Whether you're ready to know your unborn baby's sex (now!) or are waiting to find out in the delivery room, chances are you have your suspicions—hunches fueled, perhaps, by well-meaning friends and family. Take, for example, first-time mom Arlene Bordinhao of Las Vegas, who was convinced she was having a girl. Folks informed her that because she was carrying high and her belly resembled a watermelon, not a basketball, it had to be a girl. The Chinese lunar calendar also predicted a girl.
Plus, Bordinhao's mother didn't see any dark circles on her neck. "In the Philippines, where I was born, no rings means a girl," she explains. Although her husband wanted to wait to find out the baby's sex, Bordinhao had to know for sure.
"Not being able to prepare for the biggest event of my life made me crazy," she admits, so she found out at 16 weeks during a routine sonogram. Surprise! "There was our little man, in all his glory," Bordinhao recalls. "We were in shock for 24 hours, but now we're thrilled. Finding out helped us prepare mentally and stock the nursery. I can't wait to meet him!"
That's usually the first question expectant mothers and fathers are asked. Parents-to-be can—and nearly always do!—answer it earlier than ever before, thanks to the latest imaging technology. In fact, 9 out of 10 new moms polled in our MomTrak survey knew the sex of their baby prior to labor day.
"By your fifth month, around week 18 or 19 of your pregnancy, a sonogram can show you the sex of your unborn child with about 95 percent accuracy," explains Daniel A. Potter, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist at the Huntington Reproductive Center Medical Group in California. "From a medical standpoint, we do an ultrasound to check the age, position, and health of the fetus, but most parents want to know the sex too. That's true if it's the first baby or the fourth."
Expectant parents are particularly nosy creatures: If you Google "predict baby's sex," you'll find more than 1 million results, including gender predictor kits you can buy at your local Target. Yet, if we all agree that having a healthy, happy baby is paramount, why do we care so much whether that baby is a boy or a girl?
"It's human nature," Dr. Potter says. It started in the Stone Age, he continues: "A family without sons, whose job was to hunt and keep everyone fed, might not have survived. So offerings were made to the gods, and soothsayers were consulted. People passed on to the next generation the methods they considered most effective for guaranteeing a boy, and this inspired old wives' tales."
Throughout history, gender has remained a priority. "For hundreds of years, sex determined not only your life's options but your parents' options too," says social historian Stephanie Coontz, Ph.D., author of A Strange Stirring, which tells of the struggle for gender equality in the 1960s. "It influenced how your parents treated you, what they expected of you, even if they welcomed you at all."
In many societies, not having a son was a tragedy; for the ruling elite, it was a threat to their power: "Women were killed or killed themselves if they didn't deliver a boy," she says.
Polls today reveal that Americans still have a slight preference for boys. But in this country, a baby's gender is no longer a matter of life-and-death importance. "We increasingly want the same things for our children, boys or girls," Dr. Coontz says. Still, many can't resist the siren call of knowing Baby's sex.
These days, curiosity, practicality, and peace of mind often outweigh surprise. "We felt that learning the baby's gender was a delicious moment, no matter when we found out," says Robin Rosen of Atlanta, a mom of a girl and a boy.
Some first-time parents choose to know the sex of their baby but prolong the suspense the second time around. "As a new mom, so much is completely unknown," says San Francisco mom of two Kat Eden. Finding out the baby's sex and focusing on picking a name, clothes, and decor helped Eden feel grounded during her first pregnancy. "With my second, I knew what to expect," she says. "It was exciting to wonder about the little person growing in my tummy."
Sometimes siblings factor into the decision. "My older son is a need-to-know kind of kid," says Caren Rodriguez of Greensboro, North Carolina, a mom of two boys. "Being able to tell his class about the baby was a source of pride for him."
Those who do choose to wait savor the anticipation. As Rachel Levin of New York City says, "Having the surprise to look forward to helped me get through those last, long weeks of my pregnancy."
What if you want to find out and your guy doesn't? Some parents adopt a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. One scenario: The doctor writes the sex on an index card and seals it in an envelope. The couple agrees that if either of them is bursting to know, he or she can peek.
You could also wait and see where things go. "We'd been trying to have a baby for a long time," says Sophie Beauvais of Cambridge, Massachusetts. "We were so stressed out that we stopped trying and took a vacation. Soon after we got back, I found out I was pregnant." They remained undecided about finding out until the day of the baby's 18-week ultrasound: "By then, we were so thrilled our dream was coming true that when the nurse asked if we wanted to know, we both blurted, 'Yes!' It just felt right."
What if you've been envisioning tutus and tea parties, only to find out you're having a boy? Or your husband has a deep desire for a boy, but you're getting a girl? You may be bummed out, and that's okay.
"It's normal to feel let down," says Sara Rosenquist, Ph.D., author of After the Stork. Feeling guilty about your negative emotions can add to the anxiety stew. Talk with your partner, a close family member, or friend. "Pretending you're not upset keeps negative feelings simmering and can intensify the sadness," Dr. Rosenquist adds. It's best to work through any regrets now, before sleep deprivation and other realities of having a newborn compound your sadness.
Kerstin Armstrong of Atlanta, a mom of three girls, always pictured herself with boys and needed time to accept that she'd never have a son. "But wishing for a boy doesn't mean I love my girls any less!" she says.
Armstrong's husband, Scott, feels similarly. "I was hoping for a boy with each pregnancy, and a part of me will always long for a son," he admits. "But Kerstin once told me something that still resonates: 'Everything our daughters know about boys will come from you.' I consider it a privilege to be their vision of what a man should be."
"After we found out we were having our fourth boy, I burst into tears. My husband patted my arm and said, 'It's okay, honey. It's not your fault.' We both had wanted a girl very much, but we quickly got used to the idea of raising little boys who operate on only two speeds—running and sleeping—and who have a pack mentality. One night they got together and rigged up a rocket launcher. The rockets? My tampons. Try explaining to your neighbor why her Lexus is covered in feminine-hygiene products! It's been wild, crazy, and loud, but we wouldn't have it any other way." — Ariel Lawhon; Wichita Falls, Texas
"We have two girls, ages 5 and 3, and I love sharing the things that were important to me as a child, like Little House on the Prairie and the Ramona books. Just know this: There will always be glitter all over everything in your house. Resistance to princesses is futile." — Kristin Mahoney; South Orange, New Jersey
"Having four boys keeps it simple—with each baby we already had the clothes, toys, and how-to-raise boys books. I've researched soccer teams and baseball leagues and have a stable of other boy moms to call on. What's truly wonderful is that if I didn't have so many boys, I wouldn't have known how different from one another they could be." — Annie Drexler, Atlanta
"As the mother of three girls, ages 5, 3, and 1, and as a total girly girl myself, I truly enjoy all my daughters' dress-up, makeup, ballet, and pretend play. My husband loves being the only man in the house. That said, it can often be an emotional roller coaster. If they spot a bug, cover your ears because the sound can be deafening! If they scrape a knee, you'd think the leg was broken, their reaction is so dramatic." — Andrea Miller; Sienna Plantation, Texas
Instead of waiting for a sonogram, some preggo parents are finding out at home.
A slew of gender prediction kits has sprung up at drugstores in recent years, and some claim to accurately predict a baby's gender as early as five to seven weeks into a pregnancy. Peeing in a cup or pricking your finger and sending a blood sample to a lab for DNA testing is easy enough, but these aren't surefire methods.
Among the kits, urine tests, which check for the presence of testosterone as early as ten weeks, are the least expensive and also the least accurate. Kits that use a blood sample to detect gender are imprecise as well (your bathroom isn't a quality-controlled lab!) and pricey (often upward of $300). If you have more money than patience, you may want to try one, but don't paint the nursery till you get a sonogram!
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of American Baby magazine. Updated June 2018.