Birth traditions: a global snapshot of how new babies are welcomed around the world

Posted by
Sarah Kershaw
21 February 2019
Nigeria, India, Japan, The Americas, Water, Children
HOLY WATER:  In the USA, a priest baptises four month old Emmeline at the Roman Catholic Holy Family Church in New Jersey. Some Catholics believe pouring holy water over a baby’s head absolves them of original sin.
Image: WaterAid/ Jill Costantino

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February 21, 2019 - A fascinating new photo series launched by WaterAid today reveals the different traditions observed by communities around the world to ‘protect’ mothers and welcome new babies, giving them the best start in life.

From postpartum porridge-making and paint masks to baptisms and beer-brewing, the striking images reveal how ten countries from the UK to India and Uganda to Sweden celebrate new life.

The touching series is being released by WaterAid which aims to help protect mothers and ensure all babies have the best possible start in life by getting clean water, decent sanitation and good hygiene in health centers access the world.

It features traditions such as Nana Fatsuma in Nigeria, where a stick with twig-like fingers is placed in a bowl of water and given to the labouring mother to hasten delivery, the Okuizome first food ceremony for babies in Japan, and the Ghanaian custom of Nila where a small cut is made on the child’s face to protect them from convulsions.

Rinku, 22, from Delhi, followed the Indian baby tradition of applying thick, black paste called kohl to her daughter Kritika’s eyes.

Rinku said:

“The tradition of applying kohl or ‘kajal’ to the infant’s eyes and forehead began long ago and has been taught to each generation by the elders. The black kajal protects the child from any evil spirits and keeps them healthy.”

Water plays a key role in many of the traditions; it is used to make a special porridge for new mums in Malawi and is mixed with ground tree branch to form a paste to create a ‘masonjoany’ mask in Madagascar.

Nome, 21, wore the mask as part of the Manaboaka Jabely tradition after giving birth. She said:

“In our culture, mothers like me and our newborn babies are not allowed to go outside during the first seven days after the birth. The mother is still suffering and the baby is still very fragile. My older sister applied a ‘masonjoany’ mask to my face to protect it from the sun and from all bad spirits. Once we have made it through these sacred critical seven days, we step outside for a short time to face the reality of life and the bright sun.”

However, one in nine people around the world have no access to clean water, while one in three health centres have no safe water source. Babies born in these health centres will face health risks such as infections, which can be fatal. Every minute a newborn baby dies from infection caused by a lack of safe water and an unclean environment.

Tim Wainwright, Chief Executive of WaterAid UK said:

“The birth of a new baby is a time of great joy and celebration, and all over the world, communities hold to traditions believed to keep the mothers safe and bring the babies good luck, happiness or good health. But for the millions of mothers who have no choice but attend a health center without clean water, they do not have the most important thing to welcome any new life – clean water and a hygienic environment.

“It’s unacceptable that in the developing world one in three health centers do not have clean water. This means doctors and midwives cannot protect their patients from the risk of infection, and the consequences can be fatal. That’s why we’re putting clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene at the heart of healthcare, helping save lives every day. Healthcare workers can keep their hands and utensils clean; mothers can give birth more safely; and children can stay healthy and in school. That’s the water effect.”

To help get clean water and sanitation in health centers around the world, support WaterAid.


Download the photos:

Photos include traditions from the following countries: Madagascar, Malawi, India, Nigeria, Ghana, Sweden, America, Scotland, Uganda and Japan.

For more information, contact Emily Haile at [email protected].

Notes to Editors: 

WaterAid is working to make clean water, decent toilets and good a reality normal for everyone, everywhere within a generation. The international not-for-profit organisation works in 28 countries to change the lives of the poorest and most marginalized people. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 25.8 million people with clean water and 25.1 million people with decent toilets. For more information, visit, follow @WaterAidAmerica or @WaterAidPress on Twitter, or find WaterAid America on Facebook at

  • 785 million people in the world – one in nine – do not have clean water close to home.
  • 2 billion people in the world – almost one in three – do not have a decent toilet of their own.
  • Around 310,000 children under five die every year from diarrheal diseases caused by poor water and sanitation. That's over 800 children a day, or one child every two minutes.
  • Every $1 invested in water and toilets returns an average of $4 in increased productivity.
  • Just $24 can provide one person with clean water.

To find out if countries are keeping their promises on water and sanitation, see the online database