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Welcoming Baby; Birth rituals provide children with sense of community, culture

Bringing a new baby home is one of the most exciting universal human experiences. For most parents, it is a time of celebration -- when families and communities come together to honor and welcome the new child.

Rituals and ceremonies that mark a child's birth and survival are common worldwide. In the United States, baptism and male circumcision are two of the more familiar baby traditions, but there are many others that are less visible. These rituals not only celebrate and acknowledge the child, but can also serve as an important way for families to solidify their connection to community, heritage and culture.

"Rituals are evidence that one is authentic and belongs," says Maria Root, Ph.D., a Seattle-based clinical psychologist and identity development expert. "They are about knowing where you come from." For parents, birth rituals and ceremonies provide an immediate sense of connection as well as inclusion of the child into the clan, tribe or community, Root explains.

Although babies aren't yet fully aware, these rituals are important for them as well, she adds. Along with being the first introduction to who they are, they also serve as guideposts as they grow and develop their own sense of identity. Even if they drift away from or reject their heritage, their early experiences give them a place to return to if they so choose.

"Parents re-tell the stories of the rituals to the child as they get older, giving them a path back to connection," Root says. "With these rituals, the parents give the child a road map home."

This can be particularly important for parents who have recently come to the U.S. from other countries. As families integrate into American culture, traditions such as baby ceremonies can serve as an important anchor to their history.

ParentMap spoke with three local couples about their baby traditions and rituals, stemming from five different cultures.

Although Sivaraman Balachandran was only 7 years old when he came to the U.S. from India, he still remains very connected to his cultural and religious heritage. So when his first child, Maya, was born a year ago, he and his wife Jennifer decided they would give her a traditional Hindu welcome. "It was an important way for me to keep my traditions alive," Sivaraman says.

In most Hindu communities, when a child is born the family has a naming ceremony, or Namkaran. Often held on the 11th day after birth, it is the first samskara, or sacrament, in a Hindu's life, and a way to name and bless the child. Although the ceremony is common, there can be some differences in how it is performed. "Hinduism is a huge, complex religion with many variations in traditions, ceremonies and beliefs," Sivaraman explains. His family is Tamil Brahmin Iyer, an Indian subgroup that is defined along ethnic and caste lines, so his daughter's ceremony was based on those customs and practices.

On the day of the ceremony, Maya's grandmothers and some of Sivaraman's female cousins placed bangles and anklets on her hands and feet. "Traditionally, it would be my sisters, but in this case my cousins acted as the baby's paternal aunts," he says. His cousins chanted mantras, or sacred invocations, into Maya's ear. Sivaraman and Jennifer then spoke her name into her right ear. "We say the name so that it registers in the baby's brain and the parents' voice pattern is also registered," says Sivaraman's father, V.J. Balachandran. Sivaraman and Jennifer then wrote her name in a plate of uncooked rice.

"If we would have been in India, the ceremony would have been about four hours long, and a priest would have been present," Sivaraman says. "There would have also been a Homam, a fire that serves as a witness to most Hindu religious functions. It really wasn't feasible for us to do the full ceremony, so we opted for a simplified version," he explains.

They did, however, hold a more complex ceremony when Maya recently turned 1. Another important milestone in a young child's life, the Ayush Homam, or first year fire, is a way to wish the child a long, healthy and prosperous life. A priest performed Maya's ceremony at home, chanting mantras in Sanskrit and lighting the traditional fire, fueled by ghee (clarified butter). Maya wore a silk dress given to her by the paternal side of the family, and the house was filled with flowers, milk and rice.

"The one thing we didn't do was shave Maya's head," Sivaraman says. Typically, both Indian boys and girls have their heads shaved and their ears pierced on their first birthday.

Sivaraman notes that Jennifer, who is American with a Lutheran religious background, has been very willing to incorporate her husband's traditions into their budding family's life. "I'm in a multicultural relationship, so we can't do everything in a Hindu way," Sivaraman adds. "I'm trying to keep my traditions alive while at the same time respecting her traditions."

The couple is already thinking about having Maya baptized. "What's great is we have similar ideas about religion," he says. "We both like the idea of exposing our kids to many religions and cultures."

Halina Alex is only a year old, but she's already been shown many cultures. With a Filipino mother and a Navajo and Caucasian father, both of whom are Catholic, she is being raised with a unique blend of traditions and beliefs.

Halina's first ritual was one that is familiar to many Americans -- baptism. "We wanted to make sure that she was baptized in the first six months of life, something that is very important in the Filipino community," says her mother, Charisma, who came to the U.S. when she was 8 months old. "Over a hundred people came to her baptism." In her community, Charisma explains, many families try to keep their babies in the house as much as possible before baptism, perhaps out of a fear that they aren't yet fully protected.

Another common Filipino custom happens when a baby visits a relative for the first time. "Whoever owns the home gives the baby money," Charisma says. "This is thought to bring the homeowner good luck. My baby got quite a bit of money that first year!"

Some Filipino beliefs about babies aren't always obvious to outsiders. "In my culture, it's not good to praise a baby because it is thought to bring 'usog,' or bad luck, to the child," Charisma says. "It can be awkward when you are at a non-Filipino party and people start excitedly pointing out how cute the baby is." There are a variety of ways in which Filipino parents ward off usog, including putting a dot of lipstick on the baby's forehead to keep away evil forces.

According to Charisma, another common Filipino belief is that eating clams will increase the production of breast milk. "My mother was constantly making me clam soup when I was breastfeeding," she says. 'I have to say I got pretty sick of it after a while!"

During her first year, Halina was introduced to her Navajo heritage through her father's family. "My mother-in-law brought her a cradleboard to help her sleep better," Charisma says. "She used it for at least the first two or three months." The Navajo have traditionally used cradleboards to keep babies comfortable and allow mothers to work and travel. Navajo mothers would swaddle their babies tightly in a blanket, then lace them securely onto the wood board, which could easily be leaned against a tree or hung from a saddle. Many Navajo babies are still placed in cradleboards, as it is thought that the security of the board produces a calm personality, as well as a strong, straight back.

As Halina grows, her parents will continue to expose her to their rich and varied cultural traditions. Charisma doesn't foresee any problems with integrating the customs of both sides of the family. "My husband respects a lot of the things that we are doing, and I respect what his family wants to do," she says. "And it helps to have the common ground of being Catholic."

When Jack Lloyd was in the hospital a few months ago with his laboring wife, Etta Duncan, it was a completely new experience for him -- even though the couple already has a 15-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. "At home in Liberia, no men are allowed around the woman until the child is born,' he explains. "This time I was there and it was hard. I saw all of the pain for the first time."

Almost everything is new for Jack and his family these days. Forced to flee the war in Liberia, they came to the Seattle area almost two years ago. This major move has meant that some of their cultural traditions are starting to fall by the wayside as they integrate into American culture.

"We are not really able to do as many traditional things here," he says. "We are going with the American way of life."

Although the experience with their newest child, Ella, has been primarily an American one, Jack remembers well the traditional ways in which his people, the Bassa tribe, welcome and care for new children. There are 16 different tribes in Liberia, and "they all have different customs and beliefs about babies," he says. "It is also different depending on whether you live in the city or in a more rural area. In the city you have more of a Western influence."

Bassa parents typically keep a newborn inside the house for two weeks, although visitors are allowed. Jack explains that this is to protect the child. "When you do bring them out, they are open to the community," he says. "Everyone knows the day that the child will be brought out and there is a big celebration to welcome the child. People bring money, dry meat and lots of palm oil."

Early on, parents tie a rope with beads around the newborn's waist. This is a way to measure the growth and progress of the child in the first weeks and months. "When the rope gets tight, then you know that the baby is gaining weight and is fine," says Jack.

Another custom is to put cayenne pepper in the newborn's nose. A member of the immediate family, usually not the mother, first does this when the child is 2 or 3 days old. This is repeated maybe four or five times as the baby gets older. It is considered a way to initiate the baby into the rigors of living.

"This is important," Jack says. "People will come and ask you right away -- 'Did you pepper the baby?' The belief is that the pepper will make the child courageous and strong, and will help them withstand life and not be sickly." Liberians frequently use cayenne pepper to treat colds and other minor aliments, he adds.

Jack is particularly proud that in Liberia, it is common for men to help women with daily chores and tasks, something that is not necessarily true of all African cultures. Liberian husbands and fathers will often assist with cooking, feeding the baby and cleaning cloth diapers. "We'll even help with laundry, whatever we can do," he says. "If a woman has a child, you have to help her so she can be happy!"

Although the couple is currently drifting away from some cultural traditions, Jack predicts there may be a return to Liberian customs fairly soon. "My mother-in-law is supposed to come," he explains. "Then everything is going to change, I tell you!"

Lisette Austin contributes regularly to local publications. She lives in Seattle with her husband and 4-year-old son.

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