In China, despite warp speed modernization, the age-old practice of the sitting month still flourishes. For one month after birth, the mother stays at home and follows a strict diet and lifestyle that keeps her and the child healthy.1 In Columbia, something similar is practiced for a period of forty days. In Nigeria, the first bath for the baby is given by the grandmother or an elderly aunt. The ceremonial bath is a much-celebrated milestone. In India, the expectant mother goes to her parents’ home where many practices like the ones shared above are followed. Are these practices mere cultural protocols or do they have a greater significance?
While our elders may not have used the word “Epigenetics,” they must have understood its influence on a person’s health. For example, in Caraka Samhita,2 an ancient Ayurvedic text, there is a section called “Garbhini Vyakarana,” meaning the development of the embryo. It is the palm leaf version of What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
In it, there is a verse that reads, “If a cup filled with oil right up to the brim is to be carried without spilling even a single drop, every step has to be taken with care.” This verse refers to the care and nurturing needed for an expectant mother during pregnancy.
What’s special about this ancient text is it focuses on physiology as much as it does on the environment surrounding the expectant mother. The post-conception care as detailed in the texts offers prescriptions for diet (aahara), daily routine and activities (vihara), and medicines (aushada).3 Everything from recommended foods for each month, types of massages and exercises, air quality, sunlight, moonlight, aromas, and even music for the expectant mother are described. What we would today call epigenetic influences are well documented in the ancient text.
In Indian society, the tradition of sending the expectant mother to her parents’ home reflects an understanding of epigenetic influences. The custom is still followed, but many do not understand the significance behind it. For the longest time Indian society was agrarian, where the men worked the fields, and the women took care of everything else. Raising the children, cooking, cleaning, helping during the harvest, and anything else that needed to be done was handled by the women. It was a lot of work, and for a woman not to support her family by doing her share of the work made it difficult. But pregnancy brings on such an onslaught of physical and emotional changes that it is impossible to maintain the same energy levels as before.
The wisdom behind sending the expectant mother to her parents’ home was to ensure an environment free from any stress. This way, the expectant mother could spend the time in the loving care of her family without having to worry about expectations from her in-laws, labor-intensive chores, or her own guilt in not being able to help.
In her parents’ home, her lifestyle was set up in such a way that both the fetus and the mother were nurtured physically, mentally, and spiritually. The mother’s daily routine was well planned in terms of the food she ate, the dietary supplements she would have, her resting hours and some light house hold activities to keep her busy. The devotional prayers of the elders created an atmosphere of piety and peace. Various rituals and ceremonies punctuated the pregnancy, the significance of which was to keep the mother-to-be in good spirits. Back then, families were large, and people had many children. A house filled with the laughter of little children uplifted the spirits of the mother-to-be. The social support at home acted as an immunity shield for the mother.
Even though I am referring to Indian households, customs that honor pregnancy and suggest special care for the expectant mother are pervasive across cultures of the world. Earlier in the chapter I shared examples from China, Columbia, and Nigeria. Anthropologists have also studied these customs. For example, in her seminal work, Coming of Age in Samoa, the anthropologist Margaret Mead writes about the customs of the Samoans. She says that for months before the birth of a child, the father’s relatives bring gifts of food to the prospective mother, who lives with her parents. The mother’s relatives busy themselves making baby clothes and tiny baby mats. The pregnant mother is advised against any solitary work, heavy work, and to avoid extreme heat and cold. At the time of birth, the father’s mother or sister is present to care for the newborn, while the midwife and the relatives care for the mother.4
The physical, emotional and spiritual health of the parents affect their children. A 2018 study by Child Trends, a leading research organization in Washington DC,5 reported that “the parents’ health is one of the strongest predictors of child’s health.” Their research showed that parents’ health was more strongly associated with the child’s health than many other factors, including family income, family structure, parents’ level of education, and the child’s sex, age or race. Our elders intuited this knowledge and recognized that healthy mothers build healthy nations. Happy mothers make happy families.
Before you start packing your bags and asking your relatives to get busy with their knit kits for the baby, hold on. There are other factors, too, such as maternity leave, medical facilities near the parents’ home, sibling care, financial constraints and so on, that need to be considered. The central idea is the well-being of the mother-to-be – a safe, stress-free environment where she feels comfortable and supported.
If packing bags and heading out to your parents’ home is a good option, then by all means do it. But if for any reason, it’s not, then see what best can be done to create the right environment where you are. This may mean getting help from friends and family nearby.
In some scenarios, the parents-to-be may need to evaluate their career choices. When making these decisions, prioritize the expectant mother’s health and happiness. See what works best for her and then make plans.
Next month we will dive deeper into the epigenetic effects and explore the wisdom behind what the baby knows even before she lets out the first cry in the real world.
Q: My wife is expecting. How can I support her and make sure she is happy and healthy?
Daaji: Congratulations to you both. Your support and presence play an important role in the well-being of the mother and the child. I suggest you start with getting your affairs in order. Make sure you have life insurance and a plan for financial savings. As the due date gets closer, arrange for domestic help. If you can be closer to elders who can support you, that would be wonderful.
This is a special time. Use it wisely to deepen your spiritual togetherness. Meditate together, read together, and send positive suggestions to the child coming to your home.
From Chapter 7 of The Wisdom Bridge.6
To be continued.
1 Lim, L., 2011. For Chinese Moms, Birth Means 30 Days In Pajamas, NPR, heard on All Things Considered, July 20, https://www.npr.org/2011/07/20/138536998/for-chinese-moms-birth-means-30-days-in-pajamas.
2 Sharma, P.V., 2000. Garbhini Vyakarana, Caraka Samhita, 4 Vols. Chaukhambha Orientalia, Delhi, India.
3 Jhala, M. and S. Shankar, 2018. Post Conception Care Through Ayurveda, International Ayurvedic Medical Journal, ISSN: 2320 5091, http://www.iamj.in/posts/2018/images/upload/1800_1805.pdf.
4 Mead, M., 2016. Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. Mariner Books, Boston, USA.
5 Murphey, D. et al., 2018. The Health of Parents and Their Children: A Two-Generational Inquiry, Child Trends, https://www.childtrends.org/publications/the-health-ofparents-and-their-children-a-two-generation-inquiry.
6 Patel, K.D., 2022. The Wisdom Bridge: Nine Principles to a Life that Echoes in the Hearts of Your Loved Ones. Penguin, India.