When people hear the word Amish, they will probably picture a large family, all dressed in somber colors, the females in bonnets and the males in straw hats. Most people imagine them as large farming families who do not use technology, drive horse-drawn buggies and keep very much to themselves.
However, hardly any of us have ever seen, let alone got to know, someone who is Amish, so most of what we think we know come from movies, the internet, and questionable ‘reality’ TV. The Amish are very different to the majority of families in the western world but there is so much more to those differences than teenagers going wild when they have time away from the community and stern looking men with beards.
There are many things to discover about the Amish family way of life, especially their approach to pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum period. While we may not all want to rush out and instantly adopt the Amish ways, there is something to be said for learning what they do, why they do it, and the benefits we could reap if we were to try doing one or two things the Amish way.
There are no big announcements about a pregnancy in an Amish community - that would be considered ‘prideful’. The mom-to-be will share the news with her husband, and perhaps the grandparents but everyone else can be left to work it out for themselves.
This wish for discretion even extends to discrete visits by the midwife. If the midwife is attending with an assistant, nurse or doctor they would all share a vehicle. This is to prevent a number of cars in the drive drawing attention to the home and what was happening. Mothers also often request that midwife visits take place during school hours to ‘avoid the eyes of scholars’.
Clothes for pregnant Amish women are often just roomier versions of their usual dress so it can be challenging to tell, just by looking, if an Amish woman is pregnant or not and you certainly wouldn’t enquire if she were or not.
14Active ‘Till The End Of Pregnancy
There is a little of the urban legend or a bit of exaggeration in the tales of Amish women working around the house and the farm until moments before the baby is born, but like all good stories, it does have its roots in truth.
The Amish do not approach pregnancy as a medical condition that must be managed. A pregnant Amish woman will carry out her regular chores and household work, usually up until the time the baby is on its way.
However, once the woman has begun her labor she usually stops what she is doing and retires to her home if she has a home birth. Some Amish communities have ‘birthing centers’ usually with doctors and midwives and some Amish women go to the hospital to give birth.
Although all Amish and Mennonite communities vary in their beliefs to some degree, most are at the very least, reluctant to receive formal medical care from a doctor. In part, this is down to their belief that God has a plan for each and every one of them and that by accepting a medical intervention you are in some way interfering with His plan.
It is also in part because the Amish do not have any kind of insurance, so medical care is all an out of pocket expense for them.
This may have many benefits for the women of the Amish community. Caesarean rates for the United States as a whole are a whopping 32% of all deliveries but for the Amish, the rate is 2%, and they do not have a significantly different rate of maternal or fetal death.
12Letting Nature Take Its Course
Sometimes the Amish faith in God's plan for them must really be stretched to the limit. Premature births and children born with severe congenital disabilities can be such occasions where the biological and emotional urge to preserve the life of a child, no matter what, must pull hard against the belief in God’s plan.
Most Amish families will refuse heroic measures (a medical intervention that carries a high risk of causing further damage to a patient's health but which is the last resort because any lesser treatment would not work) for a newborn in the belief that God has chosen for them to die. This does not mean that the Amish love their children any less, or are not still devastated by the death of a child, it is just that they also have a layer of faith and acceptance to help them through their grief.
11People Called 'Catchers'
Most Amish communities are accepting of midwives and doctors who are respectful of the Amish beliefs and attempt to work with them to provide medical care within the framework of the Amish faith.
However, there are still some Amish communities that do not accept outside medicine and some communities who prefer to have a hybrid of the Amish and the outside. One of the traditions that are often part of this mixture is that of the “Catcher.”
A Catcher is a birth attendant but they have no formal training and, as with all Amish, a Catcher has no schooling past the eighth grade. They have no real equipment but are well versed in herbal medicine and support for the mother during labor.
When the baby is born, the Catcher wipes the baby from head to toe, binds the baby’s belly and dresses the newborn in a special dress and bonnet.
10A Subdued Birth
An Amish birth in a hospital or birthing center is just as subdued and private as one that takes place at home. In an out of the home setting, medical staff will be kept to the absolute minimum and the only family member to be in attendance would be the baby's father.
Although cultural and physical stereotyping is not to be encouraged (apparently midwives and doctors always worry about us redheads and our ability to bleed profusely!) Amish women are known to be on the quiet end of the volume spectrum when it comes to vocalizing during a birth. Their approach is generally one of acceptance of the pain, not causing a fuss, and listening to their body.
Amish women also wear a special birthing gown that has an open area on the front so that the baby can be placed directly on the mother's skin as soon as it is born.
9Less Postpartum Depression
Amish women have a much lower rate of postpartum depression than their ‘English’ (that is what they call everyone who is not Amish) sisters.
It would be tempting to say that this is just because they do not see doctors and are underdiagnosed, but the medical professionals that work with the Amish disagree. Those in the know say it is probably the fact that once an Amish mother has given birth she is expected to do nothing except recover from the birth and care for the baby until she is ready to take on household work again. This is usually six to eight weeks after the baby is born.
This extended ‘rest period’ (it’s not full rest because she still has a newborn to look after!) reduces the physical and mental stresses that can often lead to PPD.
8Get A Girl In
This extended rest period is facilitated by what the Amish often refer to as a ‘hired girl’ or ‘getting a girl in.' These hired girls are Amish teens who have completed their schooling but have not yet been baptized into the Amish faith. As formal education ends at the eighth grade and baptism usually happens at the age of sixteen, these girls are generally between 13 and 16 years of age.
The girls will cook, clean, take care of the younger children and carry out any other chores the new mom would usually take on. In some ways, it is like an apprenticeship for becoming an Amish wife and mother.
For the girl, it is a taste of motherhood, and for the women, it is a release from the worry of their usual work and childcare duties which gives them more time to care for and bond with their new baby.
7It Takes A Village
The majority of Amish and Mennonite communities may not have telephones, but the men are known to say “we don’t need phones we have the women, ” and there appears to be lots of truth in this statement.
The arrival of a new baby is a highly anticipated event and once the news is out that the little one has arrived the settlement is usually abuzz with information about the baby's gender, size, and name.
Once a respectful period of time has passed to allow the new mom to recover from the immediate physical trauma of the birth, the other women will visit with food, well wishes and gifts for the new addition.
Mom will not be expected to lift a finger to entertain these visitors. Instead, she can sit back and relax and enjoy her new baby while the other women take care of everything.
6It’s All In The Name
As you might expect, biblical names are very popular among the Amish, but names are not chosen exclusively from the Bible. For boys, Elmer, Leroy, Wayne, and Harley are among the non-biblical favorites while for women Fannie, Waneta, Katie, and Sadie are frequently seen.
The more conservative Amish do not use middle names but many use an initial to differentiate between the many people with the same name. So you might have an Elmer H. Miller and an Elmer J. Miller in the same community but you would know one was the son of Harley and one was the son of Jacob.
The Amish are not immune to passing trends either; it is just that theirs are a little more subdued. One recent ‘trend in some communities was to use two initials instead of one, and another was to give girls two-part names such as Sarah-Mary, Martha-Kate, or Miriam-Ruth.
5Breastfeeding Is Best For The Amish
The Amish have a much higher rate of breastfeeding than those of us outside of their communities. This may not be for the reasons you think though.
While the Amish are known for rejecting modern technology they are willing to use baby bottles and formula if breastfeeding is not going well for the mother and baby. This can be enormously difficult in those communities without running water or electricity as sterilizing must take place in a pot of water over the fire or stove. However, this difficulty is not the main reason for higher rates of breastfeeding.
The Amish are, generally speaking, strongly against birth control as children are a gift from God and it is not up to them to decide when to have them.
Therefore many Amish women breastfeed their children up to and past a year because, not only is it good for the baby and less work for them, but it helps to naturally space out the children.
4Quality Not Quantity
The idea that the Amish do not like to have ‘things’ is a relatively accurate one but it does not mean they are not full of joy at the arrival of a new baby and it is not to say that that new baby and their family doesn’t receive gifts.
The Amish may not throw baby showers or give lavishly wrapped gifts with a massive dollar price tag; they do give gifts to the new baby and their family.
The men might have taken the time to carve wooden toys for the newborn to enjoy when they are a bit older and the women will probably have taken the time in the preceding months, to sew clothes for the baby. If the child is a girl she might receive a handmade trunk which, when she is older, her clothing and linens will be stored.
The Amish even send handmade cards and write letters to celebrate the birth.
3Dressing The Kids
All Amish babies, boys, and girls are dressed in cotton dresses that are fastened at the back with buttons. The only difference being that the girls wear a black bonnet called a Kapp.
No metal popper fastenings, velcro, beautiful ribbons, or zippers here. In fact, some of the Amish communities do not even allow buttons for the adults because they are considered an adornment of the clothing. However, even in these stricter communities babies are allowed buttons because they have not yet been baptized into the Amish faith, something that does not happen until the late teens when children are considered old enough to make their own choice about joining the church.
The children are kept in their simple dresses until they are toilet trained. Then the boys graduated to shirts and pants, and the girls graduate to everyday dresses like the older women.
2Their Genetic Advantage
It is very unusual for an “English” to become Amish and so the genetic pool of the Amish is almost exclusively down to the founding population of around 200 people who first came to the US, from Europe in the eighteenth century.
This has both advantages and disadvantages to the Amish community. Even taking into account for the potential for lower rates of diagnosis in Amish communities they have a very low rate of autism. Autism is believed to be a predominantly genetic condition that can be activated or exacerbated by environmental conditions. Neither these environmental conditions or the genetics are prevalent in Amish communities.
The Amish also have lower rates of most cancers that have a genetic element as well as lower rates of Alzheimer's disease. And some have a particular gene that guards against cardiovascular disease.
1Their Genetic Disadvantage
On the flip side, some Amish communities suffer elevated rates of rare genetic disorders such as Cohen's Syndrome which results in microcephaly, a lack of muscle tone, eyesight problems, and facial structures that may prevent the mouth from closing. Suffers can live into their sixties but rarely advance past the physical and mental state of a toddler. Of only 100 or so reported cases in the world, 12 are in a single Amish community in Ohio.
Some genetic metabolic conditions are so rare that they do not even have names, but they strike apparently healthy at birth children and cause them to lose physical and mental abilities until they are unable to do anything for themselves.
Levels of these disorders are rising. Despite trying to marry into other distant Amish communities, one settlement has 12 children with severe disabilities compared to three in the previous generation and one in the generation before that.
cdc.gov, amishamerica.com, nytimes.com, washingtonpost.com, nationalgeographic.com, the-daily-record.com, exploring-amish-country.com, midwifekathi.wordpress.com, amishquilter.com, healthbeat.spectrumhealth.org
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