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Birth and Maternal Health Around the World


Bangladesh:  Birth As Family Affair

“Please Grandma, put your big toe on my anus.” Yes, this is something a Bangladeshi woman might say during labor, where women give birth surrounded by their female relatives and friends who assist them physically, emotionally and with pressure applied to certain parts of the body, which is supposed to help ease the pain. Childbirth is something women do in a group, and companionship is part of the process. Women share their own birth stories as the mother labors. 

Home births are still common: 85% of births were outside of medical facilities, by last count. Women are allowed and encouraged to move around, go to the bathroom, walk, rest, and hold onto poles or ropes during the labor. The expression of pain is still discouraged, and they emphasize moner shahosh (mental strength) and shoriler shakti (physical strength) during birth. Muslim women may recite verses from the Koran for comfort and inspiration during labor.

While laboring, women can eat warm rice and they’re encouraged to drink warm water or milk. A warm compress is placed over the perineum, and the birth attendants, or dainis, massage the woman’s head and abdomen, shake her waist, and line her perineum area with oil, which is supposed to help the baby slide out.

Hospital births are rare—many women don’t have money for the transportation to them, let alone for the bills—and something women fear. And with good reason: women may be induced or cut open without their consent, and are rarely communicated with. Reciting the Koran is usually not allowed, movement is restricted, and women might be disgraced or ignored by hospital staff. Modern is not conflated with better here, and there’s a social stigma from being cut open by a doctor, either for a c-section or episiotomy.

Korea: Stoicism Instead of Epidurals

Koreans believe that the pregnant mother’s thoughts and experiences have a direct effect on the baby, so they need to take in as much beauty, and feel as much positivity, as they can—the more beauty you take in while pregnant, the more gorgeous your baby will be. They go so far as to avoid eating any breakable foods, like cookies or crackers, for fear it’ll make their baby sick, and they don’t eat duck, for fear that their kids will have webbed feet.

But the ancient beliefs are largely shelved during delivery, 96% of which take place in hospitals since insurance now covers childbirth. Female relatives attend the birth, while husbands generally stay in the waiting room until it’s over.

Koreans prize stoicism, and women are expected to withstand the sensations of childbirth and not express pain. Instead of pain medication, they tend to use methods like aromatherapy, acupressure and music to reduce both the pain and the anxiety about the pain. Most women are forced to receive episiotomies, since they don’t know that they can ask the doctor not to perform one.

After the birth, Koreans have a lying-in period called San-ho-jori, usually at their home or their mother’s home. For 21 days they eat, sleep and nurse while relatives attend to all other needs. The practice offers both freedom and confinement. While the old practice of preventing women from cooling off or touching water (they were not to bathe or brush their teeth) is gone, women still aren’t allowed to be in air conditioning, no matter how hot it is.