8 October 2014

Newborn Customs....

Since our new daughter was born early last month I have been thinking a lot about the different customs that we have surrounding new babies.

When I was born my parents immediately sent out birth announcement cards – in the Netherlands it is expected that these are sent out as soon as possible.  When our first baby was due in the UK I was surprised that the soonest print companies could get cards to me was one week, they could not understand my rush and seemed to think I would be busy with other things.  Not wanting to write out a lot of cards by hand I searched and searched for a company with a quick turnaround. I finally managed to get them in three days – I felt terrible for the delay but all our English friends found it quite normal.  Indeed I have received announcements up to 6 weeks after a birth.  For our latest baby I did not want to spend the time searching for a printers in Malaysia on top of finding a new house, unpacking and settling the older children into school so we decided to rely on electronic announcements only – the modern age does make things easier and we thought our families would forgive us in the circumstances.  I am a hoarder, however, and have birth and death cards and wedding and christening invites for almost all our family members going back to my grandparents generation kept in our storage container so I may have some ‘limited edition’ cards made up for close family (quite pathetic I know) just so our latest daughter is not missed out.

In the UK and Ireland it is not uncommon to save a tier of the wedding cake (fruit cake) to use as the christening cake of the first baby.  My mother in law saved ours and her friend  (who did the decoration on our wedding cake) did some fresh decoration for the christening. 

In the UK you are advised (for SIDS purposes) to keep a baby’s room at a positively arctic 18°C but wrap the baby in about three blankets plus pyjamas, I managed this for one day before turning the heating up but I wonder if this low temperature may be related to the high cost of heating in the UK and to make sure parents do not feel guilty for not having a warmer house (British houses are almost always horribly cold, with people preferring to layer a lot of clothes).  In Kazahkstan houses are usually at least 25° and even then babies are well wrapped up against chills, often looking as though they are far, far too hot.  In Malaysia the advice seems to be to cool the room to about 24-5° which is what we used to keep our house in the UK at – a British health visitor would have a fit! 

When we lived in Nigeria it was common for new mothers to be given a drink of Guinness to restore their iron levels.  Certainly I can vouch for the fact that this horrible custom is not (thankfully) common practice in either the UK or Malaysia. In the Netherlands new mothers are fed a snack of beschuit (rusk) with pink or blue sugared  aniseed balls (muisjes so called because they look like tiny mice).  My mother brought some blue ones back to the UK for our first baby.  

In Kazakhstan and Turkey it is traditional for a baby to be kept away from visitors for 40 days and in Malaysia a confinement period is common post birth with the specifics (usually relating to what the mother can eat and what she is allowed to do) depending on the background culture of the family concerned.  Some cultures even have customs relating to whether or not the mother can wash and what with (ginger water is one of the more palatable alternatives, a mix of cows urine and milk less so).  This was probably sage advice to prevent infection from dirty water in the past. 

The other day we were invited to a ‘Full Moon’ celebration for the baby of a colleague of my husband.  This baby is our little girl’s time sister.  They were, by complete co-incidence, born within 15 minutes of each-other in neighbouring operating theatres.  Her mother and I came across each-other in recovery and the little girls spent their first few hours side by side in the nursery.  Because of cultural traditions this little girl was not out and about for the first month and her mother was in confinement so this party was a big thing for the family – we were honoured to be invited. 

In the UK things are far more fluid – some people do retreat into their homes and families but rarely for as long as a month, this depends on the desires of the parents rather than any hard and fast cultural custom.  We have never really stayed at home and people we met out and about here in Miri were very surprised to see a newborn baby.  The lovely thing here is that everyone seems to look and comment – the last time I was out I stopped for a coffee and to give the baby a bottle and the baristas all came out from behind the till to coo and admire.  That is still done in the UK but is much more restrained.
One of the nurses here in Miri told me that it is not common to just throw away the umbilical stump as it is seen as being part of the baby, in Nigeria (and much of western Africa) the placenta is often removed and buried carefully as a ‘twin’ of the child.   I have never given in much thought although this time my husband had to ‘sign away’ the placenta to the hospital.

Paediatric tests can be different as well.  We were not given a (routine in the UK) heel prick test for our little girl as the conditions tested for are a problem for Caucasians but not an issue for Asians.  We had to make a special appointment (with our OB of all people) to arrange for the test to be done. Of course some traditions are dependent on religion (circumcision for example) making them more common in some parts of the world than others.  

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Ersatz Expat


  1. Lovely post - it's always interesting to hear about differences like this!

    1. Thanks Celia - are here any traditions specific to the US?