10 Biggest Pregnancy Myths, Debunked

Can you drink coffee? Should you avoid your cat? An OBGYN weighs in. 

Updated on September 18, 2023

pregnant person dressed in a light gray shirt and cream colored sweater, sitting down and holding their belly
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For people who are pregnant, it can sometimes seem like every move they make or every bite they take has a new level of significance. Is this vacation going to bring on labor? Will this beverage be safe for the fetus? Between new studies, ever-changing health guidelines, and lots of popular myths you’ll find on social media, the info can sometimes seem conflicting.

To find out what’s really safe for you throughout your pregnancy, we spoke with Daniel A. Berger, DO, Medical Director of OBGYN at Capital Health in Hopewell, New Jersey.

cup of coffee in a black cup against a blue background
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Myth: You Can’t Drink Coffee

If you can’t imagine starting your day without a steaming cup of Joe, the thought of going cold turkey during pregnancy can be a little daunting. But rather than switching entirely to decaf, Dr. Berger says you just need to limit your caffeine consumption. “There have been a lot of studies, with mixed results,” says Dr. Berger. "What it really comes down to is that you should moderate the amount that you take in."

During pregnancy, most healthcare providers (HCPs) recommend that you keep your daily caffeine consumption to 200 milligrams or less. That’s about one or two cups of coffee per day, depending on how strongly it’s brewed.

someone petting the head of a gray cat
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Myth: You Should Steer Clear of Cats

If it feels like there’s nothing sweeter than your beloved tabby cuddling up against your growing belly, thankfully you don’t have to banish the cat to the basement during your pregnancy. The one thing you do need to avoid is their feces. “You can still love your cat when you're pregnant,” says Berger. “Just avoid the kitty litter to reduce your risk of getting toxoplasmosis.”

Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. You can get it by eating undercooked meat or shellfish or drinking contaminated water. Your cat can catch toxoplasma from rodents, birds, or other animals, and it can shed the parasite in its feces. More than 40 million people in the U.S. carry the parasite but don’t have any symptoms because their immune systems keep it at bay. But if you catch Toxoplasma for the first time shortly before or while you’re pregnant—say, from cleaning the litter box or gardening if you have an outdoor cat—the parasite can be dangerous to a growing fetus and can cause eye damage (including blindness) or mental differences.

Here are some ways to stay safe if you have a cat:

  • Have someone else change the litter box daily.
  • Keep your cats indoors.
  • Do not adopt or approach stray cats.
  • Avoid feeding your cat raw or undercooked meats and foods.
  • Keep any outdoor sandboxes covered.
  • Wear gloves while gardening or handling soil
pregnant person sitting in an airplane seat
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Myth: You Shouldn’t Travel By Plane

Whether you’re planning to travel for work, to visit family, or for a babymoon, it’s usually safe to board a plane through your first two trimesters and well into the third. In fact, unless your pregnancy is considered high-risk, air travel is safe for most pregnant people through 36 weeks. After 36 weeks, most airlines limit travel to reduce risks of pregnancy complications.

If you have an increased risk of preeclampsia, premature rupturing of membranes, preterm labor, you’re having multiples, or have any other complications, it’s safest to avoid air travel after week 12.

When you do travel while pregnant, there are a few precautions to keep in mind. To avoid deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot that can develop in larger veins of the body, particularly in the legs, be sure to walk around the cabin frequently, wear loose-fitting clothing, and keep the space under the seat in front of you free of baggage so you can stretch your legs. Also, drink plenty of fluids: "Flying can be dehydrating, which also ups your chances of developing clots,” Berger says.

Ultimately, it’s best to talk to your OBGYN before you make any travel plans. And it’s a good idea to book refundable tickets, so you can change plans if needed. Keep a copy of your prenatal records handy, too.

red wine being poured into a glass
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Myth: One Glass of Wine Can’t Hurt

There may come a time late in pregnancy when you’re at a business conference, a night out with friends—or even your own baby shower—and someone hands you a glass of wine and says, “It’s okay to have one glass in your third trimester!” While some experts say that a few sips here and there are unlikely to harm your fetus, many others, including Berger and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) discourage drinking any amount of alcohol during pregnancy. "There is no amount of alcohol that is safe for the fetus,” Berger says.

Alcohol passes through a pregnant person’s blood and to the fetus via the umbilical cord. Excessive drinking while pregnant may lead to facial differences, miscarriages, stillbirths, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). Some other potential issues include:

  • Small head size
  • Low body weight
  • Coordination issues
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Short attention span or poor memory
  • Learning differences
  • Speech and language delays
  • Vision and hearing issues
  • Sleeping and sucking issues as an infant
  • Heart, kidney, or bone issues

Consider sticking with non-alcoholic options throughout your pregnancy. A simple mix of seltzer, citrus wedges, and muddled fresh herbs like mint or basil or fresh fruit juice with a spritz of seltzer is a refreshing way to mimic the flavor of a cocktail.

someone holding a white pill in one hand and a glass of water in another
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Myth: Antidepressants Can Increase Your Child’s Risk of Autism.

Depression during pregnancy is a serious and complex issue. While some studies have linked antidepressant use during pregnancy to an increased risk of autism, the results are inconsistent, says Berger. "First of all, there are many types of antidepressants, and second, it’s not clear whether the antidepressants increase risk or if depression itself does.”

But experts do know that untreated depression during pregnancy can lead to serious complications, including reduced birth weight, developmental issues, and premature birth.

It may also lead the pregnant person to self-medicate with substances that have a known risk to the fetus, such as tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drugs. If you’re on antidepressants and pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, it's important to speak with your OBGYN and psychiatrist, says Berger. It’s also important to discuss any symptoms of depression that crop up during pregnancy with your HCP.

"Pregnancy can be a stressful time when anxiety and depression can worsen," Berger adds. It’s common to experience changes in mood, loss of energy or appetite (or overeating), irritability, difficulty concentrating, sleep issues, as well as sadness, anxiety, or loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy. These symptoms can be related to hormonal changes of pregnancy, although they can also be signs of depression. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, talk with your HCP to see if treatment may help you.

pregnant person shopping in the produce section of a super market
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Myth: You Should Eat Twice as Much Food

While it may be true that a pregnant person is “eating for two,” one of the two (the fetus) is significantly tinier than the other (the parent-to-be). Rather than doubling your intake, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adding between 200-400 calories per day during the second trimester and 400 calories a day in the third trimester, which works out to a couple of healthy snacks, such as a bowl of high-fiber cereal and milk or a smoothie made with frozen berries, skim milk, yogurt, and honey. The important thing is to maintain a well-balanced diet that provides all the nutrients needed for a developing fetus.  Check in with your HCP if you are concerned about gaining more than the recommended amount of weight during pregnancy; multiple studies link excessive maternal weight gain or obesity to delivery complications, as well as increased risk for childhood obesity and other chronic conditions like allergies, asthma, and high blood pressure.

During pregnancy, you should avoid these foods, since they may contain harmful chemicals or risk contamination with bacteria like salmonella:

  • Cold deli meat and cold processed meats such as hot dogs (these types of foods are okay as long as they’ve been heated)
  • Unpasteurized dairy products such as soft cheese
  • Unwashed fruits and vegetables 
  • Uncooked fish, shellfish, and raw meat  
  • Fish with high levels of mercury such as shark, swordfish, and king mackerel
  • Cold smoked seafood such as lox (smoked salmon)
  • Raw eggs
  • Pâté or other refrigerated meat spreads  

Berger adds that it’s important to keep your food separated from items that could have bacteria, cook it well, and keep leftovers cold.

pregnant person applying lotion to the belly
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Myth: Cocoa Butter Can Prevent Stretch Marks

Unfortunately, a magic potion to prevent stretch marks just doesn’t exist, says Berger. Heavy moisturizers such as cocoa butter can keep the skin moisturized, but they won’t prevent or get rid of stretch marks. Most lines will diminish after the baby is born, though some will never go away completely. If they don’t, or you’re uncomfortable with the way they look post-birth, talk to a dermatologist about treatments such as microdermabrasion and laser surgeries, which can help blend your stretch marks into the skin or reduce their size and appearance.

Here are some easy ways to take care of your skin at any stage of life:

  • Wear sunscreen.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Eat foods rich in zinc, like nuts and fish, and those that have a good amount of vitamin C, like citrus fruits.
someone with brown hair getting their hair dyed
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Myth: You Have to Forgo Hair Color and Manicures

Many things in your life may change when you’re pregnant (pack those tight jeans away for now), but touching up your roots and getting a manicure don’t have to. As long as your salons are well-ventilated, it should be fine, says Berger. “When we talk about toxic exposure, things that are on your nail or in your hair don’t really get into your body or pose a significant threat," he says.

When you get your hair dyed, there’s a very small chance your skin will absorb some dye. Though it's such a small amount that it likely wouldn't reach the fetus, you should talk to your HCP if you have any concerns. Some may suggest waiting until the second and third trimesters to continue your usual routines.

Black pregnant person wearing a red dress, lying down on a sofa and resting their hands above and below their belly
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Myth: You Have To Sleep On Your Back

Getting comfortable in bed can become more and more of a challenge as your abdomen grows larger, not to mention the back pain, heartburn, shortness of breath, and insomnia that often accompany the later stages of pregnancy. Many pregnant people will find that side-sleeping is the most comfortable position. Sleeping this way may also alleviate pressure and improve blood circulation. If you’re having trouble sleeping, talk with your HCP about the best sleep position for your stage of pregnancy.

You may want to stock up on pillows, too. Some pregnant people find that placing pillows behind their backs or between their knees can help them get a good night’s rest.

red peppers sitting on a dark brown wood table
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Myth: Spicy Food Can Help Kick Start Labor

During the last couple of weeks of your pregnancy, it may be tempting to try to move labor along. But spicy foods aren’t going to do the trick.

“There are a lot of different popular beliefs, but when it comes down to it, spicy foods are not going to cause any sort of labor induction,” says Berger. Excessive amounts of spice in your foods, though, can cause diarrhea or stomach upset.

Always talk with an HCP before trying any natural induction technique to make sure it is appropriate for you.

Slideshow sources open slideshow sources

Vethanayagam B, Kahn SR. Flying while pregnant: what is the thrombosis risk? J Travel Med. 2020 Mar 13;27(2):taz084.
Armstrong EM. Making Sense of Advice About Drinking During Pregnancy: Does Evidence Even Matter? J Perinat Educ. 2017;26(2):65-69.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tracking Your Weight: For Women Who Begin Pregnancy Overweight. Accessed September 18, 2023.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Parasites-- Toxoplasmosis. Last reviewed August 29, 2018.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Toxoplasmosis & Pregnancy. Last updated September 4, 2020.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Alcohol and Women. Last updated December 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Depression During and After Pregnancy. Last updated April 29, 2022.
Rastogi S, Rastogi D. The Epidemiology and Mechanisms of Lifetime Cardiopulmonary Morbidities Associated With Pre-Pregnancy Obesity and Excessive Gestational Weight Gain. Front Cardiovasc Med. 2022 Mar 22;9:844905.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breastfeeding. Last updated July 9, 2021.

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