12 shocking pregnancy practices from the past

From strange pregnancy tests to absurd diet advice, expectant women of days gone by had to observe downright weird rituals.

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We’re living in a time when most women complete their pregnancy journeys in relatively safe and sterile conditions, thanks to advancements in medical science and technology.

Indeed, women in the past never enjoyed what we now take for granted. Back then, expectant mothers had to take society’s view of pregnancy in their stride, even as ancient medicine men strived to make sense of how women brought new life into the world.

SmartParents has rounded up 12 inexplicable but fascinating pregnancy practices the world has used over the centuries…

1. Using grains to test for pregnancy
Long before women could, well, pee on a stick to determine if they were pregnant, people would try all sorts of ways to find out if she was carrying a baby. In Ancient Greece and Egypt, the expectant mother would urinate on bags of wheat and barley. If the grain sprouted, she was verified as pregnant. If wheat sprouted, she was pregnant with a girl; if it was barley, it would be a boy.

If you inject the South African clawed frog with a pregnant woman’s pee, it would lay eggs by the end of the day.

2. Drawing on medically unproven methods
Through the ages, many other bizarre, and unfortunately, not medically proven methods were used to detect pregnancy. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, once explained that inserting an onion into a woman’s vagina could determine if she was pregnant. He assumed that the baby inside would “block” the onion’s pungent smell from reaching the mum-to-be’s mouth, so that the following morning, her breath would not smell of onions if she was indeed pregnant. Another test he suggested: That the expectant woman drink honey water at bedtime — if she was indeed pregnant, she would get abdominal cramps.

3. Injecting the women’s pee into animals
Today’s pregnancy tests rely on the levels of the hormone hCG, which is produced by the placenta. This was identified by researchers in the 1920s. In 1928, two German gynaecologists named Selmar Aschheim and Bernhard Zondek discovered that, thanks to hCG levels, if you inject a pregnant woman’s urine into an immature rabbit or a mouse, they would go into “heat”. Unfortunately, you could only determine if these creatures were in “heat” by examining their ovaries — which meant dissecting the hapless animals.

4. Frogs were also used…
In the 1930s, South African scientist Lancelot Hogben discovered that if you inject the South African clawed frog with a pregnant woman’s pee, it would lay eggs by the end of the day — which of course meant sparing its life. This frog-centric method was the most widespread pregnancy test used in Europe during that decade.

Read on for more peculiar pregnancy facts from the past!

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5. “Weed” was used to boost pregnancy
Writings from a 9th century Persian named Sabur Ibn Sahl detailed how cannabis (also known as ganja, marijuana and weed) was used to maintain pregnancies. “An intranasal base preparation of juice from cannabis seeds was mixed with a variety of other herbs to treat migraine, calm uterine pains, prevent miscarriage, and preserve foetuses in their mothers’ abdomens,” he wrote.

6. Pregnant women were given wacky nutritional advice
People in the past believed very strongly that what expectant mums ate would affect their baby’s personality and characteristics. For instance, women in the 1900s were told to avoid sour foods like pickles, for example, so that their babies would not develop a “sour disposition”.

Since women were valued for their virginity and innocence, some wore corsets to conceal their pregnancies and hide the fact that they were sexually active.

7. Women wore corsets throughout their pregnancies!
Victorian women used corsets right through their pregnancies. According to an article by the Maryland Historical Society in the US, a woman’s femininity depended on her small waist. Therefore, pregnant women often felt that they had lost their youth and beauty because of their burgeoning bellies. So, they continued donning corsets to create the illusion of a small waist. And since women were valued for their virginity and innocence, some wore corsets to conceal their pregnancies and hide the fact that they were sexually active. Hypocritical, much?

8. Pregnancy affected life expectancy
In the 19th century, women gave birth an average of seven times during their lifetime, with 30 per cent bearing 10 or more children. Going through so many pregnancies and deliveries took such a toll on them that women’s life expectancy was lower than for their male counterparts.

9. They also made wills
Did you know that pregnancy and childbirth were so risky in olden days that women in 15th century Florence made their wills as soon as they found that they were pregnant?

10. Preventing pregnancy with lead
Couples of today can pick and choose from a plethora of contraceptive options but yonks ago, they had to rely on other birth control methods. An ancient Greek physician named Soranus once recommended that women who wanted to prevent pregnancy should drink the lead-laden water that blacksmiths used to cool metal. Because of this belief, women reportedly lined up to work in lead-smelting factories right into the early 1900s, all the better to gain access to this toxic drink.

11. Using a weasel’s genitals
According to the Contraception Museum in Toronto, Canada, it was an ancient practice to take the “two testicles of a weasel and wrap them up, binding them to the thigh of a woman who wears also a weasel bone on her person”. Doing this, “she will no longer conceive”. Women in the late 1800s and early 1900s used sea sponges soaked in vinegar, boric acid or lemon juice to prevent pregnancy.

12. Let’s not forget the condoms…
From ancient times to the 19th century, segments of animal bladders and intestines (such as from sheep) were cleaned, and then a knot would be tied on one end before use by men. Props for creativity, we say!

Photos: iStock

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