Article: How Different Cultures Celebrate Birth

This month, Visualizing Birth is focusing on UK writer Melissa Corkhill’s article, “How Different Cultures Celebrate Birth,” which she published with the The Green Parent magazine last year. Corkhill provides pregnant women with positive stories of birth and pregnancy as they occur from around the world.

In addition to the positive birth stories, the article also reminds women that they are part of a long lineage of women existing across time and culture who have birthed their babies. Knowledge of this lineage and the continuity of the birth process across the human experience can aid a woman if she feels isolated in her own reality as she approaches her own labor. In the contemporary world, women do not typically see the event of birth when they are young or participate in it as it takes place. This cultural detachment from watching the birth process can have an affect on a woman’s understanding of the event during her own pregnancy. In the past, girls and women had much more access to the viewing of birth and this helped them to normalize the event.

Stories and images about birth help women to realize that their bodies are undergoing a normal physiological process shared by the world’s many women. This realization in turn helps to calm or empower the pregnant woman as she approaches her own labor and birth.

How Different Cultures Celebrate Birth

By Melissa Corkhill

27th December 2016

Women around the world are united by the miraculous act of giving birth. A mother looking into the eyes of another mother may come from the other side of the world but she shares the unique knowledge of what it is to grow a baby and to bring it into the world. Within this shared insight are as many different customs, rituals and beliefs surrounding birth as there are different countries and lifestyles. Each one may hold a little pearl of wisdom for us all.

Pregnancy The prospect of a new arrival is traditionally greeted with joy and excitement but the right time to make the announcement differs greatly from culture to culture. The first detectable movements of the baby – what was originally referred to as the ‘quickening’ – is often the point at which the pregnancy can become common knowledge. It is then that a mother-tobe in Bulgaria will bake bread and take it to the church as a signal to all that she is pregnant. For Jewish and Vietnamese people the fifth month is considered to be the wise time to share the news. However, in Fiji it is traditional to make the announcement immediately, with the idea that should anything happen to the baby, the mother will have the full support of her community in dealing with her loss. The weird and wonderful cravings of a pregnant woman are world famous and most cultures have very clear ideas about this aspect of pregnancy. The mother’s mental state is widely believed to affect the baby both psychologically and physically, so there are many customs which concentrate on keeping the mother happy and calm. In Egypt, Sicily and within Yemenite Jewish communities the mother is given whatever she craves for in the belief that the baby may be scarred in some way if she isn’t. This is sometimes the explanation given for birth marks; the mother’s craving for strawberries was not satisfied. A pregnant woman in Turkey and Egypt is advised to avoid hot, spicy and bitter food and stick to sweet tastes in order to have a sweet child. Women in Fiji recommend plenty of fish and vegetables and drink a mixture of taro and boiled cassava. As the birth date draws closer, a Jamaican mother may eat vegetables with a gelatinous texture like okra, in order to help the baby slip out more easily. Raspberry leaf tea is strongly recommended in European countries in order to tone the uterus. In most cultures the advice about what we should or shouldn’t consume can seem endless and sometimes contradictory, but is usually rooted in caring intentions. Birth, like death, has always been surrounded by magic and ritual, hope and prayers which seek to encourage a healthy baby and nurture a safe birth. In Indonesia there is a private prayer ceremony at six months that calls in brother and sister spirits to protect and nourish the baby. In Hinduism the prayer ceremony is at seven months. Amulets and semi-precious stones, such as rose quartz, agate and tiger eye are used within Celtic and Navajo Indian traditions to make birthing belts full of good wishes. Superstitions are normally listened to, despite uncertainty regarding their origins. In Jamaica it is said that a mother should not step over a donkey’s tethering rope in case the umbilical cord becomes too tightly wrapped around the baby. In Sicily pregnant women are told not to twist their necklace or wear tight scarves for the same reason. In Turkey, Iran, the Caribbean and Jewish communities pregnant women do not go to funerals and are encouraged to see only beautiful things, listen to good music and generally do things that make them feel peaceful and lovely – sounds good to me!

Birth For millenia women have given birth with other women. Grandmothers, mothers, sisters, friends and often a woman who is deemed to be a specialist are present to support, hold, rock and even sing to the birthing mother. Within the Western world the act of giving birth was medicalised in the early twentieth century as women were taken from their homes to hospital beds and were put into the hands of what was then the male dominated world of doctors. Over the last 30 years the Active Birth Movement has worked hard to redress the balance by encouraging women to think consciously and choose where and how they want to give birth and who they want to be there. The midwife has an important role to play in birth around the world. As Sheila Kitzinger notes in her book ‘Rediscovering Birth’, “The midwife is not merely a birth attendant with special expertise. She also has a spiritual function in helping the baby to birth, the woman to become a mother and in creating the right setting for birth and beyond.” In developing countries, it is still very much the practice to have a local midwife at the birth. In India she is called a ‘dai’, in Malaysia a ‘bidan’, in the Philippines a ‘hilot’; whatever her title the midwife fulfills a number of roles. She is there to guide the birthing mother with her experienced hands and encourage her with wise words. In southern India, Malaysia and in rural parts of Mediterranean countries, a midwife may use the image of an opening flower to help a woman focus on her dilating cervix. The Rose of Jericho is a traditional birth flower as it appears to be dry and shriveled up but opens its stunning petals as the temperature of the room increases. In Greece it is referred to as ‘the hand of the mother of God’. There are countries where the midwife is responsible for protecting mother and baby from evil spirits as she knows the right charms and prayers to bar their entrance. In the Philippines the hilot tends to the new mother for 44 days following the birth as it is believed that the ‘gates of heaven’ remain open during this time. A traditional Hawaiian midwife is also a priestess who can offer prayers to the Goddess of Childbirth and take the pain of a birthing mother and transplant it elsewhere. By 1939, 75% of births in America were in hospital and by 1960, it was nearly 100%. However, the Western world has seen a gradual return to home births within the last few decades and birthing at home is still very much the tradition within developing countries. At home a woman is free to move around as she needs to and can be in any one of the encouraged active birthing postures, which are instinctive to rural women the world over. In 1920, Kathleen Vaughan, an English doctor working in India, reported that because Indian women squatted in their everyday lives, they seemed to have a far easier time giving birth than their English sisters who were strapped into their corsets, sitting on upright chairs! Special structures and beds made for the big moment are also widely used around the world. It was often the father’s duty to make a birthing home in the Comanche Native American tribe the father’s would build a leafy shelter far away from the main community. Australian Aboriginal women gave birth on a carpet of soft gum leaves, and their Maori neighbours made their birthing nest lined with flax fibres for warmth. Native American women often laboured and delivered outside in the open air, as did women in the Caribbean. Every Zulu hut is built with a hole in the roof so that a labouring mother can maintain contact with nature. For those of you who have read Anita Diamant’s, ‘The Red Tent’, you may remember the vivid descriptions of giving birth upon ‘the bricks’. This is still the tradition in Iran where brick platforms are raised on either side of a pile of fine ash or sand and a mother is helped onto them just as she is at transition point. Whether the rituals around the actual birth appear to be about appeasing ancestors or gods, respecting traditions and beliefs or just plain convenience, the safety of both mother and baby is usually at the heart of the custom.

Post-Birth Celebrating, welcoming and protecting the newborn is also carried out in unique ways around the world. There are many ways to deal with the placenta, the ‘globe of the origin of the soul’, as traditional Cambodian healers call it. It is often considered the duty of the midwife to bury it in a safe place, covering it with a spiky plant to ensure that it is not dug up by any hungry animals or found by evil spirits. Sometimes it is used to divine information, like in the Ukraine where a midwife would predict from the placenta how many more children a mother may have. In many cultures it is believed the burial place will have a direct effect upon the child’s life – a teacher if it is near a school, a religious person if it is near the temple or mosque. In Transylvania a couple who didn’t want any more children would burn the placenta and the ash would be mixed with water and drunk by the father to render him infertile. Baptism and naming ceremonies are very common in one form or another. From the traditional church ceremony to the ancient Celtic practice of dropping three drops of water on the baby’s head; one for the sea, the land and the sky. In Greece the gift of silver coins ensures prosperity and is called, ‘to silver the child’. Amulets ward off the evil eye and most major religions have specific prayers to honour and protect the child. However varied the customs may be, one thing seems to be common to all and that is the importance of touch between a newborn and its mother. The bond of breastfeeding is now even encouraged within the Western world which only decades ago advertised formula milk by telling new mothers they need not be like ‘the common cow.’ What to one woman is a scratchy bed made of grass is to another the ideal birthing place. What to a Manhattan executive is mere superstition is to a Maori weaver an essential part of keeping her unborn baby safe. Birthing practices around the globe are a celebration of the amazing diversity that is inherent within such a profoundly unifying journey.

Michel Odent is a natural birthing pioneer, whose many books on birth and beyond are available from He gives his birthing advice

  • The best way to reduce the need for drugs and intervention during childbirth is to remember that human beings are mammals.
  • The basic need of all mammals giving birth is privacy. All of them have a strategy not to feel observed.
  • After being involved in childbirth for half a century, I can conclude that the best situation I know for an easy and fast birth is when there is nobody around the labouring woman, but an experienced, motherly, low profile and silent midwife.

Further Reading

Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin

Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin

Birth Your way by Shelia Kitzinger

New Active Birth by Janet Balaskas