Birth and Maternal Health Around the World
How do women in other countries have babies, and how is it different from birth in the U.S.? We’ve rounded up surprising, sometimes harrowing childbirth traditions from around the globe. Plus: Where’s the best place in the world to give birth?
Navajo: The Revival of Ancient Traditions
While most Native Americans give birth at Bureau of Indian Affairs hospitals, there’s a movement to revive traditional home birth, which is serene, private and full of ritual.
When a woman goes into labor, her husband ties a rope or Navajo sash to a log or pole inside the home—the sashes are colored red, white and green, decorated with designs of Navajo deities. The husband may put down smooth sand from a streambed on the floor, then cover it with sheepskin and clean cloth—a comfy, safe spot on the floor on which to rest. Then he stands behind the laboring mother with his hands over her breasts and belly, tightening the embrace during contractions. The woman wraps the sash belt around her—that, coupled with the husband’s embrace, keeps her upright during contractions.
As labor progresses, the father keeps tending to the fire and makes juniper tea, the aroma of which fills the air. The mother takes her hair down and removes her jewelry, and a traditional healer performs the ancient Blessingway ceremony, which includes chants and songs for the safe passage of the baby, along with a ritual of eagle feathers dipped in pollen. The healer never touches the couple during labor;
giving birth is something they do alone, together.
Tibet: The Old Ways Remain
As in many developing Asian countries and cultures, Tibetan woman tend to give birth alone, although sometimes a mother-in-law or husband might help. And, as is many developing Asian countries, women who have just given birth are considered dirty or polluted, which is why when they cut the umbilical cord—which new mothers do themselves—they often use an unclean knife, and clean it after, to remove the pollution of childbirth. Of the 66% of Tibetan women who have home births, many will give birth in an animal pen.
These are some of the reasons that infant mortality is so high here—as many as 20% to 30% of Tibetan children will die within their first 12 months of life. Even if mothers wanted to give birth in hospitals or clinics, it would be hard. Because of the topography, geography and economics—it’s poor, mountainous and rural—there is little access to either skilled birth attendants or emergency services.
Once a baby is born, and before the first nursing, he eats a paste of butter, honey, saffron water and musk water, thought to protect the child from harmful spirits. Then a respected religious figure in the community comes and gives the baby his name.