Welcome to THE WORLD
Discover the clever ways mums around the globe make those first days go smoothly
Are you all set to have your baby? It’s an odd thing that we mums focus on how we’d like to give birth, but often don’t consider what those first incredible days with our babies will be like. Brigid McConville, author of On Becoming a Mother: welcoming your new baby & your new life with wisdom from
around the world (Bloomsbury, $19.99), says that when it comes to the first days of our babies’ lives, modern women have lost many of the customs and traditions surrounding the care of new mums and babies. “But in other cultures around the world, these customs are still alive and have a positive impact on everyone’s health and happiness,” she says. Some of these practices might be less appropriate in Melbourne, say, than Malawi, but with a few adaptions, they can still work well for you and your baby in the first few weeks to help you both feel content. So we’ve looked around the world and taken on board wisdom from other mums.
“There is a tradition among the Igbo people of Nigeria called ‘Omugwo’,” says Brigid. When a woman gives birth, her mother moves in for between one and three months to take care of her and her newborn, and do the cooking and the housework. This leaves Mum free to get on with bonding with her baby. And while this might not be possible if your family members are working or live far away, why not organise a casual roster before your due date in which your closest girlfriends drop in daily during your baby’s first weeks to help put a load of washing on, do the dishes or hold your baby while you have a shower?
“In the Dutch custom of ‘kraamzorg’ the caregiver who assisted you during labour stays with you for eight days,” says Brigid. So have a think if there’s anyone who might be able to support you in this way.
“Another tradition I love comes from northern Tanzania,” says Brigid. “Here it is customary for husbands of new mothers to take over the cooking in the first few weeks after giving birth.” So put your partner in charge of making all meals, so the only person you have to worry about feeding is your baby. And when friends offer gifts, suggest a home-cooked meal or meal delivery subscription such as Marley Spoon or HelloFresh instead.
Organise a casual roster where friends drop in daily to do the dishes or hold your baby.
Traditions that aim to support new mothers in the weeks after birth exist across the globe. “In Nepal, both baby and mother are given oil massages to help them relax,” says Brigid. “In Mexico, a tradition called ‘closing the bones’ involves giving mum a warm bath with herbal infusions then wrapping her up from head to toe. All these experiences are enveloping the new mother in loving care, relaxing her mind and getting her into a zone in which she feels at ease with her body.” So soak in a warm bath, ask your partner for a shoulder rub, or book yourself in for a massage and bring a relative along to hold your baby. Because, yes, you deserve the best possible care as well as your baby. During Dutch kraamzorg, new parents receive a basket of small gifts, to be opened one by one each day. And in among the rompers and little socks, there are 10 presents for the new mother, such as bath oils and scents. So rather than having a conventional baby shower and opening your gifts before giving birth, ask friends to contribute something small and practical to your post-birth basket. Then you’ll get your gifts in a period when they will most lift your mood. Many cultures traditionally feed specific foods to a new mum in the first 40 days after birth to strengthen her body and boost her milk supply. “In Persia, for example, the elder women in the family prepare a variety of meals to give the new baby the nutrition he needs through his mother’s milk,” says Brigid. A typical breakfast might involve a warm, thick mixture of fresh cream and honey, accompanied by lamb blended with barley and sprinkled with cinnamon.
In Latin America, during the 40-day period of rest known as ‘cuarentena’, new mums eat chicken soup and carrots, while seaweed soup is traditional in South Korea because of its high levels of calcium and iodine.
“The ingredients vary,” says Brigid, “but the principle holds true: good nutrition is vital to new mums. So, in the weeks before birth, build up a bank of easy recipes – with ingredients you love – to give you the nourishment you need in those first few weeks.”
These customs also create an early bond between female relatives.
Many of these customs, in which women swoop in to support the mother, have another consequence, too – it creates an early bond between female relatives and the new baby. In West Africa, one of the most important ‘Yoruba’ traditions is the baby’s first bath, given by an elderly woman in the family and considered to symbolise the child’s first step into the world. “We tend to live fairly nuclear lives, but customs like this will weave other family members into your close-knit circle,” says Brigid.
“In some Somali cultures, after a baby is born, a small hut is built beside the family home and the husband moves into it for 40 days, leaving mother and baby at peace,” says Brigid. And the reasons behind this custom are intriguing. “The tradition, in essence, is that the husband and wife shouldn’t have sex at that time,” she continues. “The great thing about it is that it gives the cessation of sex a cultural endorsement.” And while moving out might seem a little extreme to us in Australia, it’s definitely a good idea to talk about how you feel about sex post-birth, so you both clearly understand each other.
And while you’re thinking about how close you want to get to your husband in the first few weeks of motherhood, consider how close you want to keep your baby, too. Across East Africa, brightly patterned pieces of cloth known as ‘kangas’ are used to keep babies close to their mums. “Newborns are wrapped in kangas directly after birth and then are carried around in them, tied to their mothers’ backs, until they are toddlers,” explains Brigid. “Carried that way, they feel secure and loved. They can see the world, so are stimulated. And it lets mums get on with everything they need to do hands-free.” So think about whether a sling could work for you too, to keep your baby close when you’re pottering around the house in those early few days.
When you and your baby have finished nesting and are ready to let the world in again, there’s a Cambodian ‘outcoming’ ceremony that might serve as inspiration. “When a baby reaches the age of one month,” Brigid explains, “he has a special ceremony in which extended friends and family are invited to ‘meet the baby’.” A big candle is lit and traditional welcoming drinks, such as tea and whisky, are served alongside customary foods, including long noodles which symbolise long life.
And the urge to show your baby off, once you’ve had the private space in which to bond and heal, knows no geographical boundaries. Why wait until his first birthday to shout about this gorgeous new addition to your family? When you’ve taken the time to regenerate your body after pregnancy and birth, and grow a strong bond with your baby, you’ll be ready to kick up your heels and celebrate.