The workings of the female body have often been seen as somewhat of a mystery, and no more than during pregnancy when you’re left wondering what on earth is going on in there. The day of your first scan at around 12 weeks is not just a chance to check that all is well, it also gives you the opportunity to get a glimpse into a place of intrigue. While to your sonographer it’s just another day at work, your first scan can feel like a life changing experience – your first look at your future child. Inevitably there are anxieties attached, not just about the health of your baby but also related to your adjustment to motherhood. It’s not unusual to have daydreams of the sonographer saying ‘But there’s nothing in there!’ or that your foetus won’t resemble a foetus at all.

Fantasies about what goes on in the womb have been around as long as women have been getting pregnant, perhaps as a way of trying to inject some certainty into this enigmatic process. As much as we can plan and prepare ourselves for pregnancy, nearly every pregnant woman experiences a moment of being stopped in her tracks by the thought she is…Actually. Growing. A. HUMAN! Over the years, this curiosity has led to a number of different explanations. My personal favourite is the concept of ‘recapitulation’, Ernest Haeckel’s 19th century theory which proposed that humans go through all the stages of evolution in the womb – from fishlike, to reptilian before settling on something a little more mammalian (passing through chick and rabbit on the way to human). 

While this theory has long since been discredited, many women can feel a slight disconnection from pregnancy at first, particularly as this exotic creature is also causing some unpleasant side effects. Alongside the joy that comes with pregnancy, it is not uncommon to also feel rather invaded – and the webbed feet and protruding tail of the embryo can add to the fantasy of what is growing within. Religion has created some magical ideas which deepen this mystery: in Christianity, God ‘knows’ your child, who has a preordained destiny, even before conception (“When I was being made in secret…your eyes foresaw my actions” Psalms); in Islam during the fourth month of conception an angel ‘blows’ a soul into the foetus and writes down four words determining the child’s future, and in Judaism the angel Lailah teaches the unborn child the entire Torah (although this is forgotten upon birth). 

Perhaps to try and exert a sense of control over the deep, dark world of the womb, cultures throughout the world have created stories about how mothers influence their babies. In Chinese tradition, a woman should be wary of what she sees and does, for example staying away from funerals and avoiding gossip. The Aztecs believed that seeing an eclipse during pregnancy would lead to a cleft lip in the baby, while an old African myth suggests that stuttering is caused by a mother seeing a snake during pregnancy. 

As science moved on, women began to be portrayed as merely vessels for the child, with the baby represented as a parasitic creature taking whatever it needed from the mother’s body.  In fact, when Nicolaas Hartsoeker first saw sperm through a microscope in 1694, he claimed that he saw tiny men inside the sperm, reducing the role of the woman to an incubator. 

However, recent research has suggested that those old wives’ tales weren’t so far off the mark and that our actions, appetites and feelings during pregnancy do have an influence on foetal development. While we’re all well aware of the impact of alcohol, smoking and drugs on the developing baby, a great deal of attention has turned to the role of food – something which can feel almost tyrannical to women who have been happily looking after their diet for the whole of their adult lives. While some guidelines are straightforward – avoiding raw meat in case of toxoplasmosis is a bit of a no-brainer – what you should and shouldn’t eat during pregnancy has become a minefield. Nearly every week brings a new piece of research telling us that what is eaten during pregnancy can have a lifelong impact on a child. Eating too few carbs can lead to obesity, too many sweets can lead to diabetes, poor nutrition could lead to infertility…

It seems almost inevitable that all this finger wagging can, at the very least, make you a little anxious and annoyed and, at the most, make you wake up in cold sweats wondering if that tub of Ben and Jerry’s means that little Jimmy will get picked last in P.E. Instead, it seems much more helpful to focus on what can nourish you during pregnancy – both physically and mentally. Dietwise, the most helpful tip comes from ‘Origins’ by Annie Murphy Paul, in reporting a study claiming that mothers who ate chocolate every day during pregnancy had infants who smiled and laughed more at 6 months. Whether it’s the chocolate itself, or that pregnant women who allow themselves a treat during this momentous time are a bit happier than those who don’t remains to be seen. But it does suggest that nurturing yourself is the best way to nurture the growing bird/lizard/baby in your mysterious womb.