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Panel 5

Paternity leave, baths and evil spirits

Taking paternity leave to care for and bond with his newborn baby, British Prime Minister Tony Blair joined his Finnish counterpart as a pioneer among Western world leaders who, in the past, have left these early weeks of childcare to their wives. By setting some time each day for ‘high office’ paperwork, the Prime Minister managed to satisfy all media watchers by balancing old cultural habits with new beliefs.

In some other parts of the world, practices that surround the birth of a baby are, at first glance, less pragmatic. A Wayapi father in Guyana rests still in his hammock for three days after the birth of his child in the belief that he is diverting the attention of evil spirits away from the infant and onto himself. A parent in India smudges her newborn’s forehead with charcoal or smoke, holding that black averts the evil eye and frightens off harmful spirits. In many cultures, babies wear amulets, bracelets or ties as protection against being pulled from this world.

Whether in industrialized cities, on the plains of Kenya or in the jungles of French Guyana, parents face similar responsibilities as they try to protect and shelter their children, secure their daily food, keep them clean and healthy and help them grow and develop. The solutions to these challenges are as multiple as the cultures that produce them. They reflect the values and beliefs of a community while laying the foundation for a child’s cultural identity, a fundamental right the child enjoys. They also influence the course of childhood, adolescence and the way children will parent when they become adults.

Clearly, some traditional practices, such as food taboos for pregnant women or female genital cutting, are harmful to both mother and child and should be stopped. There are, however, many other traditional customs of great benefit to the developmental needs of the baby and closer to modern thought on child-rearing than they first seem. In some African and Latin American societies, for example, tradition requires the confinement or a ‘quarantine’ of a mother and her infant for several days or weeks after birth. During this time, the mother is cared for by family members and does nothing but eat, breastfeed and bond with her baby. The wisdom of this practice is carried over to most industrialized and many developing countries as mothers who are salaried employees are legally entitled to maternity leave.

Another example of an effective traditional practice is when mothers in Kenya, New Caledonia and Sumatra fill their mouth with water and spit-bathe their babies to keep them clean. Masai mothers direct a strong jet of water and Batak mothers in Sumatra and Wayapi mothers in Guyana blow a diffused spray. While the shower techniques vary, all the babies are washed with warm water.

Infants among the Baule in Côte d’Ivoire are bathed twice a day and scrubbed vigorously, using hot water, soap and a vegetable sponge. After the mother has washed and rinsed him twice, the squalling baby is put to the breast for calming. The baby is then massaged, his hips and shoulders stretched and manipulated, his head pressed and moulded. He is rubbed with creams, dusted with powders and daubed with perfumes and kaolin, a soft white clay. During this stage of the toilette the baby is typically calm and wide-eyed. After the ritual is completed the baby — alert, active and awake but completely calm — is clothed and given to a family member to hold.

In many cultures, carrying a baby is the natural means for the parents or caregiver to transport the child. It is also a means of protecting the baby, strengthening young muscles and providing stimulation. Carried in a sling, a sash, a calabash or a cradle, the baby is constantly close to the mother’s body. In the mother’s arms or on her back as the she goes about her busy life, the baby takes part in a variety of activities and experiences constant tactile and visual stimulation.

Bobbed up and down as their mothers run along a path, bent to the earth as their fathers sharpen a knife or jounced at a dance party, babies are constantly exercising their muscles as they adapt to the movements of the adults carrying them. Yequana Indians in Venezuela carry their babies from the moment of birth until they are able to crawl. Javanese babies spend most of their time close to their mother’s chest in a shawl, able to nurse on demand. To protect babies from bodily harm, mothers will not let them set foot on the ground until they are seven months old.

Popular wisdom now contends that the early bonding with the mother during a confinement period or the constant carrying of the baby and breastfeeding on demand further the development of the baby’s feelings of security, trust in other people, and sense of self-worth. And indeed, increasing numbers of parents in the Western world are taking their babies out of strollers and carrying them in slings. Those customs that stimulate a baby’s senses and enhance his or her development and even the mystical rituals that have traditionally been used for child protection — different from modern practices as they might seem — merit closer scrutiny as to how well they meet a young child’s needs.


Evans, Judith L. and Robert G. Myers, ‘Childrearing Practices: Creating programs where traditions and modern practices meet’ [http://www.ecdgroup.com/cn/cn15lead.html].

Fontanel, Béatrice and Claire d’Harcourt, Babies Celebrated, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1998.

Liedloff, Jean, The Continuum Concept, Perseus Books, 1975.

Timyan, Judith, ‘Cultural aspects of psycho-social development: An examination of West African childrearing practices’, Regional UNICEF Workshop Report, Abidjan, 18-22 January 1988.

Zeitlin, Marian F., et al., Strengthening the Family — Implications for International Development, United Nations University Press, New York, 1995.


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