Hae Eun Chung
Senior Researcher, Academy of Korean Studies

What is Prenatal Education?

Prenatal education, or taegyo in Korean, is part of health care practices that pregnant women perform to deliver a physically and mentally healthy baby. The philosophy of prenatal education is based on the idea that a fetus is developing personality even before it comes out of the womb, and hence needs fetal education.

Prenatal education aims to benefit the unborn baby and broadly refers to various strategies to protect and care for the fetus during pregnancy. Taegyo is a long-valued tradition that integrates prenatal care and Korea’s traditional focus on education.

Historically, taegyo was in full bloom during the Joseon dynasty (1492–1897) and considered more than just fetal education. It was believed that pregnant couples should maintain positive attitudes and behaviors to be good parents. It was important for expectant parents to prepare themselves for parenthood. People who wished to have children had to do good deeds without others noticing and try to regain their pure true selves while leaving the rest to fate. In this regard, taegyo can be considered a movement for a good personality of parents and children.

Prenatal Education Traditions in Literature

In Korea, records on prenatal education date to the late ninth century. Headstones of famous Buddhist monks from the Silla dynasty describe prenatal education practiced by their mothers. According to one headstone, the mother of high priest Wollangseonsa said, “I started to pay more attention to my manners and behaviors from the day I conceived him, and I read Buddhist scriptures for prenatal education. I noticed after I gave birth to him that he was born to be extraordinary.”

Records on prenatal education are also found in Goryeosa, written during the Goryeo dynasty period. The mother of Mong-ju Jeong (1337–1392), a prominent scholar-official, wrote Taejunghunmun for pregnant women, which some practices partially remain to this day.

Later in the Joseon dynasty, more books on prenatal education were written, as prenatal care, which had mostly been practiced by the royal family, became more widespread among commoners. For instance, Queen Sohye (1437–1504), the mother of Joseon’s ninth king Seongjong, wrote Naehun, which contains instructions on prenatal education. In addition, descriptions about prenatal education are in Hyangyakjipseongbang, published in 1433 and the first Korean medical book to devote an entire chapter to prenatal education.

Such traditions finally led to Taegyosingi by Sajudang Lee (1739–1821) in 1800. The book contains excerpts about pregnancy and prenatal education from Confucian texts and medical books that offered a new knowledge system on prenatal education based on her experience of pregnancy and parenting. It was the first book specializing in prenatal education in East Asia and can be considered a monumental work in the history of prenatal education.

Methods of Prenatal Education

The idea of prenatal education is based on the belief that the mother’s health and emotional condition directly affects the fetus. In the Joseon dynasty, prenatal education emphasized carefulness. As a potter makes pots with care, a mother should be careful when expecting a baby.

Many books, including Naehun, suggest that pregnant women should be careful of many things. Prenatal education is related to how the mother behaves and feels, what she eats, and what medication she takes. Pregnant women were recommended not to eat bad foods, listen to obscene music, see undesirable pictures or figures, nor visit dangerous places. They were advised to walk frequently, instead of sleeping for too long. In addition, Taegyosingi stresses the importance of family involvement in prenatal education. The book instructed partners to suppress their desires and all family members to help the expecting mother.

Imsanyejibeop, written in the nineteenth century, taught pregnant women of the royal palace about basic knowledge on delivery and postpartum care, which has been kept intact to this day. The book recommended the expecting mother to make her surroundings peaceful and quiet as birth was approaching. She was also instructed to calmly wait for delivery with doors and windows closed, ensuring that she would not hear any loud noises from outside. The room should be properly ventilated to release heat. Pregnant women were also advised to wear adequate clothing to keep proper body temperature and were assisted by three or four doulas that helped her move around. In the last month of pregnancy, mothers were suggested to eat easy-to-digest foods and told to relax and feel calm as labor pains began. As such, Imsanyejibeop offered easy instructions that helped women stay calm and relaxed throughout pregnancy, instructing women to ensure proper room temperature, move around frequently, and eat seaweed soup with rice to help boost physical strength, which is almost consistent with the modern recommendations.

Value of Intangible Cultural Heritage

In the past, women spent most of their time within their homes and did not usually engage in outdoor activities, so they could focus on their prenatal education with family. Today, however, we are living in a networked society. As women participate in social activities and are unwittingly exposed to a variety of risks. Furthermore, many women maintain their jobs during pregnancy. Pregnant women need to eat, think, see, and hear good things, which, however, may not be easy in today’s society.

This does not mean that we should give up prenatal education. The implication here is that all members of society should be encouraged to take part in prenatal education. Prenatal education is no longer the sole responsibility of pregnant women and their family. It should involve all members of society to ensure the safe delivery of every precious new life into this world. In this way, prenatal education can be considered not as an outdated tradition but as valuable intangible heritage towards the future.