World Childbirth Traditions

Down the ages, pregnancy and childbirth was one of the greatest mysteries that faced humankind. And in their urge to control the uncontrollable, many ancient cultures devised superstitions and beliefs for a predictable outcome.

Childbirth had a multitude of traditions associated with it, which differed from region to region. Here’s a brief look at a few traditions associated with childbirth.

Pain & Childbirth Beliefs

This may be the age of “epidural blocks” and “painless delivery”. But did you know, pain during labour was viewed differently in various parts of the world. In the West, women are encouraged to express their pain and suffering, but this isn’t the case in other parts of the world.

  • Vietnamese women were taught from childhood to control their emotions. They had to give birth without uttering a word!
  • Mexican women have to keep as quiet as possible if they don’t want to be made fun of
  • In Taiwan, when a woman gives birth she is expected not to cry out because she’ll disturb the other inhabitants of her village
  • In Togo, the mum-to-be has to remain silent so that she doesn’t attract the attention of evil sprits
  • In traditionally Catholic countries, the pain of childbirth is said to stem from original sin. According to the book of Genesis in the Bible, as Eve gave in to temptation in the Garden of Eden, her daughters (all women) will give birth to children in pain
  • Buddhists believe that pain is linked to sins the expectant mother committed in her previous lives. Which is why in parts of Asia, it’s frowned upon to suffer when bringing a child into the world

Superstitions about Pregnancy Labour

The ancients knew that the cervix had to open for the baby to emerge. This opening – which takes place inside the mother’s body – is to be helped by mimicking that inner process in the outside world.

  • In many parts of Asia, including India, rituals of opening are performed to facilitate childbirth. All doors and windows in the house are left open and knots untied. The mother-to-be’s hair is let loose and her bangles, rings and jewellery are all removed-signifying permission for the mother to move from social convention to the ‘wild’ pure bodily energetic space, unrestrained
  • In Morocco, pregnant women have to leave their heads uncovered, their hair down and their belts undone
  • In some countries, its traditional to close everything rather than open it! In Mexico, for example, doors and windows are closed and the slightest chink or hole is blocked up with cloths. It stems from the belief that when you give birth you’re at risk of being infiltrated by evil forces, so mother and baby have to be protected
  • Some centuries ago in Europe, everything had to be closed and the house had to be overheated to chase away evil spirits and to protect the mother from the cold. This is still the practice in some Asian countries, where a fire must burn permanently for a month after a baby’s birth
  • In Russia, it was believed that childbirth would be easy if the woman and her husband reveal the names of all their past lovers. So a tough labour is just a consequence of your dishonesty!

Superstitions about the Umbilical Cord

The umbilical cord was often seen as a significant part of the child’s future and was not to be discarded or just “thrown away”.

  • It is a popular custom to keep the umbilical cord as a kind of good luck charm. In India and Mexico, the cord is placed around the child’s neck, while in Turkey it is kept in the house
  • According to the Malwa tradition, when the umbilical cord dries up, it is thrown over a Peepal tree
  • In Indonesia, the cord is often buried with a sapling such as a coconut, palm or avocado tree. The state of the tree’s health as it grows is said to depend on the baby’s state of health

Customs and practices regarding the Placenta

Though discarded as “afterbirth” in most of the western world, the placenta had many interesting traditions associated with it. Some ethnic groups think of the placenta as the baby’s twin, so rites are performed to preserve and control the supernatural link between them.

  • In India  the placenta is used  as a tool to revive an infant who is not breathing. They stimulate it with heat and claim that life flows from the placenta into the child
  • In Mali, it is thought that the placenta can affect the baby’s mood or even make him ill. The placenta is washed, dried, placed in a basket and buried by the father
  • In Cambodia, the placenta is carefully wrapped in a banana tree leaf, placed beside the newborn for three days and then buried
  • In some regions of South America, Korea and Reunion, the placenta is burned after birth to neutralize it.

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