An unborn baby is an old soul. A woman might dream that a man asks her if he can come to stay, or she might be visited by her dead grandmother asking to be reborn. She should generally say yes, unless she has witnessed a fatal accident recently, in which case the visitor is probably a ghost trying to be reborn before its time.
When she becomes pregnant the village midwife and elders advise her about diet, medicines, and activities. She should avoid spicy foods, as they make the baby aggressive and bad-tempered. Goose eggs will make the baby intelligent, and rice wine, herbal medicines, coconut water and beer, will all make it healthy. She should not drink milk or bathe at night, as these make for a fat baby and a difficult delivery. As a cure for morning sickness she should step over her husband, with his permission, which transfers the sickness from her to him. (For a woman to step over a man would normally be a major breach of protocol). The gender of a yet-unborn child can be predicted by standing another baby on the pregnant mother’s stomach and watching the reaction, or by the morning sickness (bad sickness predicts a boy).
Most Cambodian babies are delivered at home by the village midwife, assisted by female relatives and friends – men and unmarried girls are not allowed to be present at a birth. For a period after the birth, varying from a few days to a full month, the new mother will lie on a bamboo bed with a fire constantly burning beneath her in a clay pot. This is because she is “cold”, and her heat must be restored. Drafts, which would be cooling, are excluded, and a heated tile or stone is placed on her stomach. During this period she also eats “hot” foods, which were avoided during pregnancy. A wet-nurse will feed the baby for the first three days, but after that breast-feeding is favoured as this makes the baby intelligent and strong.
Great care is taken to ensure that the baby, its mother, and the midwife, all have their full pralung (souls). Prior to the birth a popil will be turned around the pregnant mother to call the baby’s pralung, and after the birth the mother and midwife tie cotton threads to each other’s wrists and ankles to attach their own pralung to their bodies. After the baby is born the midwife will “open the eyes” and “cut the wild hair” of the newborn and call its pralung to leave the forest and enter its body, after which she will tie a cotton thread with a gold ring to one wrist and a plain thread to the other – again, this is to tie the pralung to the body. After this is done the proper offerings will be made to the ancestor-spirits and the child can be given its name.If the birth takes place in a hospital the newborn will be given a spirit-kit of scissors, knife and other objects, and incense will be burnt to call the spirits. When the new parents take the infant home they can draw an X on the wall or on the baby’s forehead to deter evil spirits. One or two weeks later they will take it to the wat, where the monks will say prayers and sprinkle it with holy water and tie a red thread round its wrist, all for its protection. If the infant becomes sick the parents will take it back to the monastery for further blessings and perhaps an amulet to be worn round its neck. This will be in addition to, not in place of, taking it to a doctor or clinic. In both villages and cities the infant’s fontanel will be painted with rice-flour for several months after birth to close up the skull.
When the baby is a little bigger its mother from its former life will probably come to play with it. She will be invisible to the new parents, but when she’s present the baby will laugh and smile at nothing, and when she leaves the baby will be sad and cry. The former mother is generally harmless, but sometimes she loves her baby too much and makes it sick, and the new mother will need to make a prayer and ask her to spare the baby because she loves it. If the illness continues or worsens it might mean the previous mother wants to take the baby back to the spirit world; in this case the parents can hold an adoption ceremony with a third party, tricking the former mother into thinking that the infant is not hers after all. This period of supernatural visits and dangers ends at about the twelfth month, and the child enters the next phase of its life.
Old traditions are cute, but not necessarily desirable. From the World Vision site: “Sreymao Kun, a midwife at the health center where Sreynin delivered, explains what used to happen without care by a skilled provider.
“Before, most women followed old practices,” she says. “They showered their newborn baby with beer and put paper wasp nest dust on the baby’s navel. And the women were kept warm after delivery with hot coals. And what scared our pregnant women is that there are some women in the community who died because of improper delivery practices from traditional birth attendants at home.”
She continues with a sigh of relief. “But now, pregnant women are more keen to access services at the health center.”