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Childbirth among the Newar in Nepal

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To see the light of day.....
Childbirth among the Newar in Nepal

Sandwiched between the two gigantic powers India and China lies the small state of Nepal. But despite its size, this kingdom in the Himalayas, with its imposing mountains and ancient traditional culture, never fails to impress visitors. Nepal is a country in which more than fifty ethnic groups live closely together, each with its own language, culture and religion.

The densely populated Kathmandu valley was inhabited and cultivated long before the Christian era. Today it is populated primarily by the Newar, the only ethnic group in Nepal with an ancient urban culture and lifestyle. The Newar are of Tibeto-Burman origin and are among the original inhabitants of Nepal. About 80 percent of Newar are Hindus, about 20 percent are Buddhists.

Customs, traditions and structures within the Newar family are in strong contrast to Western culture. Traditionally the Newar live in an extended family, which offers support and security. The traditional knowledge about birth, the weeks after birth, as well as babycare, is generally handed directly from mother to daughter.

When a Newar woman gets married she is accepted into the extended family of her husband. When she gets pregnant she continues to do the housework and her everyday duties. Antenatal exercises, as they are practised in the West, are unknown among the Newar. The housework forms part of a well-structured daily routine and the manifold movements involved in this work provide a natural preparation for giving birth. The woman cooks and washes while squatting and she calmly carries water for the household. Women amongst themselves do not talk much about the impending birth. They rely on the midwife who accompanies all the births in the family. More likely than not the midwife’s mother and grandmother have already been in charge of the births in a given family. The midwife also performs the medical checkups which begin in the seventh month of the pregnancy. From this point onwards she visits the expectant mother regularly in order to examine and observe her and control the welfare of the unborn child.

Preparations for the birth

Under the instructions of the midwife, the family make various preparations for the impending birth. Among other things, a birth room is fitted out. A quiet, secluded room is chosen, away from street noise and dust. The room should only have a few small windows. A large amount of straw is brought into the house to form the birth bed. Straw is a free natural product and an ideal insulation material. After the birth it will be burnt. The family set aside a number of clean cotton cloths in all sizes. Oil, an oil lamp and a stove are made ready. Essences, herbs and ayurvedic remedies are prepared for the birth. (Ayurveda, thousands of years old, is the Indian science of health and healing, “ayur” meaning life, “veda” knowledge.)

When the mother-to-be begins to feel strong labour pains she withdraws into the birth room. Her husband sends for the midwife, who examines the woman upon her arrival. Then she brings water to the boil and disinfects all her instruments. She darkens the room in order to keep the glaring sunlight out and prepares the straw bed for the birth. Next she turns to the woman, instructing and calming her down. To aid the birth process she employs special essences such as preheated mustard oil. She uses this to massage the mother-to-be with a particular technique, which is not only beneficial for the mother but also shows the child the way through the birth canal. This massage continues until the baby is born. The midwife stays in the birth room during the entire birth and she also decides when and how the umbilical cord is cut by a woman who is invited specially for this.

Men are not admitted to the birth. Only women who have themselves given birth are discreetly and exceptionally allowed in to help. Thanks to the precautions taken the atmosphere is calm and relaxed. The newborn child is welcomed in a loving atmosphere free of all tension. The dim light in the room protects the baby’s eyes and is a less abrupt transition from the darkness of the womb. Only the oil lamp radiates a little light – a calm light which symbolises luck in Hinduism.

The time after the birth

After the birth, the young Newar mother spends four to six days in peace and harmony with her infant in the darkened birth room. Both sleep and rest on the straw bed, which provides them with optimal padding. In this seclusion the relationship between mother and child can unfold wonderfully. The midwife visits daily two or three times. She washes and massages both with preheated mustard oil and advises the mother with regard to breastfeeding and all other questions.

The Newar structuring of the time after birth has been guided by a wise idea, probably for thousands of years already: The infant is offered an atmosphere that resembles the one in the womb, so as to ease its entrance into the world. This is why the newborn baby is massaged from the first day onwards, to give it among other things the lost support and touch it enjoyed in the womb.

The intensive massage encourages the shrinkage of the mother’s womb, as well as the production and flow of milk. Massage and regular breastfeeding are measures which prevent the blockage of milk and inflammations of the breasts (mastitis). Additionally the mother receives a special diet: She drinks restorative ayurvedic remedies and the food, which is prepared for her four times a day in the family kitchen, is particularly low in salt, which causes the flushing out of excess water stored in the tissue. This particular post-birth diet is adhered to for at least two months.

Gradually the midwife appears less often and thanks to her instructions the young mother can now deal with the care of her baby herself. Both mother and child are still getting massaged – this task is now taken on by a trusted person from the family or the neighbourhood. Ceremonies on the congratulations day On the fourth, and not later than the sixth day after the birth, a solemn ceremony takes place. Mother, child and the whole extended family take part in this ritual. This day also doubles as the congratulations day. Before, the young mother was not allowed to receive guests. Congratulations and gifts are now accepted and traditionally the new mother receives a massage mat and a pillow for the baby, filled with mustard seeds. She is also given a sun canopy to provide shade for the baby outdoors and a black paste to protect its eyes. This paste contains soot from an oil lamp and butter. Special foods and much cotton fabric are also presented gifts. The midwife also receives gifts, mostly clothes.

After the end of the ceremony the child may be given a name, for which an astrologer is often consulted.

In Nepal every daughter learns traditional baby massage from her own mother after the birth of her first child.

Traditional postnatal holiday

About two weeks after the birth the traditional postnatal holiday begins. The young mother and her baby are picked up by a person from her parental home and for the first time they leave the home of the parents-in-law. For two months or more the mother now enjoys a time of rest and care. Neither at her parental home nor in the farmyard is she allowed to join in the work. Instead she is respected and spoiled like a holiday guest. At no other time does a married woman enjoy so much attention and care. Not only the baby but also the young mother continue to get massaged, as from the first day onwards. The mother is now introduced to the rules of baby massage by her own mother or another experienced woman from the extended parental family. Twice a day she takes her baby to the roof terrace to massage it. These regular massages have a particularly healing effect on the baby. Typical baby complaints such as three-months-colics occur much less often.

Sunbathing in the shade protects the baby against infectious diseases and prevents rickets (rachitis), as the sunlight triggers the formation of vitamin D in the body. Towards the end of the holiday the family-in-law sends someone to bring the young mother back again.

From the beginning of the birth until the end of the postnatal holiday the husband must keep away from his wife – this is what tradition dictates.

The long rest which is given to the mother after birth allows her to recover completely, mentally as well as physically, get used to the hormonal changes and gradually ease herself into her role as a mother. This may be a reason why postnatal depression is hardly known among the Newar, in contrast to the West.

The information for this article is from the author Nasma Scheibler-Shrestha. Nasma Scheibler-Shrestha grew up in a Newar family in Nepal. She moved to the ancestral house of her extended family in Kathmandu to pursue her training as a draughtswoman. 21 years ago she moved to Zurich, together with her husband, Giovanni Scheibler, a Swiss architect. For the birth of her first child in 1983 her mother arrived from Nepal and massaged her granddaughter from the first day onwards in the Newar tradition, much to the surprise of the hospital staff. For Nasma Scheibler-Shrestha it was natural to pass on her knowledge to Western mothers. In Switzerland, Germany and Austria she gives talks on baby massage, offers practical (hands-on) courses and trains parents, paediatric nurses, midwives and doctors. Based on her experience of two decades Nasma Scheibler-Shrestha is competent to adjust the ancient original knowledge of the Newar to Western conditions. She is very much aware that traditions, cultural and religious factors, lifestyles, living conditions and climatic conditions result in quite different basic conditions for baby massage in the West.

In Nepal mothers know no depression after childbirth


For further information see www.newar.ch

Recommended reading: Nasma Scheibler-Schrestha & Ruth Lehmann, Babymassage. Die Sprache der sanften Berührung in der Newar-Tradition. Published by dtv, ISBN 3-423-36091-7.

(Translated from German by Kathrin Cooper PhD)

Published by : Eltern.Magazin Baby Guide 2003, Media Guide GmbH, Wien


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