Giving birth, and everything that comes after, is one the most personal and humbling experiences of any woman's life. There are millions of ways to bring a baby into the world, and even more ways to raise one. Besides a mother's plans for how the baby will be born or what she will do in the days and weeks following the birth, there's a great deal of chance and the unexpected that can royally mess up a mom's plans. Maybe she'll want to have a home birth but a complication makes a hospital birth necessary, and even those veteran moms who know they want the doctors and the drugs to get through the ordeal may find themselves surprised by an impatient baby born at home. Whatever the expectations, moms can count on a baby to have their own plans.
That doesn't stop us, and the cultures we're raised in, to have ideas and practices about how a baby should be born and taken care of. Women around the world give birth in places and conditions North Americans can barely fathom, and even with all the medical and hygienic benefits there are for American moms, postpartum practices in places like Norway and other Scandinavian countries still put the US to shame.
Connecting with the lives and births of mothers from around the world can help us better appreciate the all the benefits we have here at home, or even help us pick up a tip or two on how to make the hardest part of bringing a baby into the world a little more enjoyable.
15 Korean: Silence Is Golden
You know all those nightmares that you have before giving birth, fueled my movies and sex-ed documentaries that show women screaming in pain as that fat-headed baby makes it way down the birth canal? Yeah, those nightmares. If you're giving birth anywhere in North America, you're not only allowed to scream your head off through contractions, some doctors may actually encourage you too, in an effort to manage the pain of bringing a baby into this world. It's one of the few times in your life that you can cry and yell obscenities and wish pain upon your partner and totally get away with it - no repercussions.
That is, unless you happen to be Korean. The culture in Korea values stoicism, and birthing mom are expected to hide the pain that is she surely experiences at every contraction. But being strong for the birth of your baby is required, and women in Korea can and will go through entire births with barely a whimper.
14 Bangladesh: Stay Home And Rest
After the baby is born and you finally get to take that little wriggling bundle home, you're probably going to want to spend some time at home bonding with your new baby. Depending on what kind of birth you had, healing from childbirth can take a few weeks (or a few months) to physically heal from, but that won't stop that little baby from needing all the mommying you've got. That first month or two can be exhausting, and having help around the house can be a huge help. But even with help, you're most likely going to be getting out of the house pretty soon after birth, especially if you already have kids who might not understand that mommy is not getting much sleep these days.
In Bangladesh, women are encouraged to stay home for 40 days, which is more or less six weeks - pretty similar to the time off provided to the average American mom. But Bangladeshi women stay home, not just from work, but from the rest of the world, while family members help with domestic duties like cleaning and groceries.
13 Guatemala: The Faster The Better
Labour is not something mothers would typically want to last very long - the faster that baby comes out, the less time you are left contracting and dealing with the pain that accompanies most births. There are all sorts of strategies that women use to speed up the process and help that baby out into the world. Walking while you can and staying upright let's gravity do its thing, though this is restricted for most women who choose medical pain management, like an epidural. Other strategies, like sitting in a warm bath or sitting on a birthing ball can help move along your labor, as well as provide some relief from the pain of contractions.
In Guatemala, they have their own strategy for helping moving things along - a concoction of purple onions boiled in beer is supposed to help with a speedy delivery. While beer and onions may not sound like something you'd like to pound back during labor, the unexpected intensity of those late-stage contractions may encourage you to try anything to get the birthing done you can start spending time with your baby in the outside world.
12 Cambodia: Placental Crib Buddy
North Americans tend to view the after-birth - tissues that come out with and after the baby like the umbilical cord and placenta - as medical waste, and treat it as such. The tissue is usually thrown away, but there is a growing interest in the health and nutrition benefits of the placenta for the mom after birth. The placenta can be turned into granules and encapsulated in pill form so that moms can take it like a homemade vitamin, while other moms have developed recipes that include the afterbirth as the main ingredient.
In Cambodia, the placenta serves a more ceremonial and spiritual purpose. The placenta is wrapped in a banana leaf and kept close to the newborn for three days. After that, the family will bury the placenta near home.
11 India: Let It All Air Out
There are lots of ways to encourage your body to literally open up and help deal with the stress and work of labor. Keep in mind, your body actually knows a lot more than you do about giving birth, so acknowledging that this is not something you can will into happening the way you want can go a long way. In addition to flexibility exercises that help open up the hips, the impact of a positive and open mindset is probably one of the most important things you can do to help smooth the delivery of your baby. Creative visualization, where you try to imagine a calmer, more manageable birthing process can do a lot for your state of mind, and anything that helps bring you a feeling of calm and control will help you better deal with the birthing process.
In India, they take the idea of openness and address it in every detail of the birth - birthing mothers let their hair hang free, and refrain from wearing any jewelry or restrictive clothing. Even the doors will be left open in an effort to keep everything feeling free and flowing.
10 Mexico: Keeping It Under Wraps
You will never feel more exposed than during birth. Not only is your body working in ways you didn't even know it could, but the focus you have on managing contractions and getting that baby out already means you care a lot less about pretty much everything else. You won't care about your hair or your clothes. If you're having the birth at home, you certainly won't care about what you living or bathroom looks like - everything is about that baby working its way into the world. Not to mention all the other things you thought you really cared about, but don't once you are in full blown labor. The idea of screaming your head off, or even pooping on the table, are just less of a priority than getting that baby out. Right now.
In Mexico, moms and families are well aware that a birthing mother is greatly exposed throughout her labour process. To protect mom and baby from this vulnerability, including from spiritual forces that could harm the new family, all the windows and doors are closed tight during the labour and birth process.
9 Morocco: Grease It Up
Massage is a great way to help manage the discomfort of labour, especially if you're experiencing heavy back labour. Your partner can learn different techniques to help you with pain management, or you might decide that you want a doula, or birth coach, to help you through the process. On the other hand, some women prefer that people be hands off during the labour process. What's most important is that you go with what feels comfortable and safe for you, and don't feel pressured to accept laboring help that you don't actually want. No matter who you decide you want beside you during your labor, this person should be supporting you, both physically and mentally, so it's a good idea to choose this person with care.
In Morocco, it is common for the midwife or gabla to not only massage a birthing woman's body, but also her vulva, to help make the baby's descent a little more sleek and smooth. These birthing helpers will also make herbal infusions to help manage the pain of contractions, which can include cloves, cinnamon, mint or thyme.
8 Niger: Keep It Above The Belt
There are a lot of different views about what role husband or father is supposed to have during the birth process. Some feel that the father must absolutely be in the room, while others feel like this kind of attendance is optional. For a long time fathers weren't even allowed in delivery rooms, and it was only in the 1970's that hospitals finally relaxed the rules to allow the expectant father be in the actual birthing room. Some fathers have openly declared their total aversion to being beside mom during the ordeal, like Gordon Ramsey, who famously declared that his sex life would be "damaged' beyond repair were he to see his wife in full blown labor. Whatever your preference, whoever you have by your side should be your decision.
In Niger, Muslim traditions forbid anyone but a women's husband from touching her genitals, and let's be real, anyone really helping a woman give birth is certainly getting their hands dirty. Midwives are permitted to assist, but only from the waist up, so to speak. Instead, midwives will try to help the mom through her labour by preparing and offering herbal drinks, and scattering herbs over her abdomen.
7 Ecuador: Sweat It Out
No matter what other people think, when your body is working as hard as it is, you've got to be comfortable in every other way possible. This means you should wear what you want, or not wear what you don't. Sure, this can be awkward for when your in-laws come into the birthing room and find you in nothing but a tank top, but hey, you've got other things on your mind. I should know. That was me, in the tank top, on the birthing ball, with my inlaws trying to find somewhere to look while they asked how I was doing as I clenched my way through a contraction.
But we forgot about it, because I was pushing a baby out of me. There was no way I was going to cover up just to make someone else feel more comfortable.
If I had been living in Ecuador, things may have been a little different. Folklore in this country says that the mother should wear a shirt that's damp with the sweat of the father after a long day of work in order to provide her with strength during the birth. Dad should also talk to the baby in the womb in order to encourage it to come out quickly so that the mother has an easier birth. He has the best of intentions.
6 Burma: Some Like It Hot
After that baby finally makes its appearance in the world, you are definitely ready for a rest. Labor is hard work (just in case you didn't know that already) and your body will be a kind of tired like you've never known. Depending on what your support network is like, you'll want to get as much rest as humanly possible, because no sooner will that baby be out in the world then they will immediately need all the feeding/diapering/changing you can imagine. It kind of makes you miss be pregnant, because they are a lot easier to take care of all tucked away in your uterus.
The point is that after birth you will need some recovery time, and women around the world use different methods to restore their energies. In Burma, traditional Karen people lay by a fire for three days after the birth of their children, or will use hot water bottle or heater to maintain warmth.
5 Fiji: Make It Stop
You would think that right after the baby is born, that's all there is. Nuh-uh. In fact, your uterus will continue to contract days after the baby is born, but those contractions are decidedly mild compared to the ones that pushed out your baby. Immediately after birth, the uterus will continue to contract to expel the placenta and other blood and tissue, though doctors or midwives will help out if it looks like the body is not expelling the afterbirth on it's own. Leftover placenta in your uterus can cause hemorrhaging and infection, so it's really important to get it all out immediately. In the following days and weeks, you might feel small contractions, or more like mild cramps, as your uterus shrinks back to it's original size.
In Fiji, fathers hope to help end their partner's suffering as soon as possible, and will often stay close by during delivery so that they can grab the placenta and bury it as soon as possible. The idea is that the burial of the afterbirth signals the true end of labor, therefore ending the blood loss and pain for the new mother. Some women will even bind their stomach's tightly with wraps in an attempt to help their bodies heal and recover from the birth.
4 Japan: Chow Down
Labor can lasts or hours, days even, and contractions are basically like doing really intense pushups without meaning to, so it can get quite exhausting. Doctors and midwives often advise mothers to sleep during early labor, before contractions get too intense and close together, to help get you rested up for the job ahead. But who is going to get a good nap in when you know you have a baby on the way! Eating is also a good way of keeping up your energy, but if you use pain medication like an epidural, solid foods are typically off limits, leaving you only fluids to help through however long your labor takes. Whatever you can do to keep your energy and spirits up is going to be a good idea, because unless you are one those lucky few or have had children before, that first labor is probably going to be a doozy.
In Japan, women are encouraged to eat throughout the labor to keep their energies up, which is helped by the fact that Japanese women are encouraged to go drug-free during their labor, meaning they can eat as much as they want, right up until that little bundle of joy pops into the world. That is, unless they have a caesarean, where anesthetic will be required. Cesareans are generally not desired, but doctors are well respected and if a c-section is suggested, most Japanese women will comply without much question.
3 Papua New Guinea: No Intimacy Till Weaning
Only you can decide when to jump back into the sack after having a baby, though there are some medical recommendations regarding how long you should wait to prevent any serious discomfort or possible medical complications. Most doctors will recommend waiting at least six weeks to allow you to heal. After that, it is completely up to you and your partner to decide when to get back into the swing of things. One really important thing to remember: you can get pregnant pretty easily after your pregnancy, even if your period has returned or is not on a normal schedule. There are some misconceptions about this, especially for women who breastfeed and have a delayed return of their period, and many a mom has been surprised to find themselves with another bun in the oven before their oldest is crawling. You've been warned.
In Papua New Guinea, they take a much longer time in resuming fun in the bedroom. According to local cultural traditions, women abstain from sex completely until their babies are weaned from breastfeeding. In some cases, this could be until the child reaches five years of age.
2 Sudan: The Infibulation Debate
Within North American, the practice of infibulation is largely unheard of, so much so that you might not even know what infibulation is. More commonly known as female genital mutilation by much of the rest of the world, infibulation is a controversial practice in some Northeastern African cultures of removing the clitoris and the sewing together of the vulva. The practice is dangerous for the health of the mother, especially when it comes to getting married and having babies. In order to give birth, women must undergo defibulation, or the surgical opening of the birth canal. These process can be quite painful and cause a host of other medical complications.
In Sudan, many women who have undergone the procedure, and then have their babies, may actually ask to be re-infibulated after their baby is born. This process of closing and re-opening the birth canal can happen several times over a woman's life.
1 Roma: Take Some Time
Whether or not you feel up for it, within a couple of weeks of your baby being born, life will return to normal. Except your normal is now different. You probably still have the same house and like the same foods and might go back to the same job, but something is different. You are a mom now, and that means you have a new normal that includes taking care of a little, squirmy person who you will care about more than you know. It might seem weird to get back to a daily grind with your reality so fundamentally changed, but life will continue along, and so will you. You might wonder what you did with all your time before you had a kid, amazed at the serious organizational skills you will undoubtedly develop as you become a mom who gets shit done.
However, if you are Roma, or Gypsy as they used to be known, then you might take a little bit longer to get back into the swing of things. Roma women who have just given birth are considered "polluted" for nine days, meaning they shouldn't touch food or men, and older female relatives may be dissuaded from visiting in order to prevent bad spirits from harming the new baby. All the more time for mom and baby to focus on each other and the new beautiful life ahead of them.