4 Incredible Birthing Rituals From Different Cultures & Countries
As a doula, I often ask people what images come to mind when they think of childbirth. "Screaming," "water breaking," and "running to the hospital" are the typical answers thanks to Hollywood, as so few of us have actually witnessed birth or the postpartum period (unless we are doing it ourselves). And those who have will be the first to tell you—Hollywood mostly gets it wrong! Actually only about 30 percent of people start labor with their water breaking and the average length for first labors is 24 hours, not 24 seconds.
In my profession, I work hard to change perceptions about birth and paint a more realistic picture. But in doing so, I am acutely aware that the picture we are painting is very much related to birth practices in America and in many cases, New York City since it’s where I practice. It’s funny—even though the general "logistics" of it all are the same, the unique ways different cultures approach it may surprise you! Here are some of my favorites traditions I've learned about during my studies and travels.
Bali: Babies can't touch the ground until after 3 months old.
Even though Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, the majority of people in Bali practice a local form of Hinduism. On a recent trip to Bali to visit friends and celebrate their baby, I learned that birth is seen as a rebirth or reincarnation and when babies are born, they are considered to still be in between worlds and viewed as holy. They are believed to be watched over by their "nyama bajang," a team of 108 spirits. To protect the soul while babies are still going through this transition, families don’t allow them to touch the ground for the first 105 days of life to protect them from lower spirits.
After 105 days the family gathers together to celebrate Nyabutan, the ceremony when the baby first touches the ground. The parents are blessed by the family priest and purified with holy water. Canangs, or offerings, are given to the Sun God and the five elements, and the 108 spirits are thanked. The baby is then blessed and is allowed to touch the ground for the first time, followed by a ritual in which the parents carry the baby around three times to represent the passage of birth, life, and death.
Guatemala: Midwives blow into the vagina.
Last year, my business partner, a fellow doula, spent some time in Tecpan, Guatemala, where she learned that traditional midwives will utilize the temazcal, a type of sweat lodge, throughout labor, birth, and the postpartum period. While such extreme heat is not recommended in the States, because these women have a routine practice of using it since infancy (even newborns go in) the thought is their bodies are accustomed to the heat.
Prenatal visits are often performed inside the temazcal and because breath is a midwife's way of communicating and connecting with the higher spirits, you may see the midwife blowing into the pregnant person’s vagina (from a distance) for safe passage.
Colombia: 40 days of rest post-birth.
This might sound crazy to Americans, especially considering one-quarter of mothers in the United States return to work one week after birth and only 5 percent of women in the bottom income get any paid leave. But the Colombian tradition, where I'm from (which is also practiced in other countries in Latin America), called cuarentena, stems from the belief that a new mother’s body is vulnerable and "open" and needs to be protected as it heals.
Traditionally, after you give birth in Colombia you have a big support system of women who will take care of you while you heal and care for your newborn. They cook special meals and clean your house; they change diapers and help you with breastfeeding; they hold the baby while you nap and keep you warm and cozy. (Sounds like a dream, huh?)
Some of the recommended practices and rituals include staying in bed the whole first week and then slowly starting to make your way around the house. You’re only allowed to start leaving the house for short periods of time after 30 days and slowly build up until you’re ready to be out in the world after 40 days. Showers are limited and often replaced by baths with herbs and vaginal steams. The new mother is supposed to stay warm and avoid cold foods to avoid issues with the uterus, menstruation, and future pregnancies. Physical activity is limited—you’re not supposed to bend, carry heavy things, or do any housework (even as much as opening the fridge!).
Vietnam: Pavlovian potty training.
Potty training in America usually starts at about 2 years old with kids being fully trained by the time they are 3 or sometimes older. But I learned from one of the families I worked for with Vietnamese ancestors that babies in Vietnam are potty trained from birth and expected to be diaper-free by the time they are 9 months old.
The tradition in Vietnam, called "Pavlovian Potty-training," is based on caregivers learning to understand cues so that they anticipate when a baby needs to "go." They make special whistling sounds to encourage the baby to pee and get them used to using this form of communication as time goes on. By 3 months, the babies are sitting on the potty and peeing on command to the sound of the whistle.
In the United States some parents are giving this a try by using the Elimination Communication method, which also stems from the idea of recognizing the signs that your baby makes when she is about to go, sitting them on a potty, and using sounds to train them.
Natalia Hailes is a DONA International certified birth doula and lactation specialist. She’s the co-founder of allbodies, a digital platform for modern health education, and the co-author of Why Did No One Tell Me This?. Her work has been featured in Newsweek and Teen Vogue.