Welcoming a child is a momentous occasion the world over and is that quintessential ‘human thing’ we do. It is that joy shared with family and friends that is universal and in many ways transcends faith, culture, and borders. Throughout history, the birth of a baby has represented the start of something new and something good, an heir to a kingdom, the strengthening of a tribe, the continuation of a family name, the removal of the curse of barrenness, the survival of mother and child, or even the start of a welcome tax break.
What differs is the way we mark the arrival of our bundle of joy. Religious and cultural customs and traditions will strongly influence our practices, perspectives and attitudes towards childbirth and how we share our joy with others; as will economic and political considerations.
Come on a journey with us and discover the unique, wonderful and often thoughtful customs and traditions with which we celebrate new life.
Giving birth – the sign of times
How and where we give birth is often dependent on a country’s health system and parent’s access to it. In numerous developed countries for example, the system tends to view birth as a medical event, heavily relying on technology (Source: Huffington Post, 2017). At the same time, many women opt for a Caesarean Section and a hospital stay, rather than a natural birth. In many countries though, a natural life course approach is embraced and aims to support both mother and baby. Clinical guidelines promote the use of midwifes, home delivery and subsequent breastfeeding (Source: the WHO, 2015).
In Japan and in the Netherlands for example, childbirth is viewed to be a natural and beautiful part of life. The Dutch have the highest number of home births in the Western world according to the Huffington Post. Brazil on the other hand, has one of the world’s highest rates of elective C-Sections after Dominican Republic. Sidestepping the unpredictability of a natural birth, elective Caesareans have also become a status symbol among Brazil’s elite (Source: Washington Post 2019)
To this day, many parents from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds still follow an ancient postpartum tradition and keep the placenta to commemorate the baby’s birth. The organ, which provided essential nutrients and oxygen to the foetus, leaves the body during birth and by burying or even eating the placenta, parents honour its vital role and their baby’s connection to the earth. In Jamaica for example, both placenta and umbilical cord are buried at home and later a tree is planted in that spot, for which the child will take over responsibility. Hindus consider the placenta to be alive and a twin to the born child (Source: First Cry Parenting, 2019).
Shouting it from the rooftop! Announcing a baby’s arrival
In the not too distant past, we scrambled to get a birth notice in the newspaper and hastened to send out cards to family and friends to announce the arrival of a new family member. Nowadays, social media has largely taken over these tasks and sharing the good news is but a mouse click away. Family and friends can be updated and be part of the momentous occasion just about in real time, complete with photos and videos.
Looking at history, the arrival of a baby has always been announced with great fanfare and the news shared widely. Take the Russian Tsars for example: the – ill-fated – Romanovs announced the birth of an heir with a 301 gun salute! In Medieval times, church bells were customarily rung and in Ancient Greece, proud parents would hang a strip of woollen cloth at their front door for a baby girl, or an olive branch for a baby boy.
Especially when it comes to welcoming a baby, many traditions have stood the test of time. In Switzerland for example, parents still erect a Geburtstafel, a large wooden sign, at the front of the house or flat, announcing the birth of their child with name and date. It often depicts a stork delivering the bundle of joy.
Mum’s the word – Bonding time for Mother and child
The person infants need the most after birth is their mama, and new mums need time for their bubs. However, everything going according to plan, mums and their new-borns often seem to be expedited out of a hospital. In New Zealand and Australia, the average hospital stay for a vaginal birth is a mere 48 hours! Returning home with a newborn can be quite daunting. That’s why mums in many cultures are fully supported by family, even an entire community, to have time to bond with their newborn child. It’s also a thoughtful and caring way to show, that a parent is never alone on this journey.
In Latin America, La Cuarentana is still common. Loosely translated to ‘quarantine’, it is a six week period of rest and abstinence from certain foods for mothers. During this period, the family pitches in with looking after siblings, cooking and other chores (Source: Huffington Post, 2017).
Similarly, it is traditional for new mothers in Japan to recover at their parents’ home for 21 days after giving birth – in bed! During this time, family members will chip in running errands so Mum can concentrate on baby (Source: Huffington Post, 2017).
Following the exertion of childbirth, new mums in Malawi are given a porridge made of soya, sugar and maize flour to get their energy back (source: itv news, 2019).
In parts of Madagascar mums and their newborn babies remain inside for the first seven days after giving birth. In the Manaboaka Jabely culture, these first days are sacred and critical. It is only after that time, that mother and child make a brief appearance, leave their sanctuary to face the reality of live – and the bright Madagascan sun (source: itv news, 2019).
In Turkey, mothers stay home with their babies for the first 20 days after giving birth and in Thailand, new mums take part in a ritual called jufaj which means staying next to a fire for 11 days to expel evil spirits and heal the uterus (Source: Romper, 2016).
To us though, Malaysian customs take out first prize. Malay mums traditionally recuperate from childbirth with a 44-day confinement period, a pantang. This time is not just used to bond with baby, it is a time for R&R for mum: One and a half months of hot stone massages, no heavy lifting, full body exfoliation treatments, no household chores! 44 days for mums to regain their pre-baby bodies, preserve their femininity and their health (Source: First Cry Parenting, 2019)!
What’s in a name?
Everyone has to have a name! But choosing a name can be a complex and even tricky affair. Most parents will have their own ideas and rules, such as ‘the initials should not be an acronym for a terrorist group’, or ‘can everyone pronounce it?’, or ‘It can’t be Bridget, because I knew a Bridget once who wasn’t very nice’, naming a newborn often carries a spiritual or religious significance and is marked by a naming ceremony.
Catholic parents will often choose a Biblical or Saint’s name for their babies whilst in Judaism, babies are traditionally given a Hebrew name as well as a secular name. Interestingly, Sephardic Jews tend to name their newborn after a living relative whereas Jews with European ancestry will likely name their infant after a deceased family member Source: Judaism). A Greek Orthodox baby on the other hand is likely named after his or her grandparents. In the Sikh faith, the priest will read aloud a random passage from the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book. From this, the family will choose a name for the baby by using the first letter of the page opened (Source: OhBaby).
To complicate things, take countries like Denmark, New Zealand and Germany for example, where names must be gender specific, first names cannot be a surname, the name cannot be seen to cause offence and must be approved. In China, a name must be computer readable; in Iceland, it cannot contain the letter ‘C’ and in Thailand, babies cannot have the same name as a member of the royal family (Source: Mentalfloss 2010).
If that’s not enough to confuse any new parent, then bear in mind that they at least get a choice. This can’t be said for parents of the Wikmungkan Tribe in Australia. During childbirth, the midwife chants the names of family members and whichever name she is chanting when the placenta is delivered then becomes the baby’s new name (Source: OhBaby).
For many cultures, the 7th day after birth seems to hold great significance when it comes to ceremonies.
In Egypt for example, babies are traditionally only acknowledged once they are a week old. Parents host a Sebou, a naming ceremony, on the 7th day. This includes placing the baby in a large sieve and rocking it gently, then lying it on the floor with a knife alongside her or him and the mother side-stepping over the infant seven times while guests chant. It is believed that these rituals will prepare the child for the motions and sounds of life and also ward off evil spirits. Candles will be lit and given a name each. The baby’s name will be the one from the longest burning candle. Goats might be sacrificed if the family is Muslim, and the meat served to the guests, together with sweet treats (Source: FirstCry Parenting).
A traditional naming ritual, the aqeeqah, for a baby born in Pakistan or in fact in many parts of the Muslim world, will take place either on the 7th, 14th or 21st day. It involves the baby’s head being shaved and the hair collected and weighed. That weight will be offered to a charity in gold or silver (or the equivalent monetary value) (Source: Essential Baby, 2013).
Another intriguing method to select a baby’s name is often practiced in Nigeria. A naming ceremony takes place on the seventh (for a girl) or the ninth day (for a boy). Part of the ritual is also meant to help the baby have a long and happy life and ward off enemies. Family history, long standing family traditions, religion and the family circumstances all play a significant role when selecting names, which are chosen with great care. It is believed that the child will eventually live out the meaning of her or his names (Source: FirstCry Parenting)
And last but certainly not least, we mention the Jewish ritual B’rit Milah, during which baby boys are named and circumcised. The ancient practice takes place 8 days after the boy is born, usually during morning prayers, followed by a festive meal. Male circumcision itself has become quite commonplace in many Western countries and cultures and is certainly also practiced in Christianity as well as Islam. Though it is only a religious requirement in Judaism (Source: Huffington Post 2016)
Baby’s first experiences
A newborn’s life is full of firsts. A first time being held by its parents, a first time having a bath, a first burp (which at that stage is still welcomed with a big hooray!).There are certain milestones in a baby’s life that are uniquely celebrated. Let’s have a look at just a few of them.
Many followers of the Muslim and Hindu faith believe that a baby’s first taste should be something sweet, so that the child will speak sweetly. Hindus will typically rub a little bit of honey into the baby’s upper palate, Muslims use either soft fresh dates or a little bit of honey (Source: Huffington Post 2016).
Traditionally, Balinese parents will not allow their babies’ feet to touch the ground until day 210 after birth! They believe – rightly so – that children are divine and descended from heaven. On the 210th day, though, when a little one touches the ground for the first time, it is believed that he or she ‘crosses over’ into our world and becomes human (Source: FirstCries Parenting).
In some of the Scandinavian countries, you could say they practice just about the opposite. Parents believe that their baby will sleep a lot better if he or she is exposed to the local climate (even to a Nordic winter) and leave babies to nap outside for some quiet parent time (Source: FirstCries Parenting).
Muslims believe that the first words a newborn baby should hear is the call to prayer (“God is great, there is no God but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. Come to prayer.”). The father traditionally whispers the adhan, the prayer, into the child’s right ear. (Source: Huffington Post, 2016).
Another simple but thoughtful custom is practiced in Nigeria where the baby’s grandmother will give it the first bath. If she is not around, the honour goes to another family member or close friend. It may not seem significant, but it is a lovely way to show the parents that they are not alone and that the whole community will support them in bringing up their child (Source: Huffington Post 2017).
Okuizome is the first food ceremony observed in Japan. Because this celebration is held when the baby is still a newborn, the food is only pretended to be given. It’s a tradition dating back to Heian times to ensure a child will never go hungry throughout life. Similarly, in Hinduism, the first time baby is given food is celebrated with annaprashana. The day for this ritual, deemed the most blessed for the child, is chosen by a priest (Source: itv news, 2019).
Gifts, visitors, and more celebrations
Let’s be honest, universally, most celebrations centre around lots of food and (often) lots of drinking. Sharing the joy of the safe arrival of a new family member is no different.
In Uganda, a newborn is celebrated with beer and dancing. The British tend to celebrate by ‘wetting the baby’s head’ which boils down to the dad and his friends having a drink (or several) at the local pub to celebrate the new baby. In Islam, goats or sheep are often sacrificed to celebrate the birth of a baby. The meat is then prepared for a feast and the food divided: one portion is for the immediate family, one for friends and relatives and the third portion will be given to the poor (Source: FirstCry Parenting). In Turkey, Lohusa Serbeti, a drink made with cinnamon, sugar and red food colouring, is first given to the mother in hospital, then given to guests who visit at home (Source: Huffington Post 2017).
In Brazil, preparations for the party start well before the baby is even born. Rather than visitors bringing gifts, expecting mums prepare small ‘thank you’ baskets to be given to visitors (Source: FirstCry Parenting). Similarly, in Chinese tradition, guests of a ‘Full Moon Ceremony’ to welcome the baby, receive a red dyed egg from new parents. Why a red egg you might ask? Red is believed to be the colour of happiness; the egg’s oval shape symbolises longevity and the egg itself represents life and life changes (Source: FirstCries Parenting).
Talking about eggs, Turkish mums traditionally stay home with baby for the first 20 days. After that time, they will take their child to visit friends and collect a handkerchief with an egg and candy. The egg is believed to help keep baby healthy, the candy is for good-naturedness (Source: Romper, 2016).
Visitors in Scotland customarily bring coins for the newborn, which is meant to bring prosperity (Source: itv news) and in Guyana it is tradition for visitors to bring golden bracelets.
Protecting the child – Religious and spiritual rituals
A common theme in many societies seems to be to save the child from harm and evil spirits and to help her or him to lead a happy and prosperous life.
Take Baptism for example, an actual or symbolic immersion in water that happens in several religious rituals and at different stages in life. It is common practice in Catholicism, there to cleanse and absolve the baby of the ‘original sin’ (Source: Huffington Post, 2016).
In Japan’s Shinto tradition, a baby is taken to visit the family shrine or local place of worship by their parents and grandparents. This ceremony, called miyamairi, is held within 30 to 100 days after birth is the customary way to welcome the child as a new follower. It is the ritual to present the baby to the deities and ask for their protection
Whilst Godparents are perhaps most common in Catholicism, the habit to invite an adult member of your community or your family to take on the role of a Godparent is found in several cultural as well as religious traditions. Especially in Catholicism, it is seen as an important duty, rather than a mere honour. Not only are Godparents asked: ‘Are you ready to help the parents of this child in their duty as Christian parents?’ in the Catholic sacrament of Baptism, they’re also expected to raise a child, should something happen to the parents (Source: Huffington Post 2016).
In Latvia, the Godparents are chosen with extra care, as the child is believed to inherit their spiritual qualities. Latvian baby boys will get two Godfathers and one Godmother and baby girls will get two Godmothers and one Godfather.
Parents all around the world have done it; friends of new parents have watched in disbelief: singing nursery rhymes and sometimes made-up songs to our little treasures. Although less widely composed today, New Zealand/ Aotearora’s Maori population, however, have really upped the game here with the Oriori. Their Oriori can be best described as a heart-felt educational song, created to pass on to a child her or his spiritual heritage and lineage. It should include all that a parent feels is important for the child to know; pride, ancestors’ accomplishments or the good wishes of the family for example. (Parenting Resource NZ).
Governments walking the walk
How do countries acknowledge and celebrate new life? What do they do, other than tax credits, to help new parents and welcome a baby?
Take Finland for example. Since 1949, every parent, whether biological or adoptive, receives a ‘starter pack’, a box filled with goodies such as toys, sheets, nappies, gender-neutral clothes. It is meant to give every child, whether rich or poor, an equal start in life (Source: FirstCries Parenting).
The maternal health care in Germany has long been applauded for its ease of access and thoughtfulness. Helpful processes such as having a booklet (The Mutterpass), ready for mothers at their very first doctor’s appointment and charting the pregnancy and birth is just one of the ways the Government helps new parents (OhBaby).
The Swiss Government provides monthly payments for each child until it is 16 years of age (or 25 if studying), Japan offers a whopping 30 weeks of paternal leave, and according to Businessinsider ‘New parents in Sweden are entitled to 480 days of leave at 80% of their normal pay. That’s on top of the 18 weeks reserved just for mothers, after which the parents can split up the time however they choose.’
What amazing ways to celebrate babies! In fact, we couldn’t imagine a society that doesn’t welcome new life.
The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/c-sections-are-all-the-rage-in-brazil-so-too-now-are-fancy-parties-to-watch-them/2019/06/11/8d2533ac-7bfc-11e9-b1f3-b233fe5811ef_story.html
Huffington Post 2017: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/world-birthing-traditions_n_7033790
Huffington Post 2016: https://www.ileoduduwa.com/naming-ceremony-yoruba-culture/
Parenting Resource NZ: https://www.parentingresource.nz/session-notes/oriori/