When my husband was offered a new job early in my second pregnancy, I had only one question: How much paternity leave did the company offer? I had a grand scheme for after our baby arrived, and I needed his help. I was planning a six-week vacation.
I’d first heard the idea from my mid-wife, who told me that in many cultures, women spend as long as 40 days in bed after giving birth. Called “lying in” or “doing the month,” it’s common in countries from Japan to Ecuador. While I didn’t really think I’d need six weeks to recover from childbirth, I’d take advantage of any excuse for a break from folding laundry, cooking dinner, and chasing my preschooler. I loved the thought of several weeks of breastfeeding, napping and cuddling skin-to-skin with my baby. And I figured that keeping my newborn home in the middle of flu season wasn’t a bad idea either.
A month of rest is just one of the birth and postpartum rituals that many different cultures share. Birth is a unifying factor for moms around the world. After all, the biological process is the same no matter where you live. And even though new life is celebrated differently around the globe, many specific traditions are shared by a wide variety of cultures. As it turns out, these traditions are common for good reason: They’re good for you, and they work. By incorporating these ancient rituals into modern plans, your birth and postpartum journey can combine the best of many worlds.
BIRTH: An instinct all women share
While different traditions can give you new ideas, the truth is you don’t really need anyone to tell you what to do on your big day. In fact, birth rituals in various cultures are similar because they developed out of the same framework: the physiological needs of a laboring woman. “Birth proceeds best when it’s coming out of the instinctual part of the brain,” believes Lauren Schowe, a Colorado direct-entry midwife who studied in Ecuador. If you listen to your body during labor, you may find yourself following these age-old traditions by pure instinct.
Pick a winning team
In most cultures, all birth attendants are women, and men are kicked out of birthing rooms. This belief that labor is for women only is almost a worldwide norm, in places as diverse as Ethiopia, Ecuador, Thailand and Saudi Arabia. “Women birth with other women,” says Pamela Stone, biological anthropologist and author of Childbirth Across Cultures. “Having another woman to be with you is incredibly calming for women globally.” Usually, the women who attend a birth are all close friends and family of the labor-ing woman: sisters, mother and a midwife who may have attended the laboring mom’s own birth. Schowe believes that a close, trusting relationship with your birth team is key for a healthy birth. “I spend a lot of time establishing a relationship during the pregnancy,” she says. “Birth is all about intimacy. That trust needs to be there.”
Try it: If you have an obstetrician you love and trust who happens to be a man, there’s no need to find a new care provider based on gender. But you may want to add some other attendants to your birth team. Hire a doula to stay with you continuously throughout labor, or ask your mother, sister or best friend to be your labor sidekick. Most importantly, make sure everyone in the delivery room is someone you love and trust. You need the support of people who you don’t mind seeing you at your worst.
Get a massage and use herbs
In Mexican cultures like the Mayan and the Yucatan, an hour-long full-body massage is standard at every prenatal visit. But before you head south of the border to ease the ache in your lower back, know that the purpose of the massage is more than just comfort. “The midwife gets to know the woman’s body by touch,” explains Robbie Davis-Floyd, cultural and medical anthropologist and lead editor of Birth Models That Work. This knowledge is valuable during labor, when an experienced midwife can determine a baby’s size and position with just her hands. Perineal massage using oils and herbs is another common tradition that can help prevent tearing. And when it’s time to start or speed up labor, a midwife or doctor can suggest certain herbs to kick contractions into gear more gently than drugs.
Try it: Although you probably can’t convince your midwife to give you a massage at every prenatal visit, a doula will be happy to rub your shoulders during labor. You can do a perineal massage yourself, using oil infused with lavender and rose petal extract.
Get up, stand up
Another birth tradition that’s nearly ubiquitous around the globe is one of the most obvious: Women birth upright, usually in a squatting stance. Look at birth art in diverse cultures from ancient to modern, and you’ll see the same image of a woman squatting to push. This position does more than put gravity in your favor. Squatting opens your hips, giving the baby more room (as opposed to lying on your back, which closes your pelvis and makes the birth canal smaller). “Most women around the world birth in an upright position,” says Stone. “They move around and eat and drink, which helps give them energy and focus.”
Try it: Ask your provider about different birth positions. Walking around in early labor is standard in most hospitals, but ask specifically about the pushing stage, when some care providers may want you on your back for easy obstetrical access. Look for a hospital that offers overhead bars that you can hold onto while pushing, birth chairs that support you in a semi-squat, and labor beds that tilt to put you more upright. If you want pain relief, consider a walking epidural, which will relieve pain while allowing you to stand up. You can also ask the anesthesiologist to time your epidural so it wears off before you need to push. If you’re aiming for a natural birth, squatting will likely come naturally too.
Shake your belly
Some anthropologists believe that belly dancing started as a birth ritual among Middle Eastern tribes who used its movements to help labor progress. Even if that wasn’t the original purpose of the dance, it certainly worked for Alexandra Chauran, a mom of two in Issaquah, Washington, who danced through both of her labors. “When I was dancing, it felt like I was moving the baby downward,” she says. “Dancing was like counterpressure, and labor was never super painful.”
Try it: Many prenatal fitness programs offer a labor dancing class that teaches dance movements to help open the pelvis during labor. If you can’t find a prenatal dance class, ask your local dance studio if there’s a belly dancing class you can take during pregnancy.
Connect with the divine
You don’t need to be religious to recognize the transformative power of birth, but in many cultures, birth is more than personally meaningful—it’s divine. In traditional Balinese tribes, newborns are considered gods because they’re thought to have just arrived from heaven. “Babies represent the border between life and death,” says Stone. “They’ve just come into a new world, fresh and without burdens.” While spiritual traditions surrounding birth vary widely, they all share a deep respect for the experience of birth. But at the same time birth is viewed as a spiritual transition, it’s also seen as a very normal event: a natural part of the cycle of life. “The people I observed in Ecuador thought of birth as an everyday thing,” says Schowe. “It’s what women do.”
Try it: If you already practice a spiritual tradition, include it in your birth. Pray, meditate, read scripture, light candles, or sing during labor. Ask a friend or family member to pray with you or for you, or write a prayer for your baby to be read at his birth. If you’re not spiritual, sift through different traditions for a few you might want to borrow. Some midwives will perform an interfaith blessing ceremony toward the end of your pregnancy during which friends and family offer gifts and positive thoughts for your labor and birth. Most importantly, assess whether you need to adjust your mindset about birth. Rather than something to fear, think of it as an everyday part of life—a task that your body, like the bodies of all your female ancestors, instinctively knows how to do.
POSTPARTUM: A transition between two worlds
In many cultures, birth isn’t seen as a momentary event but as the beginning of a gradual transition. Some, such as the Balinese, don’t believe a baby’s soul has truly settled into his body until he’s 6 weeks old—around the time of his first smile. Before then, he needs to be carefully nurtured so his soul will decide to stay.
From a scientific perspective, treating the postpartum period with as much care as birth makes sense. “Imagine experiencing gravity for the first time,” says Schowe, “and taking air into the lungs for the first time. Respecting the postpartum time reduces overstimulation and stress.”
Delay cord cutting
In the hospital, cutting the cord is a quick, often immediate process. But in many cultures, including rural China and India, it’s an action of great significance—the moment of separating the baby from the mother—and it’s rarely rushed. In the U.S., delayed cord cutting means waiting a few minutes at most, but it’s common in many places to wait until after the placenta is delivered or longer.
At the moment of birth, there are 40 milliliters of blood still in the placenta, explains Schowe. “There’s a significant amount of blood that the baby gets when you delay cord clamping.” Recent studies show that delaying cord clamping improves iron stores, which is especially important if you plan to exclusively breastfeed.
Waiting is also helpful in a complicated delivery. “In India, if the baby isn’t breathing,” says Davis-Floyd, “they wait to cut the cord until the baby starts breathing. They also heat or massage the placenta to keep it pumping blood.” For a baby who doesn’t breathe immediately, the oxygenated blood in the placenta can supply his needs a little longer.
Try it: Many doctors are hesitant to delay clamping for more than a few minutes, but most are happy to wait until after the cord stops pulsing. Some midwives are willing to wait until after the placenta is delivered. Talk to your provider about how long you can wait to cut the cord.
Plant your placenta
The placenta is revered in many cultures. As your baby’s first organ, it sustained his life for nine months. “Many people bury it and plant a tree over it,” says Stone. “It’s like a tree of life for the child, in the name of the child.” Burying the placenta is common in Nigeria, Indonesia and Hawaii.
Try it: Most hospitals dispose of the placenta as biohazard waste. If you want to keep it, talk to your provider ahead of time, and come prepared. Bring a gallon-sized plastic storage bag and a small cooler with ice packs to store it in until you get home. You can keep it in your freezer until you’re ready to bury it. Consider planting a tree with the placenta as a fun way to measure your child’s growth.
Bind your belly
As an apprentice midwife in Ecuador, belly binding was the first practice that Schowe learned. “We didn’t go to births, because the women birthed by themselves,” Schowe says. “Our job was to come afterward and wrap them up.” Belly binding holds loose joints and muscles in place after birth. “It decreases bleeding, contracts the uterus and helps core muscles repair,” says Schowe.
Try it: Belly binding is a growing trend in the U.S., and you can buy a postnatal belly wrap designed for the purpose. Look for one that’s sturdy and adjustable in size as your belly shrinks. You can also use a wrap baby carrier, a sheet or even an Ace bandage to bind your torso, but you’ll need someone to help. Bind snug enough to feel supported, but not so tight that it’s hard to breathe.
Stay in bed
Belly binding can also serve a double purpose by making it hard for the woman to move. Postpartum rest is taken very seriously in Latin and Asian cultures, and many women literally stay in bed for 40 days, only getting up to use the bathroom. This gives the new mother a chance to recover and get to know her newborn. Resting also helps establish breastfeeding and reduces the likelihood of postpartum hemorrhage. “In our culture, women want to go exercise and get back in their bikinis,” says Stone. “Let your body have a moment. It’s a good bonding time.”
Try it: In a rural village with extended family nearby, it’s easy to stay in bed for 40 days while your mother and sisters take care of your house and older children. In the fast-paced modern world, it’s a little trickier. I managed my own “vacation” by scheduling a series of visitors. My husband got three weeks paternity leave from his new job, my mother came for the fourth week, and my mother-in-law came for the fifth. I spent most of those five weeks in bed with my newborn—enjoying every minute.
Most cultures mark the end of the postpartum time with an event that celebrates both the mother and the baby. In Japan, families wait two weeks to name the baby, believing that they should get to know the baby before they choose a name. In Greece, the celebration comes around the 40-day mark, when the baby is baptized and presented to the community.
Try it: In the U.S., friends usually meet the baby by bringing a casserole the week after you get home. Rather than managing a stream of visitors right after the baby arrives, invite friends to come a little later. The baby will be more alert and less susceptible to germs, and you’ll be more yourself and up for conversation.
Cultural traditions around birth have an important purpose. They speak to the culture’s beliefs about birth, about women, and about how to raise a child. But at their core, they hold the same meaning. “Birth is not so different globally,” says Stone. “All those cultural frameworks come down to the magic of a new baby”—and that’s magic you don’t need a ritual to invoke.