Pregnancy Folklore and Traditions Around the World

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Pregnancy Folklore

The readership of this blog is truly international. We often receive questions or comments from pregnant women, and from women who gave birth recently, with the expectation that we will answer them according to the country or culture where they came from. Therefore, I decided to investigate societal behaviors that are practiced nowadays and that seem, at least to me, rather unique. Before I describe my findings, I must make the following comments:

  1. I did not review all the cultures of the Earth’s 6.3 billion people.
  2. I did not review all 196 countries in the world.
  3. Yes, I am aware that even within a society or cultural group, there may be significant differences.

Superstition: the evil eye

Latin America: People in many Latin American countries share a belief in the “mal de ojo” or “evil eye” — that is, the power of an evil or envious person to cause harm to a pregnant woman or her baby. In Cuba, pregnant women won’t let anyone they don’t know or trust touch their pregnant belly. In Panama, moms-to-be won’t reveal how far along they are in their pregnancy, and they’re especially cautious around anyone who may be holding a grudge. Women believe that sharing this information puts them at risk for birth complications or an ugly child. According to Hispanic tradition, a baby who is the victim of the evil eye can run a fever, cry nonstop, or show other symptoms. To protect babies from the evil eye, they’re given a red or pink bracelet to wear, or a seed (such as ojo de venado or azabache) to wear around the wrist or neck.

Israel: The evil eye has deep roots in the Jewish tradition—it’s the idea that celebrating something we anticipate before it happens, such as a shower before a baby is born, might “cause” something bad to happen to the mother or baby. This is one of the reasons the traditional way to congratulate a Jewish woman on her pregnancy is to say “B’sha’ah tovah” (“In good time”), as opposed to “Mazel tov” (“Congratulations”). In this way, one is avoiding the evil eye by wishing with the future parents that things will unfold as they should. When the happy and healthy baby arrives, wishing someone mazel tov is perfectly appropriate.

 Gender prediction

Chinese Gender Prediction Chart: legend states that the Chinese gender chart is over 90% accurate when used properly. This method was once considered as superstition in the western world, but is now widely used in many countries. The baby gender predictor is based on the Chinese lunar calendar. First, the mother’s age must be converted to the proper format. With this information and the Chinese month of conception, the calendar can determine whether a boy or girl is expected. Since it is easier, simpler and cheaper to use than ultrasound, the Chinese gender chart is still used today to help determine the optimal date to give birth to a boy or girl. However, most often this chart is for entertainment purposes only.

It is difficult to pinpoint where the following old wives’ tale originated. But many people swear these prediction methods worked for their pregnancies!:

The mother’s stomach: If a woman carries the baby high in a large and round belly, she is carrying a girl. A protruding belly carried low indicates a boy. This tale is often not true because a woman’s body shape and pre-pregnancy health determine how she carries the baby. Some health conditions, such as uterine fibroids, can also affect the shape of the belly during pregnancy.

The mother’s face: An expectant mother whose face grows round will have a girl. Some tales also claim that the mother’s nose grows longer or wider during pregnancy when a woman has a girl. A woman whose face narrows during pregnancy will have a boy. Despite the tale, weight gain in the face during pregnancy is usually not related to baby gender.

Acne: Some believe that pregnancy acne means you will have a girl. However, hormones can cause acne during any pregnancy.

Back pain: Back pain may indicate a girl. In reality, back pain can occur during any pregnancy depending on weight gain, baby position, and the condition of your back.

Essentials to give birth

In a Daily Mail article, pregnant women around the world reveal the ‘essentials’ they need when they give birth including iPads and Haribo in the UK and buckets and plastic sheets in Africa.

Zambia: baby blanket, cotton wool, a sarong, a baby suit, napkins, a dish for water with which to wash, and a polythene roll to put on the delivery bed so as to maintain personal hygiene, since there is not enough water to clean it between uses.

Malawi: a torch, a black plastic sheet to place over the delivery bed, a razor to cut her own umbilical cord and some string to tie it, and three large sarongs for the mother and the baby to wear during their stay, which could be as long as a month.

Madagascar: cotton wool, alcohol for cleaning, sanitary pads, a bucket, a thermos, and clothes for the baby.

Tanzania: clothes for the baby, a blanket and hat, a basin for water, a flask and some tea.

USA: sleep mask, coconut massage oil, snacks, toiletries, a book, baby clothes and a nursing bra and pillow.

Australia: maternity pads, pajamas, toiletries, snacks, plenty of clothes and swaddles for the baby, comfortable maternity wear, and massage oils.

United Kingdom: nappies, snacks, plenty of clothes for mother and baby, mother’s own towel and blanket, medical notes, an iPad and a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) pain relieving machine.

Respect for pregnant women

China: In China, once a woman becomes pregnant, the focus of the entire family is on her and her baby.

Sweden: You can certainly expect to be given a seat on public transportation. At the same time, it’s not polite to assume that a pregnant woman needs lots of attention. In Sweden today, people are accommodating but don’t see pregnancy or motherhood as defining you. That would be considered rude.

Latin America: Pregnancy and motherhood are ingrained in the culture of Latin American countries. Mothers and motherhood are revered, and pregnant women receive respect wherever they go.

Canada: Sometimes women or older men will give you their seat on the streetcar. One challenge is making sure that they know you’re pregnant, particularly in winter when you’re wearing a bulky coat. Some women even unbutton their coat and show their belly in order to get a seat.

Food and pregnancy

Mexico: In Mexico and other Latin American countries, many believe that if you don’t eat the food you crave during pregnancy, your baby will have a birthmark shaped like that food.

England: According to British folklore, pregnant women often crave coal. However, in general, the idea of cravings during pregnancy has pretty much gone out the window. Now people just see pregnancy as a good excuse to eat ice cream at midnight.

Panama: New moms should eat only fresh, homemade food — nothing processed or from a can. It’s believed that this will prevent colic and help the mother regain her figure.

China: There are many widely held food taboos. For instance, people believe a pregnant woman should never eat crab, because, according to traditional Chinese medicine, crab is a “cold-natured” food that will cause miscarriage in early pregnancy.

Chinese women used to be encouraged to eat a lot during pregnancy, especially protein. They also gained a good deal of weight. This is beginning to change, particularly in urban areas, because China has seen a rise in pregnancy-related diabetes. Doctors now caution moms-to-be to follow a moderate diet during pregnancy.

Baby naming

Switzerland: Many people believe it’s bad luck to tell anyone the name you choose for your child before the birth.

China: A current trend is to take the five elements (gold, wood, fire, water, and earth) into account when choosing a name. According to the Chinese classic The Yi Jin, or I Chin, depending on exactly when a child is born, he’ll be strong in certain elements, and this will shape his destiny.

Chinese characters, or letters, also bear characteristics of the five elements — a character may have the quality of wood, for example. Many parents believe that the characters in a name can compensate for elements that are lacking. If a baby “lacks water” because of his birth date, a character representing water in his name would make up for that shortcoming. Parents commonly pay an expert to help them identify the appropriate name for their baby.

Sweden: Families typically choose two to three first names for their baby. Sometimes names have a family reference, but as a rule people follow their fancy,

Spain: People in Spain and other Latin countries have historically named their children according to Catholic tradition — “Maria” has always been a common name, for example. Boys are traditionally given their father’s or grandfather’s name. But naming traditions are changing. Today there’s much more creativity and freedom and many more parents are simply choosing names they love.

Nigeria: In the Yoruba culture (a tribe in Nigeria, West Africa), the naming ceremony is done a week (7 days) after the child is born, usually in the family. Depending on the religion of the family, someone from the religious body (church or mosque) comes to preside over the main ceremony. The child is prayed for and then the names (there can be 15 to 20 different names or even more) are read out to the congregation and more prayers are said, now including the child’s name. Aside from the parents, grandparents, siblings and close friends can also give the child a traditional or English name, which accounts for the possibility of a child having many names. Prior to the naming ceremony, the names are also kept secret from the public and they are officially announced at the ceremony.

Japan: Many girls’ names in Japan end in “ko”, which means “child”. Girls’ names often denote virtuous behaviour, so Kiyiko, for example, means “clean child”, Nayako, “obedient child”, and Yoshiko, “good child”. Boys’ names are usually less flowery, and often reflect their position within the family. Ichiro means “first son”, Jiro, “second son”, and Saburo, “third son”. Just as in China and Korea, Japanese people put their family name in front of their given name.

In Arab countries, religious traditions are an important factor in baby naming. Muslim parents look for names that are virtuous and honor the prophets, such as Mohammed, Ali, and Ibrahim. Similar to Asian naming practices, siblings often share a name. Mohammed is a popular shared name for brothers; Noor and Nurul for sisters.

In the Hindu culture, the naming ceremony of a baby, known as “Namakaran”, is an elaborate and sacred tradition. It is the first time the baby is officially welcomed into the family in the presence of all the relatives and, therefore, is considered an auspicious occasion. The ritual is held either at home or at the temple and prayers are offered to gods, Agni (fire), elements of earth, and to the spirit of forefathers asking them to bless and protect the child. The priest chooses an alphabet in Sanskrit that is considered to be lucky for the child based on the date and time of birth (the planetary positions are considered). The baby is then given a name starting with that alphabet. Almost all the Hindu names are that of different gods and goddesses. The mother is honored for having brought the child into the world. The father whispers the chosen name in the baby’s right ear three times and in some traditions, writes the name on a plate filled with rice grains.

Diego Wyszynski
Dr. Diego Wyszynski is the Founder and CEO of Pregistry. He is an expert on the effects of medications and vaccines in pregnancy and lactation and an accomplished writer, having published 3 books with Oxford University Press and more than 70 articles in medical journals. In 2017, he was selected a TEDMED Research Scholar. Diego attended the University of Buenos Aires School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

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