Culture – Hmong Pregnancy Superstitions

Renee Ya wearing a traditional White Hmong outfit
I am planning on doing a couple of culture pieces as reflections of my heritage, Hmong. You can read a extremely light-version of my ancestry by going to the Hmong Wikipedia entry.

Hmong Superstitions

  1. Hmong Superstitions – Pregnancy
  2. Hmong Superstitions – Postpartum

In this feature, I will talk about Hmong pregnancy superstitions.

Eat What Your Crave

It is very well known that if you do not eat what you are craving during your pregnancy, your baby will come out with certain birth deformities or birthmarks due to it.

For example, if you do not eat chicken, your baby will get what they call “Chicken ear” which is extra skin by the ear.

photo by Janelle Aby, MD (Copyright Stanford Medical)

I, for example, was born with this skin tag but do not have any photo evidence as my father removed it by wrapping a piece of thread tightly around it until it fell off when I was only a few days old. There was only minimal bleeding, as there were no veins attached to it. I still have a little scar from where it used to be.

Cutting Your Hair Could Hurt Your Baby

Hair in the Hmong culture is like a symbol of one’s youth and beauty. Growing up I would hear stories about how my paternal grandmother’s hair was so long that it dragged on the ground if she did not put it up in a braid.

During your pregnancy, your hair is a representation of your baby’s health. To cut it would then mean cutting their well-being and potentially harming them.

There are also some who say if you cut your hair, the baby will be born with the umbilical cord wrapped around their neck.

With my first pregnancy, I cut my hair when I was about 7 months pregnant, but did not suffer any of these issues. I got a hair cut very early on in my second pregnancy (about 6 weeks), so I will have to report back to you on this one.

Don’t Go Near Bodies of Water

The Hmong are animists and have a deep and rich culture surrounding that of spirits and utilizing Shamans to speak to them.

Some spirits are good and will help to protect you and those you love. These spirits you must sacrifice animals and burn paper money to appease them.

Some spirits are bad and harmful. You must avoid these kinds of spirits at all costs.

It is believed that in nature-born bodies of water live spirits that guard and protect the water. They are naturally jealous and will try to take your spirit. Because of such, women are not allowed to go near rivers, lakes, ponds, etc, for fear of the water demons taking their baby’s spirit.

During my first pregnancy, I went to visit my father-in-law who works at a reservoir, but did not go near the water at all. I stayed about 100+ yards away. For my second pregnancy, we went on a trip to Hawai’i.

So far, with both pregnancies I experienced pre-term contractions but with my first, was able to carry her to full-term (39 weeks). I am still pregnant with my second child (32 weeks).

Whether this superstition is true or not, there is definitely something to be said about keeping away from the water, either way!

Hard/Difficult Labor Could Mean You Need to Make Amends with Parents/In-Laws

If a women is having a particularly hard labor, it is believed that the reason for this is that there is ill-will between her and her in-laws.

Back in Laos, women who married would have to leave their entire family behind moving to her husband’s new village. This could be many, many miles away and because of such, communication with her parents was very uncommon. Nowadays, because women who are married can more easily communicate with both sides of their families, it could be that there is ill-will between either family.

If the women cannot progress in her labor, she is often times told to apologize to her in-laws/parents for any issues and troubles she may have caused. In doing so, this will release her from any bad feelings towards her and her labor will be able to progress.

During my first pregnancy, I had pre-term contractions starting at 33 weeks, and so I had fairly hard contractions for over 6 weeks until I gave birth to my daughter.

My father told me that I should apologize to my in-laws and to my parents in hopes that I would have a safe birth.

Needless to say, apologizing didn’t matter too much.

Drink A Boiled Key to Unlock A Difficult Labor

If apologizing to your in-laws doesn’t help your difficult labor, you could always boil a key and drink the water that comes from that.

Doing this will unlock your birth canal and allow your baby to descend.

Do Not Scream During Birth

It was documented in the popular book entitled The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, that Hmong women had to give birth in silence. The reason for this is because yelling or screaming could alert bad spirits of your labor and would then allow them to steal your baby’s spirit.

Many people have seen the Hollywood de-glamorized version of labor where the women scream and holler, but for some labor can be calming and soothing.

When I became pregnant, this idea of a quiet birth intrigued me. The idea that generations of strong women had the ability to control their pain and let it pass through them made me wonder if there was more to just screaming at my husband, “YOU DID THIS TO ME!” while in the throes of childbirth.

8cm Dilated and Counting

I actually did a lot of research on pain self-management during labor such as hypnobirthing and Bradley Method which both focused on advantages of natural, unmedicated births. I also had a doula present at my birth (which was my wonder husband’s aunt). While I was in active labor, she tried to encourage me to grunt and moan, but I just couldn’t do it. Making noises actually made me tired and feel out of control.

Breathing and just internalizing the pain to let it pass through me allowed me to store my energy and progress quickly through my labor. It was as if I had centuries experience of a quiet birth in my DNA. So even though I had been having contractions for 6 weeks, once my water broke to when she arrived, it was about 5 hours, total.

In my reflection of these superstitions, it made me realize just how oppressive my culture is to their women.

There are quite a few issues of telling a woman what she can and cannot do with her body, making them believe it is their fault if their child is born with issues, or if there are complications.

However, just one generation ago, my family were living in huts in villages, so I can understand that with limited exposure to modern technology and other cultures, their yearning to seek out ways to minimize things that were beyond their control was to adopt these backwards ideologies.

Ultimately, though it is great to document and expose these superstitions, it is up to each individual to take what they will from the myths and legends of their culture.



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2 responses to “Culture – Hmong Pregnancy Superstitions

  1. Pingback: Culture – Hmong Postpartum Superstitions/Traditions | Renee Ya

  2. Emily

    Hi! I am a nursing student writing a cultural paper on the Hmong (so awesome so far!!) I was wondering if you by chance know where I could find out the origin of the belief about eating what they crave. Or if there is a time around where this belief began, Thank you so much in advance! 🙂

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