Let’s Talk About the Cultures of Childbearing

In our Western, “modern” culture, childbirth is often viewed as a highly medical event. Many women, be they educated or not, have little understanding of the process of pregnancy and delivery and tend to regard it in fear. When a Western woman finds herself expecting, she often has mixed thoughts of joy and apprehension concerning childbirth.

In total contrast, the rest of the world has a surprisingly different take on childbirth. Even in equally civilized countries such as Holland and Sweden, childbirth is considered a natural, coming-of-age occurrence and is rarely interfered-with medically. Interventions are done on an emergency basis, and things such as elective cesareans are unheard of.

Let’s take a look at how different cultures traditionally treat pregnancy and birth, and compare it to our own understandings.

• The home is the primary place of birth worldwide. The second most common place is the birthing hut, or center. 80% of the newborns worldwide are delivered with midwives, and 98% of the people alive today were born at home!

• In Sweden, birth is seen as a woman’s accomplishment. Pain medication is available, but not encouraged. The instance of epidural is lower in Sweden, most likely due to the fact that even hospital births are managed by highly trained midwives, not doctors. Prenatal care is free and the absence of it is unheard of.

• Women in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula still regularly use midwives. In fact, they traditionally deliver in the matrimonial hammock, which they receive when they are married.

• In Holland, pain relief during childbirth is managed entirely through breathing and relaxation techniques. Medication is strongly discouraged in the hospital, but the majority of women in Holland still give birth at home with midwives.

• In Mayan communities, those attending a birth will often talk to a laboring woman to help her relax, and to encourage and reassure her. If she seems to be tiring, attendants cheer her on with a repetitive chant. According to tradition, women sleep with their newborns in their arms and will not be separated from them after delivering for a period of twenty days, which is when they resume their normal activities.

• To the Jarara of South America, childbirth is such a normal event that it traditionally takes place in a location that is easily viewed by everyone in the village!

• Many cultures consider fasting during pregnancy tradition, including the Pawnee Indians of North America. Still, many others keep laboring women fed so that they are strong. Ideally, it should be up to the woman whether she wants to eat or not.

• For the women of the traditional Navajo of the American Southwest, music is played throughout the labor to calm the mother.

• In the United States, most women lie with their shoulders propped up and on their backs during labor and delivery. However, most women in other cultures give birth in vertical positions such as kneeling, squatting, sitting, standing or even hanging. Being upright has the advantage of working with the force of gravity, thus speeding labor and reducing the pain on the sacrum.

• An expectant mother in the Ainu tribe of Japan will exercise during pregnancy, because she knows that her reward will be a shorter labor.

• The Chagga of Tanzania having a saying, which is “Pay attention to the pregnant woman, for there is no one more important than she.”

• In America, women are usually given about six weeks of “rest” post-partum. The amount of recuperation time varies considerably among different cultures. A well-to-do Gaojiro Indian woman of Colombia is given a month of bed rest after delivery. But among the Yaghan of Tierra del Fuego, a new mother is expected to be back gathering shellfish by the end of the day she gave birth. The Alor women of Indonesia traditionally return to the fields after ten days. They leave their babies in the care of relatives and come home to sleep with them, allowing them to suckle all night.

• In most cultures, mothers are encouraged to breastfeed their babies immediately after birth. America is one of the only countries in which it isn’t readily encouraged, and often is discouraged by the handing out of formula samples.