The United Nations estimates nearly 385,000 babies are welcomed into this world each day. Giving birth is universal, and while women around the globe share similar biology, childbirth can be really different from one country to the next. Medical advances, hospital protocols, cultural norms, family traditions, and religious beliefs can all impact what takes place when a baby is born.
From kraamhulp nurses in the Netherlands to burying the placenta in Bali, we’re exploring birth rituals globally. What is common practice in one country can be seen as taboo in another. Even prenatal care can vary greatly, with midwives taking a leading role in several nations and epidurals being much less common in places like Japan or Spain.
Here in the United States, we are fortunate to have access to some of the best medical care in the world. In terms of parental leave, though, we lag behind other nations. On average, other countries provide parents with 29 weeks of paid maternity leave and 16 weeks of paid paternity leave. The U.S. is one of only a handful of countries that offers no national paid family leave. Hopefully, we can take a cue from the rest of the world and make beneficial policies like this the norm.
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Finland often tops ranking lists for being one of the happiest nations in the world. It’s no wonder, given their expansive paid family leave policies and low infant mortality rates. One of the best birth traditions they have is providing new Mamas with a box full of essentials like diapers, toys, bibs, gender-neutral infant clothes, first aid kits, burp cloths, bedding, bath products, and more, courtesy of the government. The box even doubles as a small crib containing the baby’s first mattress at the bottom.
Initially proposed in 1938 to provide babies in low-income families with an equal footing at birth, the welcomed gift was expanded to all mothers in 1949 with the caveat that they must go for prenatal care. It has been a Finnish tradition ever since and was a significant contributing factor in helping them go from high infant mortality rates back then to one of the lowest in the world today. While the exact contents have changed over time, the box is still just as popular today. Despite a cash offering in lieu of the maternity box, over 95% of moms still prefer the Finnish State’s gift.
Balinese women view newborns as god-like beings. Since they are seen as divine, tradition suggests that babies’ feet should not touch the ground for 210 days. After this time passes, their feet can touch the floor, and it is thought that they have crossed over from the heavens onto earth.
They also believe that the placenta is alive, almost considered as a twin of the newborn. After giving birth, a celebration is held where the placenta is cleaned and sealed. It is then wrapped in a white cloth and buried outside near the mother’s home.
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Giving birth in Spain is a family affair. Both parents are highly involved in birth plans and attend all prenatal classes together. During low-risk births, sometimes the entire family will be present to support the mother and child.
One of the more atypical birth rituals in Northern Spain involves the El Salto del Colacho, meaning Devil’s jump. During this celebration, babies are placed on a mattress as someone dressed like the Devil jumps over them, cleansing evil from their souls.
Most births in the Netherland are performed via midwife, with doctors only present if there are complications or during high-risk pregnancies. Home births are extremely popular, and most Dutch women prefer to give birth naturally, with epidurals rarely accessible. While this may not sound ideal to most American women, mothers in Holland are well cared for.
They receive a kraampakket from the government filled with medical supplies needed if they choose to deliver at home. And whether they give birth at home or in the hospital, they benefit from a maternity nurse as part of the Kraamzorg home care system. This professional is covered by insurance to come to the new mom’s home for 8-10 days and provide medical assistance, breastfeeding guidance, parenting help, and even aid with cooking and light housecleaning.
The maternity nurse also welcomes visitors and prepares the traditional beschuit met muisjes, which means biscuits with mice. This is a Dutch snack that celebrates birth featuring biscuits and mini licorice covered in either blue or pink to indicate the gender of the newborn. Parents also place a stuffed animal stork in the window to let neighbors know they just had a baby.
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Rather than having a baby shower, mom and baby are celebrated in Turkey after the baby is born. It is tradition for friends and family to stop by during the first 20 days and sip a postpartum beverage known as lohusa serbeti. This vibrant drink is made with cinnamon, water, sugar, cloves, and red food coloring and is thought to aid new moms with lactation production.
After 20 days of mom and baby bonding at home, they venture out to the homes of those who visited them. Then they present the gift-givers with a handkerchief; inside is one egg representative of a healthy baby and some candy, like Turkish Delight, to hope for a good-natured baby. The hosts then rub flour over the baby’s eyebrows and along the hairline to wish the newborn a long life.
In smaller towns in this South American nation, a father will work hard to build up a sweat while his wife is in labor. He then presents her with his damp shirt, thought to give her strength in the delivery room. Once the baby is born, a bed canopy is hung. This is so the mother and baby are shielded from light even while indoors. Mothers typically remain indoors with their newborns for about a month. Then they bathe with milk, rose petals, herbs, and perfume to symbolize re-entering their daily lives.
A baby’s birth celebration is scheduled nine days after being born in this South American country. Friends and family visit with jewelry, money, or candy, showering the mother and child with gifts. On this day, moms also take their first bath since giving birth. Some follow the traditional burning of the placenta during this celebration to physically represent separating the mother from the child.
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Like the Netherlands, most Germans rely on midwives during their pregnancy. Here it is even a law that midwives must be present during birth, whereas doctors are not required. During prenatal care, mothers are provided with a mutterpass booklet to keep all records from pregnancy-related doctor appointments. It’s been used in Germany since 1968 to help doctors identify any potential health risks.
Once the baby is born, mothers are assigned a midwife at no cost who can assist with postpartum care and parenting. The midwife typically visits every day for a week then calls to check in periodically but is accessible to new mothers at no cost for up to six months on an as-needed basis. German mothers are also given generous parental leave, usually 6 weeks of paid leave before delivery and 8 weeks after the baby is born. The law also protects their job once they become pregnant, and moms can take up to 3 years of unpaid leave and still return to their previous positions.
One of the most surprising government policies involves the baby’s name. The office of vital statistics, known as Standesamt, maintains a list of acceptable names parents must choose from when completing their baby’s birth certificate. The government keeps these rules in place to prevent children from ridicule. If mothers want to select a name that is not on the approved list, it requires a serious appeals effort with a compelling explanation and an associated fee.
Imagine having to remain quiet while giving birth? This sounds like an intense challenge. But for women in this tiny West African country, it’s a reality. Superstitious beliefs are that loud noises and shouting while giving birth can let in evil spirits, and it is also seen as a sign of weakness. For these reasons, women in Togo often push silently and barely make a sound while giving birth.
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If you’ve thrown coins into a friend’s new car for good luck, this next tradition might sound familiar to you. It is not unusual to see coins in a baby carriage in Scotland. It is customary for family and friends to present babies with silver coins to wish them luck, good health, and prosperity. The tradition is known as Hanselling; it was thought that if the baby grabbed tightly onto the coin, they would be penny-pinchers, whereas if they dropped it quickly, they would become spendthrifts.
Similar to mothers in Germany and the Netherlands, most Japanese women give birth without an epidural. In Japan, traditional beliefs are that suffering through labor pains shows strength and is a sign that a woman is ready to take on the challenges of motherhood. Even though doctors recommend painkillers for a more peaceful birth, many women will not even consider it.
Most women give birth in the hospital, and partners can only be present in the delivery room if they take prenatal classes. Hospital stays in Japan are usually longer than in the U.S., with a minimum 5-day stay for vaginal births and double for cesareans. Once the baby is born, new moms stay with their parents for about a month.
During this time, it’s a tradition that Japanese mothers remain on bed rest for 21 days to aid in postpartum recovery and bond with their infant. Friends and family visit and eat traditional red rice, and red beans called osekihan to celebrate the new child’s arrival. Surprisingly, crying babies are encouraged. Families even hold contests known as nakizumo, and those who wail the loudest are seen as healthiest and strongest.
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In Mexico, a 4 to 5-foot-long handwoven cloth known as a rebozo is handed down through generations. While used as a fashionable scarf or to carry groceries in everyday life, it is also tied into birth traditions. During labor, the rebozo is used as a support underneath the mother. Couples use a sifting technique to gently ease pain and relax the pelvic floor to aid in labor. This custom is gaining popularity worldwide among midwives, especially in Denmark, where about 10% of births now involve a rebozo.
Some of these global traditions probably sound strange to you, but it’s fascinating to see how something so universal can be very different in another part of the world. We can probably even learn new techniques from each other. No matter the varying traditions, it’s clear that globally we recognize the beauty of bringing a baby into this world, and that mothers and newborns deserve to be celebrated.