Birth Customs, Traditions, & Taboos

Today Jaelin and Andie talk about birth customs, birth traditions and taboos in birth rituals around the world.

Points from the video:

As midwives we often hear alternative ideas, and then they become mainstream to us. On occasion we are met with something new, and because we love families deeply and strive to check our bias at the door, we choose to respect customs, traditions, and yes, even what most would call taboo. In order to truly value ALL people, we have to make it important to learn about, acknowledge, and accept where they are coming from. We don’t have to participate, but releasing bias starts at learning. So, let’s get to learning.

We can all agree that pregnancy and birth is as unique as the individual experiencing those times. It’s universal, but its deeply marinated in culture and tradition. Some could even call some of these taboo practices ritualistic.

What are some birth traditions?

The Balinese - Consider the Balinese birth ceremony. They believe the placenta has its own spirit. The placenta has a physical role, playing the child’s guardian angel. Because of this deep rooted consideration, they choose to bury the placenta in a designated cemetery.

Also, they believe babies should never touch the ground until they are 3 months old. Since they are pure, if they were to touch the ground, the pureness would falter, and they would be defiled. So, to honor this, they hold a ceremony at their 3 month birthday to allow them to walk on the dirty floor. As I say this to you, my child is probably eating food off the floor. Don’t judge.

Placentophagy - We touched on how important the placenta is to some cultures, so now let’s talk about one you probably have heard of and has even gained popularity in America lately. Women eating their placentas. We know that the placenta feeds the baby. It is full of hormones and nutrients. We also are aware that most mammals across the animal kingdom ingest their placenta right after labor.

Traditional medicine in Jamaica, India, and China believe the placenta has mystical powers, and modern medicine believes placentas hold hormones that can help with postpartum depression. This taboo has morphed into the far more palatable version of placenta encapsulation where the placenta is dehydrated, ground down, and put into capsules.

Irish - This one actually sounds fun. So we’ve all heard of couples who save a portion of their wedding cake to eat on their one year anniversary, right? Well, the Irish tradition spins that. When a baby is christened, the happy parents use the saved wedding cake to sprinkle crumbs on their baby’s forehead for good luck. For all my alcohol lovers out there, the cakes is usually made with whiskey. Additionally, they pour champagne on the baby’s head.

China - Let’s travel southeast to China. They are stocked full of culture, and they do not leave mothers, babies, or birth out. This is cool. When a couple marries, much like Americans, they carry their bride across the threshold. (I never got to do that. Note to self, make Chris carry me when he gets home from work).

Not only does the husband carry her across the threshold, but he also carries her over burning coals to ensure she will give birth without complication. While that’s interesting on its own account, the Chinese also institute a host of bans for pregnant women. You know that wouldn’t work for me, because when I am told “No”, I do it just to be spiteful.

Pregnant women are banned from gossip, laughing loudly, anger, and bad thoughts. She is also not allowed to see colors that clash. Sleeping with a knife under the bed is good because that fights away bad spirits. Because light skinned babies are valued there, she is encouraged to only eat light colored foods. She also must keep her nesting in check, because home construction during pregnancy is forbidden. If she sits on a crooked mat it is thought she could give birth to a baby with physical malformations. And worst of all, no sex.

Mauritania - The Wolof people feel spit is powerful. To move that even further, they believe saliva can hold onto words. With respect to that, they spit on babies to allow their words to stick, like blessing glue. Women spit on their face while men spit in their ears. Then, to make sure they are covered in goodness, they rub it all over their faces.

Nigeria - Giving birth alone is commonplace in Nigerian culture. The support for the mother comes after birth. Moms are expected to experience labor and birth without assistance. This one has unfortunately created a host of complications for mommas and babies.

Pakistan - Kalash mothers in Pakistan follow a similar custom. They give birth away from their families. They feel mothers in labor are unclean, so they birth in special buildings in isolation. Men feel the fluids and air around childbirth is disgusting, and they do not want to contaminate themselves. Fellow mother feel the same way. Only other women who are currently bleeding can assist or support.

Latin America - Many Latin American countries follow the practice of “La Cuarentena” or quarantine. This looks like a full six weeks of abstinence from sex, heavy activity, and many types of food. Instead of sex, food, and fun, they focus on breastfeeding and dedication to the newborn. In order to provide this precious time for mothers, other family members chip in to help with cooking, cleaning and loving the other children in the home. I am fond of this birth tradition.

Japan does something similar, because for them birth doesn’t end with the emergence of baby. For three full weeks after giving birth, a mom stays with her parents and in bed. Family is to rally around her and take care of all the stress and chores while her sole focus is healing and her baby.

Circumcision - This birth tradition is a bit of a hot topic. I considered not including it as it may make people uncomfortable, but it is a familiar western tradition. Many countries around the world consider it taboo, as well. So, let’s discuss. Circumcision is commonplace in America. It’s a surgical procedure, where the foreskin of the penis is removed. Traditionally and currently, it is well known as a Jewish tradition where babies are circumcised and named at eight days old. Female circumcision is being outlawed across the globe, and male circumcision is losing popularity.

Lotus Birth - A lotus birth is the lack of any intervention to the cord. A lotus birth calls for the cord to remain uncut and attached to baby and placenta until it falls off on its own. This can take anywhere from 3 to 10 days usually. I have experienced a few lotus births, and I will say that, although I love the thought of leaving all as it, parents were not ready for the odor of decomposing tissue.

Silent Birth - Some cultures value noise in birth while others believe a stoic, silent mother is strong. There does exist a practice seen in the Scientology community called Silent birth. Women are to remain as silent as possible. This rule is for the mother and anyone supporting her. The thought behind the trend is that babies will make a memory of the loud noises, and it could be traumatic long term for them.

All of these birth traditions are so interesting. I would love to hear any others you have run across. I know our beautiful world is rich with them. Please, do share.

Andie WyrickComment