Big Belly, Big Baby

... and other enduring pregnancy and childbirth myths.

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I was about halfway through my Thai beef salad when a woman stopped to admire my belly. "You must be having a boy," she said. I told her I was; we knew from the ultrasound and amniocentesis. "Those boy babies love meat," she explained. I agreed, not bothering to mention that when I was pregnant with my daughter, I could have packed away six pork chops and a standing rib roast before lunchtime if my conscience had allowed it.

And so continued another pregnancy myth—to match the scores of others in circulation. Guessing your baby's sex based on your appetite, skin tone, belly shape or whether you are carrying "high" or "low" is as accurate as flipping a coin, but that won't stop the endless speculation.

Fortunately, most "folk wisdom" of this kind is harmless. But to set the record straight, we decided to sort out some misconceptions with the help of two experts: obstetricians Michael D. Benson, M.D., author of Pregnancy Myths: An Obstetrician Demystifies Pregnancy From Conception to Birth (Marlowe & Co., 1995); and Graig W. Smith, M.D., author of Common Pregnancy Myths: Fact or Folklore? (Woodview Publishing, 1998).

MYTH: The over-the-counter drug you took before you knew you were pregnant is likely to cause a birth defect.

REALITY: The odds are in your favor here. "Though [the effects of] a lot of drugs are unknown, the list of drugs we know to be harmful is fairly short," says Smith. Also, timing plays a big role: For the first three weeks after conception, almost anything questionable you do has an "all-or-nothing" effect. That is, either it does no harm to the fetus or — far less often — it causes a miscarriage. To be on the safe side, though, find out what's safe before you take anything — or, even better, before you get pregnant. Also, at your first prenatal checkup, mention anything you've taken. Then relax. You'll need that neurotic energy to obsess over nursery colors and baby names.

REALITY CHECK: The rules change after five weeks gestation, especially during the first trimester. Then, virtually anything that wouldn't pass muster at a Buddhist monastery should be cleared by your physician. But don't be afraid to take drugs if they're medically necessary and approved by your doctor.

MYTH: You risk inducing a miscarriage if you a) exercise strenuously; b) lift heavy objects; or c) engage in any physical activity you find remotely enjoyable.

REALITY: "People do not cause miscarriages," says Smith. "At conception, certain genetic and hormonal events determine whether a pregnancy will be lost or continued, and normal activity has nothing to do with this."

REALITY CHECK: Pregnancy is not the time to take up competitive horse jumping or other risky sports. "Riding a horse is one thing; falling off one can be another," says Benson. "Since your center of gravity shifts during pregnancy, you may be more prone to accidents." Also at issue: overdoing it. "Take heed if you show signs of physical distress, such as dizziness," Benson says. "In other words, what doesn't harm your baby might hurt you."

MYTH: With a belly like that, you're carrying a brontosaurus and will have a difficult delivery.

REALITY: Not to be pedantic, but the correct name is apatosaurus. Regardless, you can't predict the baby's weight by gauging your girth. "In studies where experienced physicians tried to guess the size of their patients' babies, they didn't do a very good job," says Smith. A big belly could be the result of slack muscle tone, above-average weight gain or extra amniotic fluid.

A small belly and/or baby won't guarantee an easy delivery, either, so don't try to keep your weight down in what is likely to be a futile attempt to have a little baby. "I've delivered 10- and 11-pound babies easily and had tough deliveries with 5- and 6-pounders," says Smith.

MYTH: Raising your arms above your head can wrap the baby's umbilical cord around his neck and strangle him.

REALITY: "What happens in your uterus has nothing to do with your arms," Smith says. And even if a correlation did exist, he adds, "Umbilical cords are often wrapped around something, but because babies don't breathe air until after they're born, this is almost never a bad thing [until the time of delivery]."

REALITY CHECK: Get someone else to change hard-to-reach light bulbs, snag high-hanging cobwebs and paint the ceiling ... just in case.

MYTH: Sex and pregnancy don't mix.

REALITY: Many couples find a sexual ripeness and responsiveness that is uniquely satisfying. And you don't have to worry about getting pregnant!

REALITY CHECK: "Pregnant women are prone to nausea in the first trimester; they're beginning to show in the second trimester; and they're chronically uncomfortable in the third trimester," Benson says. "None of these things is likely to cause an increase in libido." Translation: Sex and pregnancy ... well, you get the picture.

MYTH: It's normal for the baby's movements to slow down or even cease just before labor starts.

REALITY: Tight quarters may restrict the baby's movements in the last days of pregnancy. This fact should not be interpreted too broadly, however. "This myth is not harmless; it may actually prevent a woman from acting promptly on what may be a serious situation," Benson says. "Chances are, nothing is wrong, but any big decrease in the baby's activity from one day to the next should be reported to your doctor."

MYTH: If your mother gave birth easily, so will you (and vice versa).

REALITY: "A woman can't tell what kind of labor she'll have based on her mother's experience," Benson says. In fact, there's nothing you can do to accurately predict what your labor will be like.

REALITY CHECK: Help stack the odds in your favor by doing everything medically appropriate to make sure you and your baby get off to a happy, healthy start. Then keep in mind the further reality that no matter how taxing — and exhilarating — your labor and delivery turn out to be, they're only the warm-up.

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