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Maternal Impressions





"Maternal impression" is accepted as a specific designation to signify
the real or supposed influence of emotion and especially serious
trouble, which may affect the mother's mind during pregnancy and be
transferred to the child in utero, with the production of
deformities or mother's marks. There used to be an almost
superstitious belief in the power of the maternal impressions to
influence unfavorably the child in utero. With the newer
developments as to the influence of the subconscious and subliminal
there might well occur in some minds an exaggeration of these ideas
with the production of much mental suffering at least, if not of more
serious results.


Maternal Impressions in Old Literature.--The belief in the influence
of maternal impression on the child in utero is so strongly fixed
that to most people it will seem paradoxical to question the whole
subject. The evidence for it, however, is quite trivial, and none of
it rises above the grade of what may be explained by coincidence. But
there are many apparently insuperable difficulties, from the
standpoint of our modern scientific knowledge, with regard to the
whole subject. If we take up the medical books and the popular
science, or rather pseudo-science, and the folk stories of a century
ago we find overwhelming evidence for the belief in maternal
impressions. More recent literature has but few examples, and
the more the details are studied the less is the evidence of any kind
that the mother's mind influences her unborn child. There is really no
more reason why a child should he marked within its mother's womb than
that it should be marked while nursing at the breast if something
should happen to the mother at that time. This latter effect strikes
one at once as absurd; the former, as we shall see, is exactly of the
same nature.

Many of the older stories of maternal impressions are reported on no
better grounds than the vomiting of snakes and the like, even live
mice, which used to be found in old-time medical literature. It is
true that there was usually no such morbidity about the stories of
maternal impressions, but men wanted to find some explanation for the
problem of the occurrence of deformities and markings and the maternal
impression idea seemed satisfactory and inviting by its very mystery.
The belief that animals could live for some time in human stomachs is
now relegated to the limbo of old-time credulous traditions. Maternal
impressions are on the same path and in twenty-five years they will be
as great curiosities in serious medical literature as the gastric
fauna of two generations ago. Under these circumstances prospective
mothers who are anxious over possibilities and who have dreads of all
kinds about their unborn children should be reassured and informed as
to the scientific status of this important question.


Mother and Child Distinct Beings.--There is no direct connection
between the mother and her unborn babe. No nerves run in the cord and
none pass from the uterine tissues to the placenta. It is easy to
understand the influence of mind on body under ordinary circumstances,
at least the mystery has a rational explanation. The central nervous
system rules the nutrition of the body. To cut off the nerve supply
has as serious an effect as to cut off the blood supply. Owing to the
existence of a chain of neurons, that is, a succession of nervous
elements, instead of one continuous nerve fiber from center to
periphery, it is possible for one of the neurons of the chain to be so
disturbed that the conducting apparatus is interrupted and impulses do
not flow. Hence, if a strong impression is produced on the mind with
regard to a particular part of the body the neurons leading to it may
be so disturbed that trophic nerve impulses do not flow down, the
blood supply of the part may be disturbed through the vaso-motor
system and consequent changes may take place.


Absence of Circulatory Connection.--Since no nerves pass, as we have
said, from mother to babe, disturbances acting on the mother's mind
can at most only influence the blood supply to the baby. Most people
think that there is a direct blood supply from mother to child and
that the mother's blood literally flows in the baby's veins. This is
not true. The baby's blood is an entirely independent structure,
originating in the child's own body, and always maintaining a distinct
and quite different composition from that of the mother. The baby's
blood has a higher specific gravity, and it has, in normal condition,
nearly double as many red corpuscles to the cubic millimeter as the
mother's blood. If the blood supply is disturbed by mental influences,
then it is not the baby's blood nor its circulation that is disturbed,
but only the circulation through the maternal part of the placenta
where an exchange of gases and nutrient elements between mother's and
baby's blood takes place. It is impossible to conceive that
during this passage through a membrane of nutrient elements, soluble
proteids, gases, etc., mental influences should also pass over.


Supposed Examples of Maternal Impression.--The stories that are told
would lead us to believe that somehow definite changes in the mother
are reproduced in the babe. One case, which in a circle of friends
that I knew very well made many a convert to the idea of maternal
impressions, was that of a young woman at whom, during an early stage
of her first pregnancy, her husband playfully threw a tiny frog. He
did not know that she had a mortal dread of frogs. She was seriously
frightened and put up her hand to ward off the animal, and as the
clammy thing struck her palm she felt a shiver go through her. When
her baby was born a curious growth that had some pigment in it and
that, by a stretch of the imagination, might be considered to resemble
a frog was in the baby's hand--the same hand, by the way, as that
which the mother used to ward off the animal. The lack of any nervous
connection and of any direct blood connection between mother and child
makes the story simply absurd as an illustration of maternal
impression.

In recent years such stories have come from more and more distant
parts of the country. Kansas was the principal source of them until a
generation of great editors arose there. Texas was then their favorite
location, but Texas has in recent years become so progressive and so
closely connected with the rest of the world that, in spite of its
size, it does not produce so many of these wonders. A generation ago
the announcement of the birth of six children at once in Austria, or
somewhere else in Central Europe, would usually be followed by a
report from Texas announcing seven at a birth. Maternal impression
stories grew luxuriantly for the benefit of the news-gatherer in dull
seasons. A standing type of them is that of the farmer cutting hay on
his farm who puts his fingers too far into the hay cutter and has them
taken off. His wife binds up the bleeding stump. She is pregnant at
the time. When her baby is born--usually two or three months
later--just the same fingers are missing on the same hand of the
child. Now the mechanism by which such maternal impression could be
transferred to the child is incomprehensible. There is no connection
between the two, and the old metaphysical axiom (actio in distans
repugnat) that all action between bodies at a distance from one
another, that is without some connecting link between them, is absurd,
holds as good in modern times as it did in the Middle Ages. Surely a
tendency-to-amputation is not carried over from mother's blood to
baby's blood through the membrane in the placenta just as are the
gases for respiration and the nutrient elements for food. If it is, we
have a greater mystery than ever to solve.


Period of Occurrence.--The infant in the uterus is fully formed before
the tenth week of pregnancy and at a time when women are usually
almost unconscious of the fact that they are pregnant. Such
impressional changes as we have referred to, if produced after this,
must be in the nature of backward growth or an inversion of trophic
influences or a great perversion of embryonic life. They have nothing
to do with the formation of the child, since that is completed. They
are as much accidents as if the child should fall after it was born.
We know how fetal limbs are amputated through the formation of
amniotic bands, but that maternal impressions should influence the
formation of these bands is of itself ridiculously absurd. That it
should influence them in a directive and selective way so that
certain limbs may be amputated at a certain point reaches a climax of
absurdity. A distinguished physician of our generation once said that
one might as well hope to absorb a pencil case in one's vest pocket by
medicine as to try to bring about absorption of fully formed
connective tissue by drugs. We cannot think of any mental influence
bringing about such absorption, yet to credit maternal impressions
with the production of fetal amputations not only supposes the
directive formation of connective tissue within the uterus, quite
beyond the domain of the influence of the mother's nervous system, but
also assumes the direction of the anomalous action of that connective
tissue in its mutilating procedures in a very exact and definite way.

Some curious things have been explained on the score of maternal
impressions and it is this very exaggeration that is perhaps the best
proof of how coincidence, imitation, and other factors play a role
that has exaggerated the idea of maternal impressions into a causative
factor. A typical illustration is the case cited years ago, half in
joke, perhaps, half in earnest, by a distinguished professor of
obstetrics. It occurred in the days when the elder Sothern was playing
Lord Dundreary to crowded houses and when Dundrearyisms were the
current witticisms and Dundreary ties and Dundreary clothes and
Dundreary whiskers were all the rage. A young woman who was recently
married became much taken with the actor and went to see him over and
over again, secured an introduction to him, and showed the liveliest
interest in him and the performance. Their acquaintance, however,
remained merely that of chance friends. Some months after it began,
not more than five or six at the most, a boy was born to her.
According to the story this boy, when he began to walk some years
later, developed that little skip in his gait which proved so taking
to those who crowded the theaters to see Sothern as Lord Dundreary.

By this time the play had lost something of its vogue and most people
did not recognize the curious halt in the gait, but it was very clear
to the mother and her friends. It was set down as due to a maternal
mental impression. Mental transfer seems ludicrous in this case. It is
much more likely that the mother was hysterical, and, wishing in a
morbid way to attract attention to herself and her child, taught the
boy the little skip, or perhaps some curious little skip once taken by
the child attracted the mother's attention because of her memory of
Sothern, and her surprise at the act impressed the peculiar action
upon the boy's mind, who proceeded to attract further attention by
repeating it. It is cases like this with their reductio ad absurdum
of the whole process that have quite discredited the belief in
maternal impressions.


Some Figures and Coincidences.--The occurrence of mothers' marks in
connection with various external incidents of pregnancy are only
coincidences. Most young mothers dread lest something should happen to
their children. About once in a thousand times an infant is marked in
some way. Nine hundred mothers rejoice over the fact that their baby
is not marked in spite of the fact that they feared it might be,
ninety-nine of them never gave the matter any thought and one of them
finds to her sorrow that her foreboding has come true. Occasionally a
mother who has not dreaded such a result finds that her offspring is
marked. Then she recalls all the happenings of her pregnancy and picks
out something to which she thinks she may attribute the accident.
There must be some reason for it and she finds it. Sometimes she
begins by saying that it must be because she was frightened at such a
time, or fell down at such a place, or saw such a thing, and then a
week later she tells the story with circumstantial additions which
make it very clear to her friends that she knows exactly the reason
and that she had thought about it before and feared it might be so,
though the whole matter was hazy until it had been talked over a
number of times.

Coincidences have been the most serious detriment in drawing
scientific conclusions in every department of medicine. Most of our
diseases are self-limited and any medicine that was given being
followed by recovery seemed to be the cause of that recovery and the
more strictly self-limited a disease the greater the number of
remedies. When stories of maternal impressions are analyzed it is
found that a great many mothers have had forebodings as to their
children being marked and their dreads have not come true. A few have
feared and have realized their worst fears. Many women whose children
are marked can recall no event in the course of their pregnancy which
could have marked their child and they ask the doctor what he thinks
must have been the reason. But unintelligent mothers can always find
some cause by searching out unpleasant details of their experience
during pregnancy.


Intrauterine Nutrition and Nursing.--To explain the occurrence of a
frog-like appearance or a mousey patch on a baby as due to its mother
having been frightened by one of these little animals while nursing
would be the height of absurdity. But it is no more absurd than the
supposition that mental impressions in the late months of pregnancy
can have the effects that are popularly ascribed to them. If a mother
suffers from severe fright, or even if she has a fit of intense anger
or other profound mental disturbance, her milk may disagree with her
infant. Every physician has seen nursing infants made sick by the
change in the milk superinduced by strong mental emotions in the
mother. This, however, could have nothing to do with the production of
a special lasting physical mark on the outside of the body.


Maternal Solicitude and Superstition.--The wonderful stories that are
told are nearly all in the older literature and are much more
reasonably explained on the score of coincidence than on that of any
possible direct connection of cause and effect. Mothers, then, may be
reassured and made to understand that the better their own health, the
less they worry about their condition, the more likely is their
pregnancy to terminate favorably with a perfectly healthy offspring.
This is the source of so much concern in the little world of
child-bearing that it is worth while taking it seriously and making
mothers understand that the old notions in this matter are but
superstitions. Superstitions are not always nor exclusively religious,
they are survivals from a previous state of knowledge, the reasons for
which are now known to be false. Maternal impression, that is, the
belief in the power of the mother's mind over the unborn child, is a
superstition that we must now dismiss.


Favorable Maternal Influences.--Every now and then a sensational
newspaper has an article on how mothers will tend to make their
children physically handsomer by gazing at beautiful works of art,
beautiful scenes in nature, and seeing only handsome (one feels like
inserting well-dressed in the category, also) people during pregnancy.
The reading of good books containing moral lessons of the
highest quality are supposed to have something of the same influence
on the child's character. There is no doubt at all that the more
carefully and simply and beautifully and healthily the mother lives,
and the more her mind possesses itself in peace and happiness, the
better will be her own nutrition and consequently that of her
offspring, and, all things considered, this will contribute to the
perfection of the infant's body and so give the best instrument for
the expression of its soul. That these supposed favorable influences
have any more direct power than this over the state of the infant that
is to be is doubtful. It is worth trying for, but if the indefinite
influence for good emphasizes, as it apparently does in many minds,
the presumed direct and definite influence for evil, then it is not
worth dwelling on.


Etiology of Deformities.--But if these curious deformities and
markings are not due to maternal impressions, what, then, is their
cause? To the question for many of the minor marks and slight
deformities--naevi vascular and pigmentary, extra fingers, slight
overgrowths, special peculiarities of bone and soft tissues--no
satisfactory answer can be given. We must simply say that as yet we do
not know. It is a good thing to say we do not know. Long ago Roger
Bacon declared that the principal reason why man did not advance in
knowledge more in spite of the amount of their work was that they were
afraid to say "I do not know," and accepted inadequate reasons and
insufficient authority in order to avoid this humiliating expression.
On the other hand, there are many deformities and markings, the
reasons for which have been found, and the more important they are the
more we know about them, as a rule. Besides, with the advance of our
knowledge of embryology we are getting to know more and more about
these difficult problems and many things that were mysteries before
are now clear. In addition to observation we have experiment and this
is making observation more thoroughly scientific.

The more we know of the intricacies of the development of animals and
human beings, the greater is our surprise that deformities do not
occur even more commonly than they do. All the openings of the human
as of the animal body gradually close in with the production of the
finished form. The slightest interference with growth in the
neighborhood of these openings, which involve nearly all of the front
of the body, leaves various deformities. Nature has surrounded the
developing embryo with fluid so that it is saved from jars of all
kinds and from contact with other tissues that would disturb growth.
Cell is laid on cell as brick is laid on brick in the building of a
house, and the predetermined plan in the immense majority of cases is
followed without accident to the minutest detail. That more mishaps do
not occur, considering the delicacy of the process and the perfection
of the finished structure, is hard to understand.

There are many factors likely to intrude in every pregnancy that may
lead to the production of unfortunate results. Literally millions of
cells are growing with apparent freedom from constraint in many
portions of the fetus, yet all are directed with definite purpose
corresponding to other cells and are destined to meet in due course of
time. Each one of them or at least each group seems to be independent
in its growth. Each growing cell doubles by dividing every few hours,
yet all are co-ordinated to a definite end. We admire the men who
begin at the two ends of a tunnel far distant from one another and
work without any communication except through the engineer's plans
made long before, and yet make two bores that can be depended on
to meet with but a few inches of divergence. The bridges of tissue
that are built across the openings of the body jut out to meet one
another in this way and in more than ninety-nine out of every one
hundred cases there is not the slightest divergence. Many things may
occur to disturb conditions--not connected with mental influences, but
with distinctly physical factors--missteps, trips, jars on stairs or
getting off and on cars, on the sidewalk, etc. These, and not the
mythical factors that make up so-called maternal impressions, are the
causes of deformities and mothers' marks.





Next: Prostatism

Previous: Nursing



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