UNICEF estimates that an average of 353,000 babies are born around the world each day. Here in Ireland, we account for approximately 200 of that daily rate. Women may have given birth since the dawn of time, but while biology is the same the world over, birth customs can vary hugely from country to country...
There is a lot of support for breastfeeding and midwives actively encourage and assist new mums in France
Since the 1930s, expectant mothers have been provided with a box by the Finnish State. The box is filled with (among other things) bodysuits, outdoor gear, a sleeping bag, bathing products, nappies, bedding and toys. Also contained within the box is a small mattress - making the box baby's first bed. The maternity package is designed to give all children in Finland an equal start in life, regardless of their background, and is credited with helping Finland achieve one of the world's lowest infant mortality rates.
Throughout the decades, the contents of the baby box has changed to reflect changing times, including the falling in and out of favour of disposable nappies and the removal of bottles and soothers to promote breastfeeding. The scheme was originally available only to low-income families but that changed in 1949 when the box was made available to all mothers-to-be, as long as they attended medical pre-natal checks. The box thereby not only provided mums with essentials for taking care of their babies, but steered them towards medical care and away from a previously very high infant mortality rate. Even today, 95pc of expectant Finnish mothers still opt for the maternity box, in spite of the availability of a cash-grant alternative. The gender-neutral contents make it suitable for either boy or girl. It's no surprise really that Finnish mothers are considered amongst the happiest in the world.
Anna, originally from Barcelona but living in Ireland with her husband and two children, explains that natural birth is very much promoted in Spain. C-section rates are typically quite low. Mothers and fathers are both expected, if possible, to attend ante-natal classes and significant discussions take place around birth plans. Most births are midwife-led and doctors are only called upon in the event of complications. In keeping with their close-knit family ties, births where all the family are present are on the rise, though Anna adds that this is very much dependent on the birth being categorised as low-risk. The Spanish are generally considered very family-oriented and most of the support that a woman receives after giving birth will come from her family.
Homebirths are very popular in the Netherlands - they make up approximately 55pc of all births planned.
Veering away from the traditional, a more unusual and probably lesser-known ritual which takes place in Northern Spain, involves the placing of babies on a mattress for El Salto del Colacho (meaning the 'Devil's Jump'). During this ritual, a person dressed as El Colacho (the Devil) jumps over the babies to cleanse their souls.
Gambia and Senegal
Midwife Montserrat, who spent time in both Gambia and Senegal, was initially very surprised when she saw the reactions of new mothers in both countries to their newborn babies. Montserrat discovered that the behaviour and custom came about as a result of a high infant mortality rate. Typically, in Gambia and Senegal, women gave birth either at home or in poorly-equipped hospitals, and conditions largely led to the high mortality rate. It became customary for the women to turn their heads away from the baby once the child was born. Superstition led them to believe that they could fool the 'gods' into thinking that the child was not important and so the gods would let the child live. The women feared the baby would be taken away if they appeared too happy.
Typically, in Gambia and Senegal, women gave birth either at home or in poorly-equipped hospitals, and conditions largely led to the high mortality rate.
Marta, who is from Poland originally but now lives in Ireland with her husband and their four children, says that pregnancy is much more medically managed in Poland, with more frequent hospital visits and many more scans - to a point that Marta believes is almost excessive. C-section rates are very high while breastfeeding rates and levels of support are one of the most obvious differences Marta sees between the two countries. Bottle-feeding is very unusual in Poland and Polish women who are struggling with breastfeeding, or may need to stop for medical reasons, will usually persist until every option has been exhausted.
Lactation consultants are more readily accessible in Polish hospitals, something which Marta found was very different in her experience of Irish maternity hospitals. One notable difference Marta found during childbirth in Ireland was the flexibility around birthing positions. Polish women typically give birth in "gynaecological birthing chairs" and are discouraged from considering any other positions. While provisions for paid maternity leave in Poland are in excess of Ireland's 26 weeks, a lack of job security makes it difficult to avail of the full entitlement.
Many parts of Asia, including Malaysia, China and Singapore, practice "confinement" for 30 days after giving birth. Mum of two Cindy, from Malaysia, lives in Hong Kong and explains that the older generation believed that after giving birth, a woman's pores were open, so it was important not to catch a cold which could lead to swelling, arthritis or rheumatism in later life. While the stringent practice of not showering or washing one's hair during the period of confinement is largely a thing of the past, a new mum is confined to the house wearing long trousers and slippers for a month after giving birth. Some women hire a confinement lady to stay with them for the month. The confinement ladies prepare food for the mothers (according to the Chinese, certain foods and drinks are forbidden, such as cold water and fruits). They also clean and take care of the new baby so that the new mother can rest and recover.
Homebirths are very popular in the Netherlands - they make up approximately 55pc of all births planned. Births in Holland are generally midwife-led and most women will not see a gynaecologist during their pregnancy. Mothers who opt for a hospital birth are unlikely to receive an epidural as they are only given one if it's convenient to the anaesthesiologist's schedule. A huge benefit to all mothers is the Dutch 'Kraamzorg' maternity home care system. This service is available to all mums, irrespective of whether they have had a hospital or home birth. A professional maternity nurse calls to the home of the new mum for eight to 10 days, helping her with breastfeeding, bathing and caring for the baby. The nurse also helps to take care of other children, as well as prepare meals and perform light housekeeping.
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Elke is a mother of two from Germany. She explains that there are many options available to an expectant mother, depending on her preference. A midwife is assigned to a mum at the beginning of her pregnancy and midwife-led units called 'birth houses' are available to low-risk mums. In labour, homeopathic pain relief options are available to mothers who don't want medical pain killers.
Elke says that Once your baby is born and you are at home, the midwife who was assigned to you at the beginning of the pregnancy calls to see you once a day for five days. Following that, she calls every second or third day and eventually just once a week. She will treat any birth injuries and provide creams or ointments at no cost to the new mother. Baby is also checked at every visit and the midwife helps mum to learn all the new skills required to take care of baby. This midwife is available to you for six months, whenever you need help or support.
And finally to the country where women are pregnant that little bit longer. Deirdre from Ireland lives in France with her husband and three children. She explains that a pregnancy is deemed 41 weeks long in France - because they count from the first day of supposed conception. Toxoplasmosis is a big fear for pregnant women, Deirdre adds, largely because of the rare manner in which they tend to eat their meat. Hospital stays are also longer, with women typically staying in for almost a week after the birth of their baby. Breastfeeding rates, while rising, are still lower than many of their European counterparts and those who do it tend not to breastfeed for very long.
Family and mothers-in-law are generally the main source of support and a lot of emphasis is put on the importance of the parents' relationship. Deirdre found she was actively encouraged to put baby in her own room once she turned one month old. She also finds that there is a lot of pressure on women to regain their figure but, on a very positive note, every woman in France, after childbirth, is entitled to a series of physiotherapy sessions to aid with pelvic floor recovery.