On Cats Sucking the Breath Out of Babies, and Other Health Superstitions

By Marcy Phipps, RN, a regular contributor to this blog. Her essay, “The Soul on the Head of a Pin,” was published in the May 2010 issue of AJN.

I recently babysat a friend’s busy toddlers, and was happy to share the long (but lovely) day with a good friend who happens to also be a nurse. We’d just gotten the babies tucked into their cribs and were stepping out of the nursery with a sigh when I noticed the family’s cat lounging in a padded rocking chair, blinking lazily at us.

“Wait!” I said, scooping up the cat. “We can’t leave the cat here. Cats suck the breath out of babies!”

My friend looked at me like I’d lost my mind, and I instantly wished that I hadn’t said it.  The absurdity of the statement was clear to me. And yet it felt like a truth I’d known forever, even if I couldn’t remember why.

As it turns out, it was something I was told as a child—by my grandmother. Knowing this makes my statement make sense, at least to me, as I adored my grandma and would have accepted anything she told me as undisputed truth. Even so, I’m surprised (and a little embarrassed) that in spite of higher education and years of nursing experience, despite the obvious physiologic impossibility of a cat sucking the breath from a baby, and despite the fact that I’ve had my own children, and cats, such a notion was lying dormant in my consciousness and escaped unexpectedly and unbidden.

In my curiosity about the idea of cats sucking breath from babies, I came across a 1930 book, Shattering Health Superstitions, by Morris Fishbein, MD. It’s subtitled “An Explosion of False Theories and Notions in the Field of Health and Popular Medicine.” Dr. Fishbein discusses 57 medical claims, asserting their fallacy only after explaining their origin.

Here are some of the chapter titles, verbatim:

  • Some people think that fish is a brain food and that a lot of mackerel in the diet will convert a moron into an Einstein.
  • Some people believe that warts can be removed by tying knots in a string and burying the string at a crossroads in the moonlight.
  • Some people think appendicitis is just an old-fashioned stomach ache and that the doctors developed the disease for their own satisfaction.
  • An apple a day keeps the doctors away.
  • When the oldest inhabitant begins to feel pain in his joints, there is going to be a change in the weather.
  • It takes whiskey to kill a cold.
  • A favorite Midwestern cure for rheumatism is to carry a buckeye in the trousers pocket.
  • Kissing can cause trouble, but it doesn’t cause cold sores.
  • Most people believe that a big head is sure evidence of a massive intellect.

While there may be a shred of truth in a couple of the beliefs alluded to in these chapter titles (many people with arthritis certainly do report worsening symptoms with changes in the weather; many claims have been made for the benefits of fish oil of late; etc.), most have as much basis as certain more recent widely held beliefs regarding the various evils of vaccinations.

As for the notion that a cat will suck the breath from a baby, it’s examined in depth, and includes an excerpt from the 1929 Nebraska State Journal, in which a physician swears to have caught a cat in the very act of “sucking a child’s breath, lying on the baby’s breast, a paw at either side of the babe’s mouth,” and further, that “it required 20 minutes’ hard work to resuscitate the baby.” Dr. Fishbein goes on to render the concept as possible, yet not actually proven, and suggests that cats are unfairly targeted as culprits due to their association with magic and witchcraft. In short, the superstition is debunked on the basis that it’s . . . superstition.

It’s an entertaining book, and although I’m not sure I’d call it educational, I feel enlightened—mostly by the introduction, wherein Dr. Fishbein speaks generally about timeless concepts, like fear, hope, and the value of personal history. He says:

“Regardless of the marvels that may come as the effort of science, regardless of the mystery of the airplane, the radio, the effects of radium and of X-ray, the average man looks for something beyond.” And this: “In the superstitions of mankind regarding health and disease one may trace his evolution from stone age man and man of the caves to modern man who sails in the air and under the sea.”

I like both of those statements, as they ring true to me, in nursing and life. I rely on science but will never discount “something beyond.” And in regard to my own superstitions, examining them does remind me of my own evolution, and tracing them leads me closer to home.

(Editor’s note: for another angle on this topic, see also Marcy’s earlier post, “The Little Superstitions of Nurses.”)

2016-11-21T13:10:43+00:00 February 15th, 2012|nursing perspective|0 Comments
Chief flight nurse at Global Jetcare.

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