top of page

Birth Beyond Borders: Global Pregnancy & Birthing Traditions

As a researcher in perinatal psychiatry, and having grown up in India, I have had the privilege of understanding pregnancy and birthing traditions that exist not only in my country but across the world.

A conversation in December with two leading perinatal psychiatrists in the UK inspired me (don’t mind the pun) to embark on a virtual journey all over the world (all the while sitting at my desk in London), with conversations among colleagues, friends, and professionals within the field along with my trusted friend Google Scholar. This has given me the opportunity to understand and appreciate the wide repertoire of pregnancy and birth traditions that exist in different cultures globally.

Today, in this article I will share with you a snippet of what I learnt.

(Disclaimer: Most of my sources for this article are first-hand, other than those which have been sourced from other digital platforms which are hyperlinked.)

What are some of the prominent pregnancy and birthing traditions within India that I have witnessed?

As diverse as it is in terms of language and culture, India also has various traditions surrounding pregnancy and birth. Here I will shine a light on the ones I have seen in my family while growing up.

The first that comes to mind is the one I first heard about from my mother. For a woman’s first pregnancy, in her last trimester, she moves into her parents’ home and continues to stay there for the first three months after the baby is born. The idea behind this tradition is that the woman’s mother, having experienced taking care of a baby before, will provide an extra set of helping hands from an experienced perspective. The expectant mum is fed home-cooked meals throughout her pregnancy, and after birth, special recipes like Katlu are prepared to aid lactation and for overall maternal health benefits.

Moving away from my Kutchi culture and into the state of West Bengal, there is a ritual known as the Cha-Shasti. In Bengali culture, Shasti is the Goddess responsible for the child’s long life and well-being and is therefore worshipped during this time. Before birth, a feast is arranged for friends and family by the parents-to-be, and a mud lamp is kept lit through the night, as this is believed to increase visibility for the Goddess Shasthi.

What are some of the traditions witnessed in other South East Asian countries?

Inspired by the conversation with my mother about katlu, I decided to look at whether different countries around South Asia have pregnancy-specific food traditions.

And the results were nothing short of interesting.

This 2017 paper synthesized the evidence about food-related traditions in Asian counties. Interestingly, different cultures encourage the consumption of “hot” or “cold” food right from pregnancy until the postpartum period, for different reasons. For example, the Malays avoid “cold” vegetables such as spinach, and encourage the consumption of “hot” food like anchovies, mutton, and hot drinks like coffee.

I then had the opportunity to learn about the Chinese tradition of Zuò yuè zi from a colleague.

With the literal translation being “sitting the month”, this refers to the practice of ‘confinement’, wherein newly postnatal mums are recommended to stay indoors for the first month, to heal from the birth, and for feeding the newborn baby. When the baby turns a month old, there’s also a tradition to have a celebratory party to present the new baby to close friends and family and to receive good wishes and blessings.

Zuò yuè zi has its roots in the eastern Han dynasty, from around 200BC, as an important postpartum practice based on traditional Chinese medicine, and it has been passed down through generations until the present day.

During this month, the emphasis is laid on keeping the new mother warm, ensuring that she gets enough rest, and eats plenty of nutritious food. She’s meant to stay indoors to avoid wind/cold/wet conditions, pathogens, or (in modern days) pollution. Keeping warm is important: she is recommended to avoid direct exposure to cool breezes (and, again, in modern days) air-conditioning or fans), and to stay covered by wearing sleeves and long pants, even in hot temperatures.

Interestingly, one of the most prominent traditions was that new mothers weren’t allowed to wash their hair for a whole month to avoid getting cold. Today, however, there are some modern adaptations to this rule as some women have raised concerns about it. For example, mothers may choose to use warmer water than the ideal water temperature, try to limit shower time, dress warmly and blow dry their hair right away before stepping out of the heated bathroom.

New mothers also must have nutritious foods prepared to replenish nutrients and produce milk to feed the baby. Although the practice varies regionally depending on dietary habits and climates, there are some basic rules. Similar to Malay culture, the dietary habits also include cold vs hot foods. However, in China, women avoid “cold”, or raw foods like watermelon, and cucumber as they are believed to create an imbalance of qi, resulting in soreness and poor circulation. The women are encouraged to only drink warm or hot liquids, such as tea, warm water, and soup.

What cultural traditions are seen in European countries?

Italy has brought to us numerous aspects of the culture we know and love every day: art, food, and music, being some of the most famous. The next stop in my journey, after India and China, was Italy, where I had the chance to understand Italian pregnancy and birthing traditions from one of my colleagues in the perinatal section of the SPI lab.

She told me about Fiocco Della Nascita, a tradition wherein a large ribbon is placed at the front door of the home where a baby is born. Pink ribbons are used to announce the birth of a girl, while blue ribbons are used to announce the birth of a boy. Usually, under the Fiocco (ribbon), the baby’s name is printed. I also learnt from her about the tradition to name a baby after their grandparents.

But perhaps the tradition I was most intrigued by was the belief about pregnancy 'cravings'. In Italian culture, it is believed that if the expectant mum doesn’t eat the food that she is craving, the baby will be born with a birthmark of the colour of the food the mum was craving (for all of you who have brown birthmarks, perhaps it is likely that your mum was quite the lover of chocolate and all things alike!).

After Italy, I next went on to learn about some traditions in Switzerland. My colleague here at Inspire the Mind told me about how a Swiss baby’s first fashion statement is an amber beaded necklace, believed to protect the child against any pain, such as teething. Many grandparents will gift their children’s new infant this necklace to help radiate calm and peaceful energies. The amber, or fossilised resin from prehistoric trees, can date back to 50 million years ago.

Swiss parents are also very big believers in home remedies and often use herbal teas, such as fennel for indigestion, sage tea for sore throats and black tea to clean eyes affected by impurities. My colleague even said that her parents often left a chopped onion in her bedroom at night to combat her colds when she was a baby.

Today, I’ve only covered some of the traditions I learnt about to write this article. I’ve found myself reflecting on how different, yet how similar some traditions across different countries can be. Some are in stark contrast to one another, like the hot and cold food practices. But others are so similar in the ideology behind the tradition, like the focus of ensuring the mother is eating nutritious food in Indian and Chinese culture.

This journey I’ve embarked on has only made me more appreciative of pregnancy and childbirth, and how important these cultural traditions are. They have stood the test of time, having been passed down from generation to generation, and that shows how truly significant they are.



bottom of page