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Insights from the Past

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of Kubla Khan

The idea that the time spent in the womb is important is not a new one.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 –1834) wrote:

“Yes! The history of man for the nine months preceding his birth would probably be far more interesting and contain events of greater moment, than all the three score and ten years that follow it”

It is said that his poem ‘Kubla Khan’ was inspired by his vision of life in the womb and being born.

The idea that the mothers emotional state can affect the development of her baby in the womb is not new either (see Ferriera, 1965).

“The things desired by the mother are often found impressed on the child that the mother carries.” Leonardo Da Vinci

This idea is in Hippocrates (400 BC) and the Vedas (500 BC)

Maternal impressions

The belief that the emotional attitude and behaviour of the pregnant woman can affect the child she carries is actually very old.

In the past this has been known as the theory of ‘maternal impressions’. That is that how the mother is feeling is ‘impressed’ on the developing fetus.

Maternal impressions orginated in folklore, where it was believed that if the mother was afraid of an object or animal, then the baby she gave birth to would have the mark of the that thing on its body.

Later the concept came to mean that any emotion felt by the mother might have an impact on the development of the baby.

The Evil Eye

The myth of the ‘evil eye’ is an extension of the theory of maternal impression and has historically been linked with it.

It was thought that If someone is given the ‘evil eye’, misfortune or disaster will befall them. In many cultures, individuals would carry talismans to protect themselves from the ‘evil eye’.

It was often believed that if a pregnant woman was given the ‘evil eye’, then her child would be affected. It was reasoned that the fear she felt at the time would cause problems for the baby.

Public health message

Below is a public health education poster from the USA produced in 1919.

This demonstrates that the idea that the mother’s emotional state during pregnancy could have an affect on the development of her baby is indeed quite old.

However, it is only very recently that we have begun to collect the scientific evidence necessary to show that it is true.

USA public health education poster (1919)