by, Lori Boggan
There are few things more memorable in life than the birth of a baby. No matter where in the world, what socioeconomic background she comes from, or how many times she has given birth, a woman can probably tell you every single detail surrounding her birth and the early days thereafter. She can tell you the exact moment each baby was born, how long it was and how much it weighed. I have been honored and privileged through the years of working with moms, dads, and babies to hear their birth stories and bear witness to the one of the most important moments in their lives.
Living abroad over the last five years has given me a unique perspective of birth culture. I live in the second largest city in Sweden, Gothenburg. It is an international city that welcomes students and workers from all over the world. Gothenburg boasts international universities and large companies such as Volvo and Ericsson. It offers refuge to asylum-seeking immigrants from war-torn regions past and present including most recently Syria. I have met and cared for babies whose parents come from all parts of Europe, Africa, and The Middle East. One of the first questions I have always asked goes something like, “where are you from, what is your baby’s name, and what is something unique to your culture around the birth of your baby?” The answers are interesting and varied.
Join me on my journey of birth traditions around the world as I compare birth models and customs. Bear in mind is that most of the highlighted countries use a midwife model of care during pregnancy and birth. We will end our tour in the U.S. where we find that what may be the norm for us, may not be the norm everywhere else in the world.
Toktam, an engineer at Volvo, in Gothenburg, comes from Mashad, Iran. She recently gave birth to a baby girl, Hannah. She gave birth naturally and is the first in her generation of women to do so. Most women give birth by cesarean in Iran, but Toktam delivered her baby in Sweden where cesareans are reserved for emergencies and when medically indicated. When I asked her about birth traditions in Iran, she began talking about a shower. I immediately pictured the American baby shower with a group of women playing games and eating the latest Pinterest-inspired edibles. I was way off. A shower in Iran traditionally happens around 10 days after the baby is born or when the umbilical cord has fallen off. The mother’s sister, mother or aunt showers the mother. She is then massaged with special oils, given a facial, and painted with henna. It is reward for all her hard work and the pain she had to endure in labor. After the mom is showered, baby is bathed. Following the shower, friends and family are invited for a special lunch, called Valimeh (traditionally lamb). Guests bring gifts such as clothes and blankets while close relatives often bring something made of gold.
Rebecca is a nurse from Australia who has two little ones. Her first was delivered by emergency cesarean and the second by VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean). Yay for VBAC options! Rebecca shared that in Australia it is common for family and friends to fill the new parents’ freezer with pre-made meals such as soups, casseroles, and lasagna. It gives the new sleep-deprived parents the precious time needed to rest between feedings and allows for more bonding time. She also shared a tradition new fathers share with their friends after the baby arrives. “Wetting the baby’s head,” means having a drink in honor of the new member of the family. It is a common tradition in England as well.
Amina, a postdoctoral researcher, comes from Parma, Italy. Yes, Parma where they make the most delicious cheese on the planet! She delivered her baby girl naturally. Amina shared the tradition known as “camicino della fortuna” in Italy. It is a jacket for the baby given to the mother to be after her third month of pregnancy. It is made of either silk or cotton and most commonly is white. It is worn right after birth as it is thought to bring good luck. It is usually passed on by a friend of family member whose baby wore it. Once worn, it is put away unwashed until it is time to pass it on to the next lucky mom.
One more stop in Southern Europe. We meet Astrid from Spain, mother of Sebastian. Astrid is a researcher at Ericsson, Sweden. She delivered Sebastian naturally. In Spain, it is traditional to pierce a newborn baby girl’s ears soon after birth, thus distinguishing that she is, in fact, a girl. It is very common for random strangers to approach new moms and babies in the streets to exclaim over the sweet little baby. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that these complete strangers will move in and give your baby a little peck.
Emma, a consultant, delivered her baby boy, Finn, naturally. She shared a common birth tradition after the baby arrives called Babypinkeln, which literally translates to baby pee, but is actually a party to welcome the baby. Historically, the naked baby was passed around and it was considered eternal luck to be the person that the baby peed on. It eventually became a party that occurred while mom and baby were still in the hospital to allow the mother to recover after birth. The father would get together with friends, family, and neighbors to eat, drink, and celebrate the new baby. Sometimes even cigars were passed around. These days, the party is usually planned when the mom and baby come home to join in the celebration.
We move onward to Northern Europe to Sweden. Saga, a doula, preschool teacher, and artist, was part of a reemerging birth model in Sweden and the world for that matter, when she gave birth to both her children at home. While most Swedes give birth in the hospital with assistance of a midwife, a growing number opt to birth at home. Saga shared that it is frowned upon to bring flowers received in the hospital home after a baby is born because it is thought to be bad luck. A tradition I find most interesting and have witnessed in the years since moving to Sweden is the culture of leaving babies outside to nap. Even in the dead of winter, as far north as the Arctic Circle here in Sweden, and in minus degree temperatures, babies are bundled (Swedes know how to bundle) and their stroller is pushed outside for a nap. It is not unusual on any given day to be strolling downtown and see a line of strollers with sleeping babies outside a cafe while their moms have lunch or coffee (fika) together inside. It is thought the fresh air keeps the babies healthy and it seems to work.
We end our tour in the U.S., my home country. Mandy (massage therapist and mother of two) recently gave birth to her baby girl, Mollie via repeat cesarean. Two traditions come to mind when it comes to having a baby in the U.S. including preparing a nursery (the baby’s room) and having a baby shower. American baby shower culture gained popularity towards the end of World War II. Women are “showered” with gifts and essentials needed in preparation for their baby. The host is usually a sister or best friend and the shower traditionally invites women only though more and more women are opting for a coed shower.
As we sum up our tour of birth models and culture, we can see that traditions vary widely. It is fascinating to hear about and share these women’s stories and learn a little about their country’s birth customs. Thank you to all who shared their special ways of celebrating mothers and babies.!! Merci! Cheers! Grazie! Gracias! Danke! Tack så mycket! Thank you!
Lori is a NICU Staff Nurse at Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden. After becoming a nurse, Lori traveled across the country to work a three-month travel contract in San Francisco, California. Nearly five years later her journey continued to Gothenburg, Sweden, where she now lives and works