Global traditions have much to teach us on pregnancy and childbirth. In the run-up to Mother’s Day, a new book reveals what we can learn from Japan’s sumo wrestlers, the generous Finns and Moldova’s fear of fish
Finland is the best country for babies
In the UK, mothers get a Bounty package of marketing material, detergent samples and a thin packet of wet wipes. In Finland, you get a cardboard box (which doubles as a first crib) containing: mattress and bedding; bath thermometer; wash cloth; hooded bath towel; nail scissors; brushes for hair and teeth; cloth nappy kit; snowsuit; balaclava; insulated hat; mittens and booties; light hooded suit; overalls; socks; romper suits; bodysuits; leggings; picture book; teething toy; and bra pads and condoms for the grownups.
Modern America didn’t invent the baby shower
Gatherings to bestow gifts upon heavily pregnant women are customary all over the world. In Bangladesh, a family feast is held during the seventh month, at which goodies such as saris and jewellery are bestowed. Pregnant Hindu women in north India traditionally have their laps filled with pressies, followed by a spot of singing and dancing. And the native American Navajo blessing ceremony is an all-night party.
Wombs are pretty much called ovens everywhere
Pregnant women these days are referred to as having buns in their ovens, but even back in 1890 they were in the “pudding club” (as documented in Barrère and Leland’s Dictionary of Slang, 1890). French women, of course, carry brioches in their ovens, while Germans metaphorically cook roast dinners for nine months. Furthermore, the “duff” (which pregnant women are “up”) is an archaic boiled or steamed pudding.
Your baby is what you eat
In Uganda, it is taboo for a pregnant woman to eat or even touch a grasshopper (a popular snack, especially among men), largely for fear the baby might come out resembling one. Fish heads are off the menu in Moldova, for similar fish-face-related concerns. Dog meat in China has been thought to make the child prone to bite (a breastfeeding nightmare), and in Malawi, according to Lennie Kamwendo of the local safe motherhood alliance, “some believe that if women eat eggs in pregnancy, the baby will be born with an oval head”.
Truth in ancient wisdom #1
Mohawk and Dene people in North America and Canada were traditionally encouraged during pregnancy to rise early and stay active, chopping kindling and walking plenty, while eating just enough good foods for a healthy baby (but not too much, so they don’t block the exit). This tallies with current medical advice to keep your strength up and avoid gestational diabetes, obesity and macrosomia (big baby syndrome).
The earth is crawling with placentas
While modern hospitals discretely dispose of them as medical waste, many cultures have long histories of respectfully burying theirs, including the Xhosa of Southern Africa (marking the spot so the child can later visit to commune with their ancestors), Maoris (the word for placenta also means land), in Uganda (under a banana tree), Cambodia (under a protective spiky plant), Turkey (in a mosque’s courtyard for pious offspring), in Ukraine (somewhere it won’t be stepped over) and Persia (with charcoal to deter animals digging it up).
Giving birth can bring out your inner animal
Davina McCall, who had all three of her children at home, talks about mooing loudly when delivering her youngest child. Yet she felt so powerful afterwards that she wanted to lift her babies into the air and roar like the lion king. Apparently.
Speedy postpartum weight loss isn’t just for celebs
In Karnataka, southern India, older women in the community who care for new mothers urge them to become thinner than they were before pregnancy, “like the tip of a mantani leaf – thin, slender, fresh and supple,” says Dr Saraswathy Ganapathy of the Belaku Trust, which works to improve the lives of women in the area. Or “like a sucked-out mango stone, like a sliver of chakke [wood]”. It’s about draining the “bad fluids” that build up in pregnancy.
Sumo wrestlers make babies cry for sport
According to a Japanese proverb: “Crying babies grow fast.” So, to celebrate vocal infants, an annual festival in Hiroshima throws a competition in which babies are subjected to sumos pulling faces. First one to cry wins.
Truth in ancient wisdom #2
A number of rituals for birth recovery involve heat, which is used to draw blood from the internal organs to the skin, for cooling. In China, a hot stone wrapped in towels is placed on the receding belly, daily for a month. The key here is that, other than breastfeeding, the new mother barely lifts a finger in this time. In Cambodia, hot coals are placed under the new mother’s bed and a menthol body rub is used to massage her. A sip of rum, and gingery, peppery foods, are consumed, too. How soothing!
• On Becoming a Mother: welcoming your new baby and your new life with wisdom from around the world, by Brigid McConville, is published by Oneworld on 27 March at £9.99.