Residence: Los Altos Hills, California
Date of Performance/Collection: March 2019
Primary Language: English
This piece of folklore came from my informant, who will be called M. When M was first pregnant with her child in 1999. Her grandma, an Italian woman who was in her late 80s, came by to check on M and see that she was doing well. While visiting M, M’s grandma got very nervous about the cat that my family had at the time.
M’s grandma: You must be very very careful with that cat in this house M. Cats love warmth and have often been known to cuddle up with babies and suffocate them to death.
Context: M is my family friend who has told me this story often throughout my childhood, usually when we are petting our cat. M to an extent believes this story, and has always been careful with cats around newborns. M doesn’t believe that there is much proof to this story, as she herself has never heard of a cat actually killing a baby. She has seen cats be obsessive about warmth however, and cuddle up very close to her and others. M believes that her grandma did not hear about this through folktale, but actually had seen this happen or heard of it happening, as she says that her grandma was legitimately concerned about the cat.
Analysis: This story is interesting, because there is much folklore surrounding this idea that cats can kill babies. When searching for other folklore surrounding this idea, I was surprised to find folklore that says cats kill babies, but for different reasons and through different ways than suffocation for warmth. I found examples of folklore that says that cats suffocate babies because they are jealous of the amount of attention the babies are getting. I also found folklore that explained that cats like the milk that is in babies breath, and can actually suck the life out of the baby trying to lap up the milk in the babies mouth. The origins of this folktale seem to date back to the 18th century, where in 1791 a jury at a coroner’s inquest in England rendered a verdict to the effect that a Plymouth child had met his death by a cat sucking out its breath (1). Moreover, cats were often right next to a child when it died, increasing the superstition that the child could have been killed by a cat. All in all, cats have a bad reputation in society and are often a bad omen. It is understandable to see why many would think they could be bad around babies.
1) “FACT CHECK: Cats Suck Babies’ Breath.” Snopes.com, www.snopes.com/fact-check/murderous-moggies/.