107. Indigenous Birth Practices: East meets West in pregnancy and postpartum
"Indigenous postpartum practices are a vital part of the health of the mother and baby. In many cultures it is customary for families to move in with their maternal line or other family members in order to have extra care and support. It is also customary to allow the body to fully recover for at least 40 days before returning to any normal routines. Postpartum healing is centered around rest, body work and nutrition."
Indigenous birth practices are based in physiological birth. According to the National Institute of Health, the definition of physiological birth is “one that is powered by the innate human capacity of the woman and fetus. This birth is more likely to be safe and healthy because there is no unnecessary intervention that disrupts normal physiologic processes.” Some indigenous practices that support this process are:
- Up right pushing positions
- Uninterrupted labor
- Immediate skin to skin
- Delayed cord clamping
- Little to no interventions
- Calming labor environment
- Eating and drinking throughout labor
- Natural pain management i.e. counter pressure, water therapy, meditation, herbs
- Rituals and ceremony
In addition to all of these practices, a common thread between indigenous birth cultures is the mindset around birth. Most indigenous cultures view birth as a ceremony and initiation in life. Rituals leading up to birth are used to prime the nervous system and honor the birthing person so they can feel safe and supported. In my observation, many people crave this experience as birth has increasingly become a highly medicalized event creating a disconnect between the mind/body/soul connection that is so important for integration into life after birth. Creating intention and ritual around your birth experience is a great way to bring in the east-meets-west mentality. Using allopathic medicine doesn’t mean you have to forgo a more modern mindset around birth. We have a unique invitation in this day and age to straddle both worlds and use the wisdom of both philosophies to support the way we birth, which ultimately affects our world. One way to do this is by gathering community around you before birth to celebrate in a meaningful way. For example, you can incorporate the red thread ceremony that has been performed across cultures for many years.
In the red thread ceremony we wrap a red thread around our wrist as we share out loud our wishes and blessings onto the birthing mother. We go around the circle until we are all joined together, connected by the thread. We will all wear the red thread and send her positive, loving thoughts whenever our eyes fall on the thread around our wrist. We continue to do this until we hear the news that the mother has birthed her baby, only then is the thread removed. The red thread also symbolizes our lineage of ancestors, the matriarchal line, and we speak their names into the circle. As we sit in circle we call on this strength of the feminine and recognize our strength in community.
Indigenous postpartum practices are a vital part of the health of the mother and baby. In many cultures it is customary for families to move in with their maternal line or other family members in order to have extra care and support. It is also customary to allow the body to fully recover for at least 40 days before returning to any normal routines. Postpartum healing is centered around rest, body work and nutrition. This is a stark contrast to how most women recover postpartum in the U.S. A lot of people have moved far from family and don’t have a strong support system to lean on. This puts women at risk for many perinatal mental health issues that were rarely present in historical indigenous communities.
Some other common indigenous postpartum practices include:
- Belly binding
- Special food protocols
- Emotional support
- Ceremony and ritual
- Chiropractic and pelvic floor care
Bringing indigenous postpartum practices into our modern world can be as simple as starting with intention. Viewing your recovery after birth through an indigenous lens means creating systems that will support your physical and emotional health. Ceremony and ritual around this big transition is a great way to do that. It can be an expansive journey to explore your own cultural heritage and traditions in the postpartum period. Connecting with your ancestors by carrying on tradition can help stabilize the nervous system which is our body’s command center for healing.
In my own indigenous Latin culture we practice the closing of the bones ceremony. In this ceremony you are held and gently adjusted from head to toe, creating a cocoon with Rebozos (traditional Mexican shawls.) You feel held and grounded from your travels through the portals of birth. There is often a womb massage, herbal bath, and emotional processing that accompany this ritual, allowing the mother to process her birth experience and move through this new chapter of her life.
The indigenous philosophy of birth and postpartum is one that has confidence in women’s bodies and honors motherhood physically, emotionally and spiritually. It is such a beautiful opportunity we have to incorporate these ancient practices into our modern world and help facilitate healthy mothers, children and society as a whole.
Lauren Alicia a Birth/postpartum doula and herbalist in Los Angeles. She doulas through the lens of herbalism, botany, Ayurveda, and indigenous birth and postpartum practices. She has a passion for speaking about bridging eastern and western medicine through herbs, somatic healing and indigenous spiritual practices.