Caul Birth and En Caul Birth
A caul (also known as a cowl) is a membrane that covers the head and face of a newborn baby. Caul births are an extraordinarily rare event, and babies born in this way are sometimes said to have been “born with a veil,” or “born in a shirt.”
While the appearance of a caul may be frightening to a new mother who is unprepared for the sight, the caul is completely harmless, and it is easily removed by the attending physician or midwife.
Fewer than one out of every 80,000 babies are born with a caul, which can lend a child’s face a strange, alien appearance.
In light of this, it is not surprising that throughout human history many strange superstitions have been attached to babies born with cauls.
Medieval Europeans considered caul birth a sign of good luck, and thought the caul meant the child was destined for greatness—if the caul was red or white; a black caul was sometimes associated with bad luck.
There was also a superstition to the effect that a person who had been born with a caul over his face could never drown, and that carrying a baby’s caul would protect you from drowning—which meant that sailors would pay good money for a caul if they could obtain one.
Even today, in Russia, a very lucky person is said to have been “born in a shirt.”
While there is no reason today to hold to these kinds of superstitions, it is worth noting that some very influential and important people have been born with a caul, including:
- Lord Byron
- Sigmund Freud
Not all folklore about cauls treats them in such a positive manner, however; Romanians once believed that a baby born with a caul would become a vampire after death, even if the person lived a long time. A Hungarian folk saying has it that “He who is born in the cloak dies on the rope.”
Different Types of Cauls
Not all cauls are made of the same type of tissue. The most common type of caul is made of the tissue that forms the amniotic sac.
This type of caul is formed when a piece of the amniotic sac breaks away before or during the baby’s birth and becomes attached to the face and head.
An amniotic caul caul is easily removed—the doctor merely pulls it away from the child’s skin—and may sometimes be given to the mother as a keepsake. (This practice is more common than one might think—medieval superstitions concerning the caul’s value as a good luck charm persist to this day, especially in rural communities.)
A less common variety of caul is composed of a different type of tissue that adheres to the head and face, making it difficult to remove. Generally this type of non-amniotic caul also loops around behind the baby’s ears, further complicating its removal.
In extremely rare cases, a non-amniotic caul has even been known to envelop the infant’s entire body like a cocoon. Removal of this type of caul first requires that an incision be made over the baby’s nostrils so that it can breathe.
Once this has been done, the loops are carefully removed from around the baby’s ears, and the caul is carefully peeled away. Great care must be taken to avoid tearing the caul away too quickly, which can cause the baby’s skin to tear at the points where the caul has adhered to it, possibly resulting in scarring.
En caul births are a somewhat different phenomenon from caul births; an en caul birth is one in which the baby is born entirely inside the fluid-filled amniotic sac.
Most en caul births are premature, and some doctors have observed that this type of birth can protect a newborn from the mechanical pressure of overly strong uterine contractions. It has been suggested that en caul C-section deliveries might be advisable for extremely fragile premature babies.
Apart from the presence of the unbroken amniotic sac, En caul C-section deliveries also differ from conventional C-sections in that the incision in the mother’s abdomen is made in a different place.
Studies have shown that the en caul C-section method, in addition to reducing the incidence of pressure-related injuries to premature newborns, also reduces the incidence of asphyxiation in premature infants.