Maternal Impressions

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the earliest times to the present day. This month, PoP network member Sarah Fox shares her insights on the debates (both historical and contemporary) on maternal impressions.

On the 14th September 2020, the Daily Mail reported upon a pilot study being undertaken at the University of Heidelberg.  The headline read: ‘Anxious mums can pass on their stress to their babies – leaving them with an ‘emotional imprint’ that can scar them for life, scientists warn.’  The article reported that children of mothers suffering from anxiety or depression experienced raised heart rates during a stress test called ‘still face test’. “We found that if a mother was anxious or depressed, their baby had a more sensitive physiological response to stress during the test than did the babies of healthy mothers” researcher Fabio Blanco-Dormond is reported to have said.  An article on sciencetimes.com raised the stakes still further reporting that the infant’s significantly (8 bpm) increased heart rate “could develop into emotional stress in later years.” The findings are reported as being at the cutting edge of scientific research. “To our knowledge this is one of the first times this physical effect has been seen in three-months old infants” according to the Daily Mail’s report.  Yet the idea that a mother’s thoughts and feelings can impact both physically and emotionally on their unborn child has very long and complex roots.

Female anatomical figure, Wellcome Collection

The concept of the maternal imagination, or maternal impressions, was a matter of some debate in early eighteenth-century England.  Then, as now, there were a variety of conflicting views. Scottish man-midwife John Maubray dedicated several pages in his 1724 book The Female Physician to the topic of imagination. He wrote:

‘…to come closer to the Imagination of the Pregnant Woman, who knows not that it affects the Infant in the Womb? Whence is it then that we have so many deform’d Persons, crooked Bodies, ugly Aspects, distorted Mouths, wry Noses, and the like, in all Countries; but from the IMAGINATION of the Mother; while she either conceives such shapeless Phantasms in her Mind, or while she frequently and intently fixes her Eyes upon such deform’d Persons or disagreeable OBJECTS?

The same is the Case, when the Natural Faculties are all at work in forming, or ripening the Foetus; for if the Woman be Surpriz’d at any sudden Evil, or frighted at any unseemly Sight, the Humours and Spirits presently retire downwards, and (as it were) abscond themselves into the Recess of the Womb: From whence immediate a strong IMAGINATION of the disagreeable Thing (whether seen or heard only) seizes her Mind; and the Forming Faculty quickly impresses the Imaginary Idea of That thing heard off, or the Shape and Form of That thing seen, upon the Foetus.’ [p.62]

Mary Tofts, Wellcome Collection

Maubray’s theory was tested two years later, when a poor woman in Godalming in Surrey began giving birth to rabbits. The irresistible opportunity presented by the case of Mary Toft to observe the power of the maternal imagination shifted the landscape of eighteenth-century medicine.  The eventual exposure of Toft’s births as a hoax led to the ridicule of the emerging field of rational medicine in newspapers, poems, and books.  Yet Toft’s claims were not the misguided suppositions of an elite group of medical men. They had significant traction throughout eighteenth-century society.  Toft herself had claimed that the rabbit births swiftly followed her intense craving for rabbit having seen one whilst working in the fields. This assertion provided a viable explanation to both scientific and popular audiences for the subsequent events.  Similar claims continued to be repeated both in medical literature and privately. In 1729, Daniel Turner published his Discourse concerning gleets in which he recounted a number of anecdotal incidents in which the maternal imagination had been imprinted upon the body of a foetus.  A woman frightened by a frog gave birth to a baby with ‘a fleshy Portraiture of a Frog, growing out its breast’ [p.73]. Another, longing for some plum cake, eventually had a child who ‘came into the World with the resemblance of a Slice of Cake, the Currants interspersed, and regularly depicted, the Compass of a palm, upon its shoulder.’ [p.75].  Turner’s body of work responded to physician James Blondel’s scathing denouncement of the theory of maternal impression, published in 1727. Despite these debates and challenges, the notion of maternal impression remained influential throughout the century.  Clergyman and schoolmaster William Ramsden complained in a letter to family friend Elizabeth Shackleton in 1767 that ‘My wife is so dear a Lover of Venison that had not a haunch most fortunately fallen our way this very day but my next little Boy might have come into the World with a Cloven-hoof’.  Whilst the reference here is jovial, it again invokes the force of his wife’s craving.

The common theme that ties together many of these accounts of maternal impression is weakness.  The focus on women’s food cravings or desires, on their ability to be frightened is indicative of both physical and moral fragility. ‘Good’ mothers, therefore, must possess strong bodies and minds in order to overcome their longings and passions and produce a strong, healthy, and unmarked human. This narrative of strong vs weak, good vs bad, locates the ultimate responsibility for the production of an infant firmly within the mother.  It demands that mothers demonstrate their value to the family, and therefore to society through self-sacrifice and conformity, restricting their agency for the duration of the pregnancy. What does this mean for the anxious and depressed mothers described in the Daily Mail’s article? Is the knowledge that they could be responsible for inhibiting their child’s physical and emotional growth going to help them to feel less anxious, less distressed? It seems unlikely.  Moreover, as Karen Harvey has pointed out, studies such as this one show statistical correlations, not inevitable effects. A huge number of social, economic and environmental factors have the potential to influence the outcome of future studies in this area. It is therefore vital that we subject the contemporary medical profession to the same analytical and interpretive processes that we apply to the history of medicine, situating these current debates within the much longer traditions from which they have grown.

Further reading

Jennifer Buckley, Gender, Pregnancy and Power in Eighteenth-Century Literature: The Maternal Imagination

Karen Harvey, The Impostress Rabbit Breeder: Mary Toft and Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford University Press, 2020)

Primary Sources

James Blondel, The strength of imagination in pregnant women examin’d: And the opinion that marks and deformities in children arise from thence, demonstrated to be a vulgar error (London, 1727)

John Maubray, The female physician, containing all the diseases incident to that sex, in virgins, wives, and widows; together with their causes and symptoms, their degrees of danger, and respective methods of prevention and cure (London: Stephen Austen, 1730)

Daniel Turner, A discourse concerning gleets. Their cause and cure…to which is added, a defence of the 12th chapter of the first part of a treatise De morbis cutaneis, in respect to the Spots and Marks impress’d upon the Skin of the Foetus, by the force of the Mother’s Fancy (London: John Clarke, 1729)

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