7 Parenting Superstitions From Around the World


Raising children is confusing and stressful, which is why new parents rely on traditional wisdom and the experiences of others to help guide their decisions. But what one person considers traditional knowledge, another may interpret as bizarre or irrational. In psychology, this phenomenon is called magical thinking. Or, more commonly—superstitions.

When it comes to children, superstitions arise out of a need to exert control over the randomness of life and the difficulty of parenting. Parents act on superstitions to protect their offspring from the dangerous, unpredictable outside world. But how real or superstitious a certain custom seems depends on personal belief. Distinct cultural lenses are necessary to focus the blurry line between superstition and age-old wisdom, as is the knowledge that many of these traditions were born in times of high infant mortality and provided much-needed comfort. Read on to learn about some of the most unique ways parents around the world use superstitions.



For 400 years, bringing babies to tears at the hands of sumo wrestlers has been a tradition carried out during Tokyo’s annual Nakizumo Festival. During the event, two sumo wrestlers stand in a ring while trying to make the baby they each hold cry. If the babies don’t cry, a referee will don a terrifying mask to help bring the babies to tears. There is a saying in Japan that says "Naku ko wa sodatsu," which translates to "crying babies grow fastest." The proverb harkens back to a traditional belief that a baby’s cry can ward off demons and promote the healthy growth of the child.


In a few remote villages in the eastern Indian provinces of Maharashtra and Karnataka, a reportedly 700-year-old superstition continues to draw the ire of outsiders. Babies under the age of 2 (although some reports claim most of the infants are less than 2 months old) are dropped from the top of Muslim mosques and Hindu temples. The infants are dropped on their backs from dizzying heights upwards of 50 feet and caught by a group of men who break the fall with a blanket. Though widely condemned (and although most Indians don't even know the custom exists) and illegal under Indian law, some villagers gather to watch the (extremely uncommon) event and participating parents believe that it will bring their children good health, strength, and long life.


Seven days after a baby is born, Egyptian families hold a gathering called the Sebou, which is like a post-birth baby shower. The Sebou is a rite of passage and the first ceremonial acknowledgment of a newborn; to celebrate a birth before the seven days is considered bad luck. Traditional Sebous involve scaring the baby with loud noises, like banging a mortar and pestle, to teach courage. At some ceremonies, the baby is placed on a sieve with a knife on their chest to keep away evil while the mother hops back and forth seven times over her newborn. Guests sprinkle salt around the home and on the mother to guard against the evil eye. After that, guests place grains and gold around the baby; other common gifts include religious verses written on prayer rolls and turquoise stones for luck.



The devil comes to the streets of Castrillo de Murcia, Spain each June to steal original sin from infants. During the celebration a man playing the character of el Colacho parades around the streets dressed in the garb of the devil. At the end of the multi-day festival, parents lay their babies down on mattresses in the street, and as el Colacho flees the town, he jumps over the hordes of infants. When he leaps over the babies, it is believed the devil soaks in the sin babies were born with and takes it with him. Catholics believe that all humans are born with sin, and this ceremony protects infants from their inherent wickedness.


On the largely Hindu island of Bali, after a child is born the placenta is buried in a special location and the cord cutting is delayed. But just as importantly, babies aren't allowed to touch the ground. After 105 days have passed, families celebrate by throwing Penyambutan, when the baby's feet get to touch soil for the first time, and it is during this celebration that the baby is given a name. A priest comes to the celebration where he blesses the family and the baby and helps as the family gives offerings to various Hindu gods.


Westerners love to ooh and aah over babies, but in other places, admirers are purposely less enthusiastic. In Bulgaria it is believed that if a child is praised the devil will become jealous, so adults (generally) pretend to spit on babies while saying things like "May the chickens poop on you." In other cultures, including in Greece, Romania, and India, it is customary to spit on or near a baby that has been complimented to ward off the evil eye. In Vietnam, there is a superstition that calling a baby "cute" will make the baby turn ugly. Among families who want to keep away evil spirits, they will affectionately coo, "You’re such an ugly baby." Variations on this belief include Thailand, where ghosts will steal sweet-looking babies, and China, where superstitions say that praising a newborn will bring on evil spirits.


Not all superstitions are actions that people carry out; some are based on biological functions that no one can control. Natal and neonatal teeth are baby teeth that appear either in the womb or in the first month after birth. They have long been associated with superstitions around the world. Malaysian families have associated them with good luck. Nearby in China, the opposite is believed, with some communities going as far as considering babies with them monsters and demanding the removal of the teeth. There have been multiple accounts of isolated villages in parts of Africa where infants with neonatal or natal teeth have been killed or abandoned. In parts of Europe, it was believed babies with these early teeth would become great leaders—or potentially a vampire. And of course, the superstitions around losing baby teeth later on are just as old and widespread.

Big Questions
If Our Brains Are So Active During Infancy, Why Don’t We Remember Anything From That Time?

If our brains are so active and developing during infancy, why don’t we remember anything from that time?

Fabian van den Berg:

Ah, infantile amnesia as it’s better known. Weird, isn’t it? It’s a pretty universal phenomenon where people tend to have no memories before the age of four-ish and very few memories of the ages five to seven. What you say in the question is true, our brains are indeed very actively developing in that time, but they are still developing after five years as well.

The specifics aren’t known just yet. It’s tricky because memory itself is very complicated and there are swaths of unknowns that make it difficult to say for certain why we forget these early memories. This will be mostly about consensus and what can be supported with experiments.

(Image based on data from Rubin & Schulkind, 1997 [1] )

I’ll skip the whole introduction to memory bit and state that we focus on the episodic/autobiographical memories only—events that happened to us in a certain place at a certain time. And we have two forgetting phases, the early one until about four years old, and a later one from about five to seven years old, where we have very few memories.

The first notion to go is that this is “just normal forgetting,” where it’s just difficult to remember something from that long ago. This has been tested and it was found that forgetting happens quite predictably, and that the early years show less memories than they should if it was just regular old forgetting.

This leaves us with infantile amnesia, where there are probably two large camps of explanations: One says that children simply lack the ability to remember and that we don’t have these memories because the ability to make them doesn’t develop until later. This is the late emergence of autobiographical memory category.

The second big camp is the disappearance of early memory category, which says that the memories are still there, but cannot be accessed. This is also where the language aspect plays a part, where language changes the way memories are encoded, making the more visual memories incompatible with the adult system.

Both of them are sort of right and sort of wrong; the reality likely lies somewhere in between. Children do have memories, we know they do, so it’s not like they cannot form new memories. It’s also not likely that the memories are still there, just inaccessible.

Children do remember differently. When adults recall, there is a who, what, where, when, why, and how. Kids can remember all of these too, but not as well as adults can. Some memories might only contain a who and when (M1), some might have a how,
where, and when (M3), but very few, if any, memories have all the elements. These elements are also not as tightly connected and elaborated.

Kids need to learn this; they need to learn what is important [and] how to build a narrative. Try talking to a child about their day: It will be very scripted [and] filled with meaningless details. They tell you about waking up, eating breakfast, going to school, coming home from school, etc. Almost instinctively an adult will start guiding the story, asking things like, “Who was there?" or "What did we do?”

It also helps quite a bit to be aware of your own self, something that doesn’t develop until about 18 months (give or take a few). Making an autobiographical memory is a bit easier if you can center it around yourself.

(Image from Bauer (2015) based on the Complementary Process Account [2] )

This method of forming memories makes for weak memories, random spots of memories that are barely linked and sort of incomplete (lacking all the elements). Language acquisition can’t account for all that. Ever met a three-year old? They can talk your ears off! So they definitely have language. Children make weak memories, but that doesn’t completely tell you why those memories disappear, but I’ll get there.

The brain is still growing, very plastic, and things are going on that would amaze you. Large structures in the brain are still specifying and changing, the memory systems are part of that change. There’s a lot of biology involved and I’ll spare you all the science-y sounding brain structures. The best way to see a memory is as a skeleton of elements, stored in a sort of web.

When you remember something, one of the elements is activated (which can be by seeing something, smelling something, or any kind of stimulus), which travels through the web activating all the other elements. Once they are all activated, the memory can be built, the blanks are filled in, and we “remember."

This is all well and good in adults, but as you can imagine this requires an intact web. The weak childhood memories barely hung together as they were, and time is not generous to them. Biological changes can break the weak memories apart, leaving only small isolated elements that can no longer form a memory. New neurons are formed in the hippocampus, squeezing in between existing memories, breaking the pattern. New strategies, new knowledge, new skills—they all interfere with what and how we remember things. And all of that is happening very fast in the first years of our lives.

We forget because inefficient memories are created by inefficient cognitive systems, trying to be stored by inefficient structures. Early memories are weak, but strong enough to survive some time. This is why children can still remember. Ask a four-year-old about something important that happened last year and chances are they will have a memory of it. Eventually the memories will decay over the long term, much faster than normal forgetting, resulting in infantile amnesia when the brain matures.

It’s not that children cannot make memories, and it’s not that the memories are inaccessible. It’s a little bit of both, where the brain grows and changes the way it stores and retrieves memories, and where old memories decay faster due to biological changes.

All that plasticity, all that development, is part of why you forget. Which makes you wonder what might happen if we reactivate neurogenesis and allow the brain to be that plastic in adults, huh? Might heal brain damage, with permanent amnesia as a side-effect ... who knows!


[1] Rubin, D. C., & Schulkind, M. D. (1997). Distribution of important and word-cued autobiographical memories in 20-, 35-, and 70-year-old adults. Psychol Aging.

[2] Bauer, P. J. (2015). A complementary processes account of the development of childhood amnesia and a personal past. Psychological review, 122(2), 204.

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Gary Stone/Getty Images
The Doctor Who Modernized Royal Births—in the 1970s
Gary Stone/Getty Images
Gary Stone/Getty Images

When Prince William eventually ascends to the English throne, he’ll be the first British monarch ever born in a hospital. And he has a man named George Pinker to thank for that.

Royal births have always been fraught affairs due to the thorny issues of birthright and succession. Throughout history, English royal women were expected to give birth in rooms filled with spectators and witnesses—in part to avoid a pretender to the throne being switched with the royal baby at birth.

That made childbirth a grueling ceremony for queens, many of whom had to give birth to stillborn or dying children in the company of scores of strangers. In 1688, after 11 tragic attempts to produce an heir to James II’s throne, Mary of Modena gave birth in front of an audience of 67 people. (It was even worse for Marie Antoinette, who gave birth in 1778 in front of so many people the onlookers nearly crushed her.) And even after births became more private affairs, archbishops and officials attended them as late as 1936.

Of course, doctors have long been part of that crowd. The royal household—the group of support staff that helps royals at their various residences—has included physicians for hundreds of years, who have often been called upon to perform various gynecological duties for royal women. They have frequently been dispatched to serve other family members, too, especially those giving birth to important heirs.

Even when hospitals became popular places for childbirth at the turn of the last century, English royals continued having kids at home in their palaces, castles, and houses. Elizabeth II was delivered via Caesarean section in 1926 at her grandmother’s house in London. When she became queen, her royal surgeon gynecologists recommended she deliver her children at home, bringing in equipment to turn the space into a maternity ward.

Yet it was one of her gynecologists, John Peel, who ended up changing his tune on delivering children in hospitals, and in the 1970s he published an influential report that recommended all women do so. When he stepped down in 1973, the queen’s new royal gynecologist, George Pinker, insisted the royals get in line, too.

Pinker was different from his predecessors. For one, he skipped out on a potential career in opera to practice medicine. He had been offered a contract with an opera company, but when asked to choose between music and medicine, the choice was clear. Instead, he stayed involved with music—becoming assistant concert director at the Reading Symphony Orchestra and vice president of the London Choral Society—while maintaining his medical career.

He was also the youngest doctor ever to practice as royal surgeon gynecologist—just 48 when he was appointed. He supported controversial medical advances like in vitro fertilization. And he insisted that his patients’ welfare—not tradition—dictate royal births.

“It is very important for mothers to accept modern medical assistance and not to feel guilty if they need epidural or a Caesarean,” he told an interviewer. Pinker recommended that pregnant women lead as normal a life as possible—no easy task for royals whose every move was spied on and picked apart by the public. In fact, the doctor being anywhere near the queen or her family, even when he was not there to treat a pregnant woman, was seen as a sign that a royal was pregnant.

When Princess Diana delivered her first son, it was at a royal room in a hospital. “Most people marveled at the decision to have the royal baby in such surroundings rather than Buckingham Palace,” wrote The Guardian’s Penny Chorlton. Turns out the surroundings were pretty plush anyway: Diana delivered in her very own wing of the hospital.

Pinker served as the queen’s royal gynecologist for 17 years, delivering nine royal babies in all, including Prince William and Prince Harry. All were born at hospitals. So were William’s two children—under supervision of the royal gynecologist, of course.


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