To predict the sex of their babies, many couples turn to tradition. They swing a ring over the mother's belly, watch the way she carries the baby, listen to her heart rate, examine her fingernails and track patterns of her morning sickness.
Guess what? The techniques all work -- about as well as flipping a coin.
"This is the silliest study I've ever done, but perhaps the one with the most interest," said Dr. Janet DiPietro of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, who recently tested the accuracy of methods handed down in the centuries before ultrasound.
Much to her surprise, though, DiPietro discovered something that proved far more reliable.
Dispensing with technology and folklore, some women just listened to their dreams and feelings.
In her study of 104 pregnant women, DiPietro found that women who had at least 12 years of education guessed right almost three-quarters of the time.
And these were the women who relied mainly on dreams and the intangible signals their bodies were sending them.
In contrast, women with less education guessed right 43 percent of the time, well within the range of chance.
Please, she says, don't ask her why.
"I'm very cautious about this," said DiPietro, who spends her "real life" studying the effects of a mother's emotions on fetal development. "It's not likehaving an education teaches you anything about this."
DiPietro, who was aided by doctoral student Deborah Perry and nurse Kathleen Costigan, said she did her study cheaply and without any support from the federal government or any private foundation.
The boy-girl question isn't a major focus of her research. But she admits that she has been fascinated with the amount of time couples, often urged and harassed by parents and friends, spend trying to predict.
These days, about 80 percent of all couples learn the answer through ultrasound or genetic testing long before their babies are born.
Some, of course, don't get the tests. Others do, but choose to remain surprised.
"Then they spend every waking minute thinking about what the baby's sex is," she said.
Guesswork and bribery
DiPietro recalls a woman who agreed to ultrasound as part of a fetal development study but declined to learn the results.
Later, the baby's grandmothers tried to bribe the office secretary for the answer with a sum of money.
"They said it with smiles, but they were serious," said DiPietro.
For their study, which appears in the September issue of the journal Birth, Hopkins researchers recruited women who obtained their prenatal care at the hospital's obstetrics practices.
To qualify for the study, the women agreed to remain ignorant on the question of gender, but many were nonetheless tapping centuries of folklore.
Like reading tea leaves
According to such beliefs, a wedding ring swings one way for a boy, another for a girl.
Carry the baby high and up front, and it's a boy.
Some women are sapped of their beauty by the girls they carry.
Slow heartbeat means a boy, severe morning sickness a girl.
A few drops of urine dropped in Drano will turn different colors, depending on gender.
Such bits of folklore were told by women of all social stripes, but well-educated women were more likely to turn to feelings and dreams.
The results were, at times, amazing.
Seventeen women said they had a strong gut feeling about the issue, and 13 turned out to be correct.
Eight women said they had vivid dreams about the baby's sex, and the dreams were right in every case.
Satisfied not to know
Like many of the volunteers, Denise Bugara-Dlugo had an ultrasound but chose to let gender remain a mystery.
A pediatric nurse, she cared only that the baby was healthy. Of this, she was assured.
Her husband, by the way, learned the sex but kept it to himself.
"People told me, it's going to be a girl just by the way I looked," said Bugara-Dlugo, who lived in Owings Mills but has since moved to Ohio.
"I just had a belly, with no weight in the hips."
About six months into her pregnancy, she dreamed that she was in the hospital giving birth to a boy. In real life, she and her husband struggled with what to name a boy.
In the dream, "I handed the baby to my mother and said, 'Here's your grandson, but he doesn't have a name.' "
A boy named Warren
Three months later, she had a boy. The couple named him Warren.
"A lot of people were really shocked. They said, 'Are you sure it's a boy? Are you sure?' "
Perhaps, says DiPietro, women who rely on their dreams are more in touch with what their bodies are telling them.
She has no idea, however, what that might be.
"Don't go out painting the nursery pink or blue based on what your feelings are telling you," she said.
Pub Date: 9/02/99