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Cultural 'Myths' Could Shape Pregnant Women's Expectations

Study found media, friends influence concerns about symptoms like morning sickness

SATURDAY, Aug. 10 (HealthDay News) -- Pregnant women's expectations about the changes they will face -- from morning sickness and shiny hair to peculiar food cravings -- are not only influenced by their doctors and nurses, but also by what they hear from their friends and find in the media, a new study says.

These "pregnancy mythologies" may affect what women take for granted in pregnancy and could influence the communication between them and their health care providers, the study suggests.

The findings are scheduled for presentation Saturday at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting, in New York City.

Danielle Bessett, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati, interviewed 64 pregnant women living in and around New York City from 2003 to 2006. About half of the participants were expecting their first child, while others had complicated reproductive histories. All of the participants received prenatal care. Of the group, 23 received care from public, hospital-based clinics, while the other women were patients at private practices.

After conducting the interviews, Bessett found all 64 women faced cultural hearsay about being pregnant, or what she dubbed pregnancy mythologies.

"My research shows that we may underestimate the extent to which all of us hold understandings of pregnancy built incrementally through a succession of ephemeral encounters over our lifetimes and the extent to which those understandings affect us," Bessett said in an ASA news release.

Although many of the women interviewed denied that cultural hearsay was an information source they trusted, they often cited entertainment or media sources when asked to explain why they had certain expectations for what would happen during pregnancy.

Bessett also noted some women relied heavily on their ethnic-religious traditions. In some cases, women had no explanation for how they learned what to expect during pregnancy.

Some women became concerned about the health of their fetus when they did not experience the side effects and symptoms commonly associated with pregnancy, such as morning sickness, the study found.

Bessett said that pregnancy symptoms are not just a side effect of pregnancy since women connect their symptoms to the desires, needs or personal characteristics of their unborn baby. For instance, one mother believed she developed intense morning sickness because her baby didn't like the food she ate.

Certain pregnancy-related symptoms, such as exhaustion, insomnia, gas, headaches, and swollen ankles, weren't as commonly linked to cultural influences. It could be that these side effects involve less openly discussed topics and are less frequently portrayed in the media, Bessett said.

About half of the women involved in the study were white, 12 were black, 16 were Hispanic, and two were Asian. One-third of the women reported household incomes of less than $40,000; just under half reported household incomes of at least $80,000.

Because this study was presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more about the side effects of pregnancy.

SOURCE: American Sociological Association, news release, Aug. 10, 2013

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