Labour of love ... birth rituals serve an important function. Photo: Louise Kennerley
Mariah Carey gave birth to twins while a live performance of her song Fantasy played, Ricki Lake gave birth in her bathtub and John Travolta and Kelly Preston had a silent Scientology birth.
There's nothing new about resorting to strange birthing practices for a safe delivery. The Romans believed in giving a pregnant woman a key as a symbol of an easy birth, the Greeks thought knots in the room could prevent birth and according to an old Irish superstition spitting on a newborn would ensure its happiness.
Some of the more bizarre birthing rituals that continue today include the tradition in Bihar, India, of a pregnant woman drinking a glass of water in which her mother-in-law's big toe had been dipped to progress labour while mothers in Uganda are instructed not to drink water while standing to prevent the baby from being born with squinted eyes, reports Midwifery Today.
"Rituals have long existed around the world because childbirth has always been considered a sacred experience," says Paris-based Dr Lise Bartoli a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and author. "Even in Europe a century ago, we had many childbirth rituals. Rituals reassure the mother. She thinks 'my ancestors have carried out these rituals, so if I do them I will be as protected as they were'. As a psychologist, I'm sure these thoughts help to make the mother and baby calmer and prepare the mother for childbirth."
Bartoli, who has studied birthing practices in more than 120 communities around the world, believes "childbirth has become more about medical treatment than welcoming a human being into the world and that is sad."
Hannah Dhalen, associate professor of midwifery and national spokeswoman for the Australian College of Midwives, agrees. "Ritual is incredibly important around birth and I think it is really sad that we have lost so much," she says. "Now we just sort of usher babies in and expect mothers to get on with it."
Dhalen and Bartoli believe some remaining birth traditions are far better for both mother and child and we should learn from them. In particular, Bartoli advocates the practice of squatting as the best way to give birth.
Squatting is common among women in Africa and has its roots in ancient history, according to the Alliance of African Midwives in Cape Town, South Africa. "As far back as we have records or stories about birthing, we see references to women giving birth in an upright or squatting position. Unfortunately since the medicalisation of birth, women are pushing on their backs with their legs in the air. Physiologically, this is a very poor position in which to facilitate maternal pushing efforts as it opposes gravity.
"In some ways what we do in Western society is completely idiotic if you understand physiology," says Dahlen. "Lying on your back to give birth is about the most stupid thing you can get a woman to do because she is trying to push her baby uphill as opposed to using gravity. What we currently do with about 90 per cent of women giving birth on a bed on their backs is completely and utterly ridiculous."
Dhalen and Bartoli also support the tradition of postnatal confinement practiced by many communities including Chinese, Indian, Malay and Hispanic. "In some countries women take to their beds for 40 days and are looked after by family, given really healthy food, are massaged and given lots of support and care and that's something we have lost in Western society," says Dahlen.
"These new mothers all say that they are treated like a princess during the whole confinement. We know that these traditions encourage the mother to relax and stay with her baby without any stress," says Bartoli.
When Shivani Vora, an Indian American living in New York, became pregnant she "fully embraced one of the most old-fashioned Indian traditions there is: the belief that after giving birth, a daughter belongs home with her mother," she wrote in The New York Times. "Indian women may be married for decades with several kids, but their home is still the place where they grew up, not where they live with their husband. After childbirth, the belief is, no one can take care of you, nurture you back to health and understand what you're going through like your mother. So, after they have a baby, Indian women often return to their home – not just for a few days or a week, but for six weeks."
During her pregnancy, Vora said she read "several 'Western' books and articles that dispensed advice on the post-delivery period: Prepare and freeze meals ahead of time so you don't have to worry about cooking. Rest when the baby rests otherwise you may not get a chance. Ask a friend or family member to watch the baby for an hour so you can get a manicure or your hair done. The tips were practical, but I felt lonely reading them. They revolved around making new mothers independent quickly, and assumed they would be going through the process primarily alone. I, on the other hand, opted to take pride in my dependency."
Vora says she didn't need to stay with her mother for the whole six weeks. "After a month of juice, pinnis, Indian meals and dozens of talks about my new role, my guilt and fear turned into certainty and even excitement. Being modern and American has always been integral to me, but during this emotionally vulnerable time, it was a long-standing Indian practice which was my greatest source of comfort and strength."
Dhalen believes "it is absolutely fundamental" to have strong family support after birth. "We seriously have got to look at how the lack of support, the nuclear family, the very sheltered 'mum gets on with raising a child pretty much on her own' thinking is contributing to some of the psychological distress we see in our Western societies. You know that old saying of it takes a village to raise a child, well we've kind of lost that in today's society. Loneliness and isolation are some of the strongest reasons why women feel very down after giving birth."
Dahlen recalls a recent visit to the Netherlands where she says 30 per cent of women give birth at home. "What was so lovely over there was every time there was a birth they would put outside of the house all these little balloons and storks coming out of the chimney, blue for a boy, pink for a girl, and when you go into the house to visit there are streamers across the ceiling and you are met with somebody with a tray of these incredible little biscuits, covered with pink or blue sugar and it's a tradition. You drive down the street and say 'there was a birth there, and there was a birth there'. It was lovely. We need to celebrate birth much more."
Bartoli agrees: "Let's remember the sacred meaning of birth: the arrival of a human being. We should welcome a child with humanity and love rather than fear and stress."