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Mommy, Mamá, Mutter: Motherhood Around the World

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What, exactly, are breast warmers — and why are they popular with nursing mothers in Sweden? Why are antiradiation vests a must-have for many pregnant women in China? Is it true that expectant moms in Cuba are afraid to let anyone touch their pregnant belly? We asked the editors of BabyCenter’s 11 international websites (all mothers themselves) to answer these and other fascinating questions about motherhood around the globe. 

The evil eye and other age-old beliefs

Mexico: If you experience a lot of nausea during pregnancy, your newborn will have a full head of hair.

Cuba & Panama: People in many Latin American countries share a belief in the “evil eye” — that is, the power of an evil or envious person to cause harm to a pregnant woman or her baby. In Cuba, pregnant women won’t let anyone they don’t know or trust touch their pregnant belly. In Panama, moms-to-be won’t reveal how far along they are in their pregnancy, and they’re especially cautious around anyone who may be holding a grudge. Women believe that sharing this information puts them at risk for birth complications or an ugly child. New babies are dressed in red from head to toe, because red is thought to ward off the evil eye.

India: People in India also believe in the evil eye and they ward it off by burning red chilies and camphor. They also believe that during an eclipse, pregnant women should remain inside the house or their babies will be born with a harelip or other deformity. “Even educated people hold this superstition,” according to BabyCenter editor Vidya Sen. “The attitude is, ‘It may not be true, but why test nature’s fury?'”

Switzerland & United States: In both these countries, people say you can tell whether you’re having a girl or boy by looking in the mirror. “A boy is said to enhance his mother’s beauty, while a girl weakens it,” according to BabyCenter editor Claudia Starck.

A mosaic of mothers with their children to celebrate mother’s day. ©

Pregnancy and new mom must-haves

China: There’s a widespread belief that exposure to computers, microwaves, and cell phones can lead to miscarriage or birth defects, according to BabyCenter editor Joy Jia. As a result, many pregnant women buy “antiradiation vests” to protect their developing babies. In fact, the vests are recommended by some Chinese doctors and pregnancy books, Jia says. Once they learn they’re pregnant, many women also turn off their cell phones and don’t use them until they give birth

Spain/Latin America: Stylish and sassy maternity clothes are coveted by pregnant women, because, says BabyCenter editor Isidra Mencos, “We Latin women like to dress up!”

Germany: A new bra — either a larger one or special maternity one — is a pregnancy gotta-have, according to BabyCenter editor Cordula Zastera.

Australia:  Maternity jeans are at the top of the list for most newly pregnant women, according to BabyCenter editor Danielle Townsend. “Australians are obsessed with denim,” she says

Sweden: “Breast warmers,” which BabyCenter editor Carina Westling describes as “a cross between a baby elephant’s ear and a 1980s shoulder pad, that you stuff into your bra to hold in body heat,” are popular among new mothers. Swedes believe that nursing mothers should keep their breasts warm to increase milk flow and prevent blocked ducts. Westling, who had her second child in March, is a fan of breast warmers. “They aren’t exactly Victoria’s Secret,” she admits. “But they’re really very nice — particularly when your milk comes in and your breasts are tight and full.”

Respect — just a little bit

How are pregnant women and mothers treated in your country?

 Pregnant women don’t receive much special treatment, according to Sasha Miller. “There’s little respect or reverence,” she says. “You can be standing on the bus, and people will stare at their newspaper and pretend they don’t see you.” 

China & India: In China, once a woman becomes pregnant, the focus of the entire family is on her and her baby. According to Vidya Sen, the same holds true in India. Everyone in the family makes sure the mom-to-be is eating well and is protected from any hazards. 

Sweden: “You can certainly expect to be given a seat on public transportation,” says Carina Westling. “At the same time, it’s not polite to assume that a pregnant woman needs lots of attention. In Sweden today, people are accommodating but don’t see pregnancy or motherhood as defining you. That would be considered rude.” 

Dominican Republic: “Pregnancy and motherhood are ingrained in the culture of Latin American countries,” says BabyCenter editor Isidra Mencos. “Mothers and motherhood are revered, and pregnant women receive respect wherever they go.” 

Canada: Sometimes women or older men will give you their seat on the streetcar, says BabyCenter editor Ann Elisabeth Samson. “One challenge is making sure that they know you’re pregnant, particularly in winter when you’re wearing a bulky coat,” she says. “I’ve been known to unbutton my coat and show my belly in order to get a seat.”  

Food, glorious food

Mexico: In Mexico and other Latin American countries, many believe that if you don’t eat the food you crave during pregnancy, your baby will have a birthmark shaped like that food. 

England: According to British folklore, pregnant women often crave coal. But Sasha Miller says that in general, the idea of cravings during pregnancy “has pretty much gone out the window. Now people just see pregnancy as a good excuse to eat ice cream at midnight.” 

Panama: New moms should eat only fresh, homemade food — nothing processed or from a can. It’s believed that this will prevent colic and help the mother regain her figure. 

India: Vidya Sen says that in southern India, a woman lets her family know she’s pregnant by asking for sour and tangy foods, like raw mangoes or tamarind (a sweet and sour fruit). “This is how the elders of the household (especially in rural areas) learn that she’s pregnant,” says Sen. 

China: There are many widely held food taboos, says Joy Jia. For instance, people believe a pregnant woman should never eat crab, because, according to traditional Chinese medicine, crab is a “cold-natured” food that will cause miscarriage in early pregnancy. Chinese women used to be encouraged to eat a lot during pregnancy, especially protein. They also gained a good deal of weight. This is beginning to change, particularly in urban areas, because China has seen a rise in pregnancy-related diabetes. Jia says doctors now caution moms-to-be to follow a moderate diet during pregnancy.  

Naming traditions East and West

Many people believe it’s bad luck to tell anyone the name you choose for your child before the birth. 

China: A current trend is to take the five elements (gold, wood, fire, water, and earth) into account when choosing a name. According to the Chinese classic The Yi Jin, or I Chin, depending on exactly when a child is born, he’ll be strong in certain elements, and this will shape his destiny. Chinese characters, or letters, also bear characteristics of the five elements — a character may have the quality of wood, for example. Many parents believe that the characters in a name can compensate for elements that are lacking. If a baby “lacks water” because of his birth date, a character representing water in his name would make up for that shortcoming. Parents commonly pay an expert to help them identify the appropriate name for their baby. 

Sweden: Families typically choose two to three first names for their baby, according to Carina Westling. “Sometimes names have a family reference, but as a rule people follow their fancy,” she says. 

Spain: People in Spain and other Latin countries have historically named their children according to Catholic tradition — “Maria” has always been a common name, for example. Boys are traditionally given their father’s or grandfather’s name. But naming traditions are changing, according to Isidra Mencos. “Today there’s much more creativity and freedom,” says Mencos. “Many more parents are simply choosing names they love.”  

Dads: You’ve come a long way — maybe

 It’s increasingly common for dads to take half of the couple’s allotted parental leave time (480 working days) to stay at home with a new baby. According to BabyCenter editor Carina Westling, “Many studies show that couples who share parenting and household duties have more resilient marriages and happier families.” 

China: Fathers tend to be very involved with their children — perhaps because most families still have just one child. In fact, that used to be the law. But BabyCenter editor Joy Jia says this is beginning to change: Now, in many provinces, a couple can have a second child if both were single children themselves. In the rural areas of some provinces, a couple may have a second child only if their first is a girl. 

Australia: Women are still the primary caregivers. BabyCenter editor Danielle Townsend cites a recent study showing that women still do 70 to 75 percent of childcare and housework in Australian homes. 

England: British dads are “better than their own fathers when it comes to being involved parents,” says BabyCenter editor Sasha Miller. “But they still leave most childcare duties to Mom.” According to Miller, researchers in Britain have found that women do twice as much childcare and housework as men do. 

Spain: Even though 80 percent of women work, they also do most of the childcare and chores on the home front. Baby Center editor Isidra Mencos points out that this double workload leaves women overwhelmed and has been linked to high rates of depression among Spanish women. 

India: Many women still return to their family home before giving birth, to be cared for by their mother and other family members, and their husbands are usually not present when the baby is born. Vidya Sen thinks this tradition creates an unfortunate distance between husband and wife. “The dad happily goes away and doesn’t see his wife again until after the baby is born,” she says. “He has no idea what she has gone through, so he can’t empathize or understand her experience.” Luckily, things are changing in urban areas and the husband plays a more active role during pregnancy and after the birth.  

Sleep, blessed sleep

 There’s a division between those who support “controlled crying” (similar to the Ferber method) and those who see it as unnecessarily cruel. According to Carina Westling, “In general, people in Sweden don’t take a strong disciplinary approach. Some people have family beds and some do not, but in general it would be considered quite harsh to turn a child away if he needed a cuddle at night.” At the same time, some people strongly advocate the controlled crying approach. 

Spain: The family bed isn’t very common. Babies usually sleep in a bassinet in their parents’ room for the first few months, then in a crib in their own room. 

China: Many children stay in their parents’ bed until they’re 2 to 3 years old. “No one would ever let their baby cry it out — this is not accepted in China,” says Joy Jia. “People soothe their children to sleep. Of course, in Chinese households there are a lot more people around — grandparents particularly — to hold the infant and otherwise help the parents.” When children are not in their parents’ bed, they’re likely to sleep in a bed in the same room until they’re 3 or 4, or even older.

England & United States: Many experts and parents seem to agree to disagree on the heated subject of sleep sharing. A lot of people in the UK co-sleep, according to Sasha Miller. “It goes against most experts’ advice, but it’s neither frowned upon nor applauded by most parents,” she says. In the United States, a 2003 study suggests, co-sleeping is on the rise. The study found that between 1993 and 2000, the number of babies 7 months old or younger who usually shared a bed with an adult grew from 5.5 percent to 12.8 percent. 

India: Co-sleeping is the norm. “Ninety-nine percent of families do it,” according to Vidya Sen. Many families share a bed until the child is in his early teens.  

Mother’s Day North and South

 Mother’s Day (May 10) is widely celebrated in schools; kids dance and create handmade gifts for Mom. “In the home, a family with the means will even hire a mariachi band to sing special songs in honor of Mother’s Day,” says Isidra Mencos. 

Austria: Mother’s Day (celebrated on the first Sunday in May) is “a very busy day for families in Austria,” according to BabyCenter editor Ilse Eichinger. Children learn poems in school and recite them in the morning. They make breakfast for their mother, as well as homemade cards and handicrafts. 

Dominican Republic: Mother’s Day is celebrated on the last Sunday in May with a large family gathering. Families often sing a special Mother’s Day anthem, “Himno a las Madres,” written in the ’20s by the wife of a former president and taught in school. It’s as common as singing “Happy Birthday” at a birthday party in the States. 

Australia: Mother’s Day is treated with a fair amount of cynicism, according to Danielle Townsend. “We see it as a pretty commercial enterprise. Lots of people have a family lunch with their mum, they give flowers and chocolate, but it isn’t viewed with a lot of reverence,” she says.

United States: Families tend to have their own rituals, but Mother’s Day is definitely a family day here. Some mothers get breakfast in bed or dinner out. Others indulge in the luxury of sleeping late. The most popular gift? According to a BabyCenter poll, mothers said they most hoped to receive “anything made by my children” or “a card, a letter, or some other gift from the heart.”  

Mother dreams

What do you think mothers in your country want most for their children? 

Germany: Cordula Zastera — “A healthy and fortunate life.” 

United States: Linda Murray — “Parents in the states want their children to get a good start in life so that they can be happy and successful later on.” 

Spain: Isidra Mencos — “A close-knit family and a good education.” 

China: Joy Jia — “A happy and fulfilling life. Education is considered one of the keys to this.” 

India: Vidya Sen — “Good education, a good job, and a secure future.” 

Austria: Ilse Eichinger — “Health, good friends, and a lot of pleasure.” 

The BabyCenter 7: Mom phrases not lost in translation

We asked BabyCenter editors around the world for sayings that reflect common feelings about motherhood in their country. Here are some of our favorites: 

China: Shi shang zhi you mama hao. — “The best thing in the world is your mom.”  

Germany: Zwei Dinge sollen Kinder von ihren Eltern bekommen: Wurzeln und Flügel. — “Parents should give their children two things: roots and wings.”  

Austria: Kindermund tut Wahrheit kund.– “Children always speak the truth.”  

India: Ishwar sarvavyapi ho, isliye ishwar ne har parivar mein ek Maa di hai. — “God couldn’t be everywhere, so he gave each family a mother.”

Switzerland: S’Mami isch die Bescht. Wenns ihre guet gaaht, gaahts allne guet. — “Mom is the best — and if Mom isn’t happy, nobody is happy.”

Sweden: Sma barn, sma problem, stora barn, stora problem. — “Small children, small problems; big children, big problems.”  

Spain, Mexico, Cuba: Madre no hay más que una. — “You only have one mother.”