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?
Nigeria: A Solo Struggle
In Nigeria, a woman’s chance of dying in childbirth is 1 in 18. Home birth is still the norm; 58% nationally and 85% of women in some rural regions have babies outside a medical facility. If they want to give birth in a hospital or medical facility, they have to have at least one prenatal check-up, at which they’re given a voucher for admittance to the hospital.
For those delivering at home, customs are still in place. Women generally give birth alone. They’re provided with a stool on which they should kneel as much as possible. Lying on your back is thought to be bad luck, letting all the good spirits float away. The birth attendant comes after the woman has given birth, to cut the cord, clean the baby and bury the placenta. Then the mother is bathed with bunches of leaves cleaned with boiled water, and fed a pap of potassium and spices that is supposed to encourage breast milk production.
Nepal: A Loss of Control
In rural, traditional Nepal, men often purchase their wives, and because of the price they fetch, women have no say in what happens in their reproductive lives; that’s up to their husband and their mothers-in-law.
Women require permission from mothers-in-law to travel away from home, so seeking prenatal care, or an alternative to home birth, is pretty unusual. Most births occur at home, where women are placed by birth attendants and/or their mothers-in-law in a squat position, hanging by both hands from a ceiling in a dark room.
The attendant will massage the upper part of the uterus, otherwise known as fundal pressure, although this has been found to be potentially dangerous (it can tear the anal muscles). Sometimes the attendant will order the woman to push, even if it’s not time. And if the placenta doesn’t follow after delivery, helpers hang spades from the walls until it emerges—they believe this will bring a downward motion to the afterbirth. Sadly, there are many documented cases of women bleeding to death because this method didn’t work.
After birth, women are isolated for 11 days and sequestered in a dark room; the sun represents masculine energy and women are not to interact with men after birth. They’re given high-energy foods made of ghee (a kind of butter) and molasses, and caraway soup, to encourage milk production. Vegetables are forbidden during this time; villagers believe they cause diarrhea, though health professionals assume it’s the contaminated water that does that.