Ethnicity Online

Cultural Awareness in Healthcare

Hindus: Birth, Babies and Motherhood

The birth of a child into the Hindu community is a cause for great celebration. The extended family – especially other women – will visit the mother and baby, bringing in many gifts such as new clothing and food. They will be particularly excited if the baby is male. The new mother will be expected to rest for 40 days after the birth, and her female relatives may want to care for the child even while it is still in hospital. The new mother may not object to this but is likely to be upset if her baby is taken away from her, or out of her sight, for any length of time. This might cause difficulties if the baby requires special care, and taking the time to explain to the mother and her family what is happening will be appreciated.

after the birth

As soon as possible after birth, the time, date and location of the child's birth are sent to the priest, and a horoscope is prepared for the child. After consulting the horoscope, the priest will suggest suitable names for the child; the horoscope may, for example, reveal the possibility of a bad trait that can be corrected by a good name. Hindu babies do not receive a permanent name until after this process, in a naming ceremony known as namakarma that usually takes place within ten days of birth. It is important to make sure that both the temporary birth name and the Hindu name are recorded on the child's clinical records.

Additionally, a ceremony of welcome, or jatakarma, is performed, usually by a respected relative, community elder or friend who stands as a 'godparent' to the child. During this ceremony, hymns, mantras and the name of god are whispered into the baby's ear, and ghee or honey are used to paint the ohm sign on to the tongue. Some Hindus may delay this ceremony until the baby goes home, whereas others may prefer to do this as soon after the birth of their child as possible, and will appreciate a few minutes of privacy to do so (providing this does not conflict with any care the child needs).

postnatal visits

When the mother and child go home, traditionally they will not be expected to venture out during the 40 days following the birth; thus, many Hindu women will appreciate home visits from the midwife, health visitor and possibly even GP – rather than having to attend a clinic. However, it is important to make careful arrangements with the new mother, as traditionally a Hindu woman will not let a visitor into her home if she is alone. It is therefore important to arrange an appointment at a time when she can ensure that someone else is there with her as a chaperone, and to stick to that time.

A new mother will usually receive support and advice from the women in her extended family about her new role as a mother, and this may include specific ayurvedic foodstuffs and medicines. Women also pass on traditional stories and folklore, and a mother is usually the first teacher of her children.

selective termination

Although the news of any pregnancy is likely to be well received by a Hindu family, there is often a cultural preference for sons over daughters. Sons are important in many Hindu rituals, such as responsibility for arranging the funerals of their parents and taking on the lead role in the extended family after the death of their father. Sons are also considered to be a sign of approval and show that a couple are leading spiritually pure and good lives. In extreme cases, carrying a female foetus may be seen as the result of negative karmic actions taken by the mother, and although the Hindu concept of ahnisa (non-injury) does not permit termination, cultural pressures may result in a female foetus being aborted.

stillbirth and miscarriage

If a scan reveals that a foetus has died in the womb, there are no religious objections to its removal before term. The mother may be considered to be at fault in a karmic sense, and there may be a real need for support and counselling both for the mother and her husband following a stillbirth or miscarriage. Repeated miscarriages are likely to be considered to be solely the fault of the woman and investigations into the causes of the miscarriage may be refused. It is worth taking advice from a community expert or elder in this situation to see how best to proceed.

home births and birth abroad

Many Hindu women would prefer – or are expected – to give birth at home, attended by female relatives and friends. Keep an open mind on this issue, and arrange for the mother to discuss the possibility of a home birth with a midwife as early as possible in the pregnancy. If a scan has shown that the child is male, then there may also be pressure on the mother to return to India, so that her son can be born within Bharat, the traditional limit of the Hindu world. This is considered to be highly auspicious.

rituals

There are many life-event rituals, or sanskara, associated with pregnancy and birth, which is a major event occurring within the cycle of death and rebirth, or samsara. During the first trimester, a foetus protection ceremony, or punsavana, is performed to ensure that the foetus is protected through the dangers of early pregnancy.

During the third trimester, when the soul or atman is considered to have entered the new body of the baby, a Hindu baby shower, or simantonnyana, is given to support the mother and encourage pure thoughts. It is believed that a pure, happy mother will give birth to a strong, healthy and happy child. For a first-time mother, this is also an important time for her to be educated by her peers in the traditions of childbirth and motherhood.

Several other ceremonies are performed during the child's first year, including those to mark their first trip outside and first taste of solid food.

Hindus view childbirth as an event with connotations of spiritual impurity. This is because the sheer physicality of the event draws the attention to this world; body fluids are also considered spiritually unclean. Rituals that are associated with birth not only welcome the child to life and to its place within the Hindu community, but also dispel the impurity of birth.

contraception

There is no great religious objection to the concept of contraception, but huge social and family pressure may be brought to bear on a couple to have as many children as possible, especially sons. Children are traditionally thought of as a sign of the family being blessed by the gods. It is advisable to involve both husband and wife in any discussions about family planning.

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