Human Planet Explorer
Hadzas are born in baobab trees and Nenets born in ‘chums’ built by their mums. But another quarter of a million babies each year wouldn’t be born at all if it weren’t for assisted reproductive technology. Pregnancy and birth may be the most natural things in the world, but that doesn’t mean they are the same the world over. Or even always that natural.
We will be adding to this section over the coming months.
The fact that humans give birth to around 130 million babies every year - and the fact that we have been having them for an awfully long time now - might lead one to suppose that we now know a thing or two about 'best practice' when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth. But the truth is that 'best practice' to one culture may be very odd practice to another.
In Liberia, for instance, many women believe that wearing a bra whilst pregnant can cause the umbilical cord to wrap around the baby’s neck, and that standing in a doorway for too long may cause the baby to go straight back inside the mother’s body after its first breath of air. But it’s not all bad luck. They also believe that if a baby is coming into the world too quickly all a mother-to-be needs to do is tie three stones in her skirt. After that, the baby won’t be born until the three stones are released – a handy tip when you’re still a long way from wherever you plan to have your baby.
And, of course, women do plan to have their babies in different places. Some babies are born in hospitals, others at home, others in special village birthing houses, and others in more unusual places. Just as their mothers and grandmothers did before them, some Hadza women of Tanzania still give birth inside baobab trees. Solid, permanent and impressively large, baobabs provide the Hadza women with sanctuary from the large predators which share their world.
But sometimes even a safe sanctuary isn’t enough to guarantee life and around half a million mothers still die every year as a result of complications with pregnancy or childbirth, and around 4 million babies still die in the first 4 weeks of life. Aware of the inherent dangers of childbirth, women around the world do whatever they can to improve their chances of survival.
In Russia, for instance, pregnant Nenet women build their own living spaces – or ‘chums’, as they are called – insulating them with reindeer skins to ensure that, despite the freezing temperatures outside, they and their babies will be warm and dry when the time comes.
But not all pregnancies and births are quite so at one with nature. Around a quarter of a million babies around the world are now conceived artificially and an increasing number of women are opting for caesarean sections instead of 'natural' births to give themselves control over what might otherwise be a painful and unpredictable process. So who knows? Perhaps 'natural' will soon be a thing of the past.