Welcoming Babies Around the World: Beautiful Traditions
Birth traditions vary widely around the world, as do rituals that take place after birth to care for babies.
A fascinating new photo series launched by WaterAid reveals the different traditions observed by communities around the world to ‘protect’ mothers and welcome new babies, giving them the best start in life. From postpartum porridge-making and paint masks to baptisms and beer-brewing, the striking images reveal how ten countries, from the US to India, from Uganda to Sweden, celebrate new life.
In Madagascar, Nome, 21, wears a ‘masonjoany’ mask to protect herself from the sun and bad spirits. She sits with her sister, who applied the mask. It is made by grinding a sandalwood tree branch and adding water to form a paste. She holds her seven-day-old baby, Jackie Marcel Stephan. There are many sacred rituals, taboos, and customs around pregnancy and birth in Madagascar. For example, when a woman gives birth, the placenta is buried by the father near the house and the umbilical cord is either given to the zebus to eat or thrown into the river – depending on the tribe. There are more than 18 ethnic groups in Madagascar, and each tribe has its own rituals and beliefs. In the west coast of the country, ‘Manaboaka Jabely’ is one of the birthing rituals of the Sakalava of Menabe. It means the moment when mother and newborn step outside the house for the very first time since birth.
In India, the application of kohl or ‘kajal' to the inner eyelid or a dot to the forehead of the infant is thought to protect the child from infections and the sun’s harsh rays as well as to ward off evil spirits. Rinku, 22, from Delhi, applies kohl to her child Kritika’s eyes to ward off evil spirits. Rinku gave birth in a government hospital in Delhi where there were toilets and water. She has two children, including Kritika, age 2. At home in their slum, they have water from a groundwater supply system. Most people have toilets and others use the community toilet center.
In Sweden, Sebastian, 31, cuts his newborn son Harry’s umbilical cord in an operating theatre at Östersund hospital. The convention helps fathers feel more involved in the birth. In Sweden, almost all fathers are present at the birth of their child, and they are also given the opportunity to cut the umbilical cord when the baby is born. The tradition goes back to the 1950s. Most fathers will choose to cut the cord as it helps them to feel part of the birthing process. After cutting the cord, the father lays the baby on the mother’s chest. Harry’s mother, Maria, 34, gave birth by cesarean.
In Zambia, Linety, 18, bathes her daughter Maria, one month, in Nsambilo, a concoction of protection made from tree roots believed to keep the baby healthy and protect her from evil spirits. Linety gave birth to Maria at the main district hospital in Monze, Zambia where there is water and good toilets. She lives with her mother Flora, 59.
Natsumi, 29, feeds her daughter Miwa, four-weeks-old, during Okuizome, a first food ceremony in Japan. Okuizome is a family tradition which takes place at home when the baby is 100 days old. The purpose of the custom is to ensure that the baby never goes without food during their life. The family prepares traditional Japanese dishes which each have a symbolic significance. The baby is fed (imitatively) for the first time. Natsumi gave birth at a general hospital in Japan where there was clean water and decent toilets. She felt safe and well looked after.
In Uganda, Sagal, 24, participates in several traditions within her community to welcome and bless her new baby Loumo, who is six weeks old. A local brew is made with sorghum. After drinking it, clan members join together in singing and dancing to welcome the new clan member. Sagal, 24, is mother to four children including newborn Loumo. Sagal gave birth at the Catholic Mission Health Centre III in Nabilatuk District. After this, she went home with her baby to stay there for a week and her mother and grandmother lit a fire. When the umbilical cord falls off, local beer made from sorghum is brought in a calabash for people to drink. The residue left in the calabash is poured on the ground to share with the departed ancestors who it is believed will bless the baby.
In Ghana, Vida, 30, holds her baby David, one month, in front of the tree used for the Kosoto custom. It involves taking bark from a tree and boiling it in water. A female relative will then pour the warm water over the woman, alternating it with cold water. This is thought to protect the mother from stomach problems in future pregnancies. After the ceremony, the baby can be named. Vida gave birth to David in Busongo Community Health Centre in Ghana. He is her fourth child. For her first three deliveries, there was no clean water or toilets in the health center, but when David was born, WaterAid had installed the facilities. A few days after giving birth, Vida observed Kosoto.
In Ghana, Mary, 21 and her husband performed the Nila tradition when Nathaniel was a few months old. When the baby is a few months old, a traditional herbalist makes a small cut on the baby’s cheek. They then apply some traditional medicine to make the wound heal. It is thought to prevent the baby from getting sick with fits or convulsions. Mary delivered Nathaniel in Busongo Community Health Centre, when there were no toilets or water. A few months after Nathaniel was born, they performed the tradition Nila with him.
In Malawi, Lucia, 26, mum to newborn baby Bertha, eats a special porridge made from soya, maize flour, and sugar, given to mums after childbirth and thought to give her energy and the nutrients she needs. The porridge is lighter than traditional food such as nsima (a thick Malawian porridge made with maize flour) and easier for a new mother to eat as she’ll often have stomach pains after birth. Lucia will eat the porridge for breakfast every morning for one week after giving birth. Lucia’s mother, Melise, 43, prepares the porridge using water from a tap at the Simulemba health center in Kasungu where Lucia had given birth the night before. In 2015, there was no running water at the health center, no proper toilets, unclean bathrooms, unsafe waste disposal, and a single flickering light bulb. The health center has been provided with water through WaterAid’s Deliver Life funding.
In Scotland, five-week-old Emma is given a coin by her Nana, Sandra, a custom meant to bring good luck and prosperity. When meeting the infant for the first time, friends or relatives place a coin into their palm or pram as a gift. This is sometimes called ‘silvering the baby’. Emma’s mother Amanda, 32, gave birth at Princess Maternity Hospital in Glasgow. It was the second time she’d had a water birth.
The Nana Fatsuma tradition is practiced in the rural area of Kirfi in Nigeria. When the pregnant mum is in labor, a stick with twigs like fingers is put into a bowl of water and placed near the delivery bed. When it dissolves, the solution is given to the pregnant woman to drink to hasten delivery and protect her and her unborn child. The stick is named after Nana Fatsuma, a wife of the Prophet Muhammad. Alti, 40, is a widow with 10 children. Five of them are alive today.
In the USA, a priest baptizes four-month-old Emmeline at the Roman Catholic Holy Family Church in New Jersey, USA. Some Catholics believe pouring holy water over a baby’s head absolves them of original sin. Emmeline was born at Morristown Memorial Hospital in New Jersey to Marisa, 37 and Robert, 38. Marisa gave birth in a spacious room with a bathtub, ambient music, and essential oil diffusers.