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maternal impressions

Maternal impressions refers to the belief that a pregnant woman’s experiences are directly imprinted on her unborn child. The theory was popular in the 18th century and earlier and was used to explain birth defects. For example, a child born deaf was due to the mother having been shocked by a loud sound during pregnancy or a child born blind might be due to the mother having looked at a blind person during pregnancy. One story has it that Joseph Merrick, aka "the Elephant Man," thought that his deformity was due to his mother having been frightened by an elephant when she was pregnant with him.

In 1726, a servant girl named Mary Toft claimed she gave birth to a litter of stillborn rabbits. Wiser men than she explained the birth in terms of her strong craving for rabbit meat, her frequent  dreams of rabbits, and her habit of trying to catch rabbits in the garden.

Even during the enlightened Victorian era it was widely held that women 'in a certain condition' should take care to expose themselves only to pleasant stimulation, to visit art galleries and concerts, so that their child would be cultured as well as healthy. (Jahoda 1974: 7).

But in the first half of the twentieth century, the notion of maternal impressions was dismissed as a superstition, as was the notion that pregnant women should "expose themselves only to pleasant stimulation." The latter notion was resurrected with the now-discredited Mozart effect. We now know, however, that both physical and psychological illness or stress in the mother can affect the fetus in adverse ways.

See also superstition.

further reading

books and articles

Davids, Anthony, Raymond H. Holden, and Gloria B. Gray "Maternal Anxiety During Pregnancy and Adequacy of Mother and Child Adjustment Eight Months Following Childbirth." Child Development, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Dec., 1963), pp. 993-1002.

Evans, Bergen. The Natural History of Nonsense (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957).

Jahoda, Gustav. (1974). The Psychology of Superstition. Jason Aronson.

Pickover, Clifford A. (2000). The Girl Who Gave Birth to Rabbits: A True Medical Mystery. Prometheus Books.


Which is more toxic to a fetus— antidepressants or maternal depression?

National Children’s Study Workshop Psychosocial Stress in Pregnancy and Infancy

Stress Impact on Mother and Child during pregnancy

Last updated 19-Dec-2013

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