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


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.

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