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While blowing the whistle on these modern folklores, the experts suggest that you keep your head. One day these old wives’ tales will sound as silly as “feed a cold, starve a fever”.

Are these old wives’ tales – true or not?

“I need to go on an allergen-free diet so my baby isn’t born with food allergies.”

Canadian food allergist and author Dr Janice Joneja said in 2010 that the number of children under five years old who have a peanut allergy doubled between 2002 and 2007. She suggests that moms, who are not themselves allergic to anything, should “educate the infant’s immune system to recognise that foreign proteins (allergens) are not a threat. By eating a wide range of foods and exposing an infant before and after birth to small quantities of foreign proteins, the child’s immune system is stimulated to produce its own antibodies.” (She encourages exclusive breastfeeding for at least the first four months of a child’s life.)

“I must cut out coffee during my pregnancy.”

The fear is in caffeine and the solution is in moderation. Researchers have found no harm in drinking coffee if you limit your consumption. “Too much caffeine is not healthy for anyone, pregnant or not, but one or two cups a day will not do any harm,” says Johannesburg-based gynaecologist Dr Johan van der Wat. There are alternatives: tea generally contains less caffeine than coffee, and there are decaffeinated options such as Rooibos, the poster child of hot drinks for pregnant women.

“I can’t eat sushi while I’m pregnant.”

The usual fear is that raw fish may carry harmful bacteria – but that’s only the case if the fish is not fresh. The other concern is about the mercury content but salmon is classified by the FDA as low in mercury. The same goes for eel, crab and shrimp. Each of these is perfectly fine for a pregnant and nursing women to eat. Tuna is a different story, with some species having high quantities of mercury. But, according to Van der Wat: “Eat as much as you like, Japan has one of the biggest populations in the world.” Plus fish is an important part of a healthy, balanced diet, “containing high-quality protein and other essential nutrients, omega-3 fatty acids and low levels of saturated fat,” says the FDA. For peace of mind, contact the Food Advisory Consumer Service (FACS): 012 428 7122 or visit

Read more about mercury in this article.

“I shouldn’t carry or lift anything during my pregnancy because it will hurt my baby.”

Okay, let’s let the doctor rephrase: “You should not lift or carry excessively heavy things during pregnancy,” says Van der Wat, but there’s no need to wrap yourself in cotton wool. Ignore the fear-mongering advice not to carry your toddler, unless your gynae has specifically told you otherwise. Pregnancy changes your centre of gravity, making you vulnerable to strain but it doesn’t make you fragile. Simply listen to your body and you’ll know your limits. For example, carrying two light grocery bags will not hurt your baby. However, moving a heavy pot plant can cause problems. Practise safe lifting habits. Don’t be a hero.

“I can determine the sex of my baby by the way I am carrying.”

Although it’s a sweet, harmless old wives’ tale, it’s interesting just how many people want to believe it. Van der Wat says: “No, the sex of a baby can only be determined by ultrasound.” It is actually the baby’s position, size of your torso, and your body’s shape before you became pregnant. Also, the amount of fat deposited around your abdomen determines the way you carry.

“My son has had his tonsils out so he should get fewer throat infections.”

Johannesburg-based paediatrician Dr Alison Baxter says that if a child has his tonsils removed “they won’t get tonsillitis. However, it won’t stop them from getting an infection of a different area of the throat.” ohannesburg-based paediatrician Dr Jennifer Geel says that only if a child has tonsillitis six or more times a year, should she have a tonsillectomy.

“My child should wait an hour after eating before swimming.”

“As a child I used to love to eat sandwiches under water,” recalls Geel. She goes on to say, “I seem to remember that the reason our parents told us not to eat then swim was to prevent drowning and I have never understood the logic of this one. Certainly, if you eat or drink something and then swim quite vigorously, you may taste the food or drink at the back of your throat but this cannot cause drowning.” The real issues when it comes to swimming safety are that your child is a competent swimmer and it’s worth it to invest in some lessons. It is also important that your pool is properly secured with a fence or net or both.

“If my son reads in dim light it’ll weaken his eyes.”

“Not at all, in my opinion,” says Geel, “Being short- or long-sighted is genetic. This may worsen with time, so a child may seem fine at age five and only later will you notice their poor vision, which some parents may then associate with reading.” Baxter goes on to say that though reading in dim light puts strain on the eyes at that time, and may make them tired, the eyes will recover after a period of rest.” Research shows that there really is very little you can do that will permanently damage your eyes.

“If my daughter has a cold I should not give her dairy products.”

“Dairy products won’t increase mucous production, but if your child has a cold and is producing a lot of mucous, the milk will coat the mucous so it sounds worse,” says Baxter. But there’s no need to stop giving them milk altogether. Geel says moms should increase their child’s intake of clear fluids, especially those containing Vitamin C.

“My child has diarrhoea, it must be because she is teething.”

As Baxter puts it: “Teething causes teeth.” She says that some children do get a low-grade fever with teething, but if the fever is over 38 degrees Celsius (normal is 37 degrees Celsius) then you should look for another cause for the fever. With teething some children do also produce a stool that is looser than normal, but this does not equate to gastroenteritis, when the child will go three or four times a day.”

“My daughter has white spots on her fingernails; she must have a calcium deficiency.”

Baxter says, “White spots or white lines on the nails are due to a mild trauma or bump to the nail and can also occur following periods of illness. Some other systemic diseases can be associated with nail abnormalities, so white spots on nails are not one and the same as calcium deficiency”. Geel says, “Generally you don’t notice the trauma at the time it occurs and the spots grow out weeks later.” So, they’re like bruises on the skin: they are harmless, and will grow out.

“If my daughter goes outside with wet hair she will get a cold.”

“A cold is caused by a virus, so you won’t get a cold just because your hair is wet or because of the weather,” says Baxter. So there you have it: wet hair or cold weather can only aggravate the symptoms of an already-present cold.

Are these old wives’ tales true or not?

Fact, in fact
Just when you thought you could spot a myth a mile away: it turns out that these have more than a dash of truth in them…
  • An apple a day keeps the doctor away:  Apple phenols help protect the DNA from colon cancer cells. Research has shown that apple consumption may be an effective strategy for cancer protection.
  • Long hot baths reduce sperm count:  Men’s testes are outside the body for a reason. They need to be in a cooler environment to produce healthy sperm. Heat from a hot bath can be temporarily damaging to the sperm, which is why it can affect male fertility. If you’re trying to conceive, men should steer clear of the hot tub and Jacuzzi.
  • Eating carrots is good for eyesight: It doesn’t make you see any better in the dark, nor does it sharpen your vision but it does reduce the risk of getting macular degeneration, a condition common in seniors and one which causes blindness.

Lucille Kemp

Find out the truth behind these five common baby myths.