted a list of common traditional restrictions and beliefs on the topic. During an eclipse, the list said, a pregnant woman should:

-- avoid using any sharp object such as a knife, scissors or a needle.

-- avoid eating anything.

-- rest as much as possible.

-- cover the windows with newspaper or thick curtains so that no rays of the eclipse enter the home.

-- throw away all food that was cooked before the eclipse and take a bath after it ends.

The article points out that there is no scientific evidence to suggest an eclipse is harmful to a pregnant woman or her baby, but that none of the recommendations would be harmful to follow if the woman chooses -- except for fasting, potentially. Fasting during an eclipse is a common practice in parts of India, and could lead to dehydration if it lasts too long.

Dr. Shafia Bhutto, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, says expectant women in Pakistan might be told to lie straight in bed during an eclipse to prevent crooked joints in a baby.

“There’s nothing real about that,” she said. Her only medical advice applies to everyone: Don’t look at the sun directly because it can damage your retina. Everyone must wear special protective glasses when looking at an eclipse to prevent eye damage.

“There is nothing that will happen to your unborn baby during an eclipse, because they are in your uterus,” she said.

But superstitions are hard to shake. Bhutto remembers a woman from many years ago who was distraught throughout her pregnancy because she’d accidentally looked at a lunar eclipse. She worried about it constantly. Ultimately, the woman’s baby was born with a cleft palate that had never been picked up in the ultrasounds.

“Even though it was completely unrelated, the patient totally blamed herself,” she said.

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