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Quick!  Boil Some Water!

Old Wives' Tales of Pregnancy and Childbirth

Dateline: 04/22/99

By David Emery

In the words of Butterfly McQueen in Gone With the Wind,  "I don't know nothin'  'bout birthin' babies!"

The sentiment is surely truer of me than it was of McQueen's character, who at least had the advantage of growing up female. However little she thought she knew, I know even less. Trust me.

Still, I have learned a thing or two this past week with the help of About's knowledgeable Pregnancy and Childbirth Guide Robin Weiss – a certified doula, not to mention the proud mother of three healthy children. She has been very patient with me.

In our first conversation she set me straight regarding a misconception I got from the movies when I was a kid. Remember how, in old westerns, the doc would always holler "Quick! Boil some water!" whenever a woman was about to give birth? Well, it turns out that while it may not have been purely a cinematic invention, the value of boiling-hot water in childbirth is and always has been questionable, and certainly more on the order of a folk belief than a medical fact.

"Many people believe that this was to sterilize something – what, I'm not sure," Robin told me. "Home birth midwives now do have sterile equipment, but just a few pieces that are rarely needed."

According to an old joke in midwifery circles, the order to go boil some water was mainly a ploy to get the husband out of the room for a good long time, since in those days a fire had to be built, water collected from the well and so on before the kettle could even be put on the stove. By the time the water finally simmered, the baby was already wailing in its mother's arms and the father was still on his feet.

On the other hand, warm water does have its applications in childbirth, so it's possible the point all along was merely to heat the stuff up to a useful temperature. Sometimes the simplest explanation is also the likeliest.

There's a wealth of imaginative folklore out there dealing with every facet of pregnancy and childbirth. Robin and I have collected a few of the more interesting tales along with some factual and historical information. You'll find the first of these below. Hope you enjoy them.

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