As a new mom, you’re probably facing issues you’ve never had to deal with before, from breastfeeding to keeping your baby’s umbilical cord stump clean. So many new challenges can make you feel insecure, especially if you’re surrounded by abuelitas or other expert moms eager to give you all kinds of advice about childrearing.
Latino culture has many traditions about how to care for your baby and what to do when your baby gets sick. These popular beliefs were the basis of childcare when there was no scientific explanation for certain illnesses. (Traditional practices attributed illness to a blend of physical and spiritual causes.)
When a baby is born into a Latino family, it’s common for the elders to offer the new mom advice and support. The help they offer for breastfeeding, for instance, is very important because some women do experience difficulties at first and family support can help you keep going when you want to quit. But you may also get some advice about practices that are based more on traditional Latino culture than on modern medicine.
Listen to your elders’ recommendations, keeping in mind that these traditions are part of a rich culture and heritage. But if the advice sounds dangerous in any way, explain why you’d like to do things differently or even just graciously thank them for their advice and leave it at that.
Invite your family members to come along to your next pediatric appointment, so that they can hear firsthand from the doctor why some traditional practices have been replaced by other medical recommendations.
Latino culture has very strong and ingrained beliefs about how to care for the umbilical cord stump. Long ago it was thought that babies could take in air through their belly button, so it was kept covered. In fact, in many places in Latin America you can still buy ombligueras – a kind of gauze or fabric made for wrapping snugly around the baby’s tummy.
Another tradition says that when the dry umbilical cord stump falls off, you can keep the belly button from becoming an “outie” by placing a button or a coin on it and then covering it.
The truth is that putting pressure on the belly button doesn’t alter its shape. The belly button is the scar that’s left after the umbilical cord stump has fallen off. The stump is an opening in the skin that has to heal, and the best way to care for it is to keep it dry, clean, and exposed as much as possible. Covering it with something can cause an infection.
Umbilical hernias are relatively common in newborns. Inside your womb, food and oxygen were delivered to your baby through the umbilical cord. And the muscles that covered your baby’s belly were slightly separated to allow a small space for the cord.
Muscles usually fill that space after birth, but sometimes they don’t. When this happens, a small part of the intestine bulges out through the gap and can be felt on the baby’s tummy. Many hernias go away on their own, but some might require surgery if they’re especially big.
As with the umbilical cord stump, popular belief says that wrapping the baby tightly in a girdle to apply pressure will make the hernia disappear. There’s no proof that this is true, and compressing a baby’s tummy can cause discomfort and even vomiting.
The fontanel is the soft spot on top of the baby’s head, where the skull has not completely closed yet. According to tradition, the fontanel becomes sunken when a baby is withdrawn from the nipple too suddenly. It’s also said that this can happen if someone gives the baby the evil eye. Popular remedies for a sunken fontanel are to hold the baby upside down and strike the soles of her feet, to press a thumb against the roof of the baby’s mouth, or to place a raw egg yolk in the fontanel and let it dry.
These maneuvers could be dangerous for a baby. Even more important, a sunken fontanel could be a sign of dehydration, a serious condition that requires immediate medical assistance. For some babies, a sunken fontanel is nothing to worry about, but check with your doctor if you’re unsure.
Babies get dehydrated very easily, and just giving them water isn’t enough. If you think your baby may be dehydrated, call or see a doctor immediately – especially if your baby is also feeding poorly and her diapers are dry.
Latino traditional medicine relies heavily on theories related to cold and heat. Something cold can cause an illness by chilling the body, and something hot can cause an illness by heating the body.
So if someone has a problem that seems related to cold or heat, traditional Latinos would not offer certain foods that would (it’s believed) make the condition worse. In addition, traditional Latinos believe babies feel the cold more than adults do, and therefore need to be more bundled up.
Although it’s true that babies can’t regulate their body temperature properly for 24 to 48 hours after birth, shortly thereafter they perceive heat and cold pretty much as adults do. Bundling them up excessively can make them uncomfortable and cause other problems such as heat rash. Overdressing a baby while he’s sleeping has also been related to a higher risk of sudden infant death syndrome ((SIDS).
Avoid giving a young baby herbal teas or home remedies to fight “body cold.” Before age 4 to 6 months, a child’s digestive system isn’t ready for anything other than breast milk or formula, and herbal remedies might cause diarrhea or other health problems.
When a baby cries inconsolably, appears nervous, or doesn’t want to eat, the traditional explanation is that the child is suffering from fright or panic (susto or espanto in the words of many abuelitas). This means that something or someone has frightened the baby and that fright is still inside her, causing her restlessness. Traditional healers or curanderos usually treat this condition with a blend of spiritual rituals and herbs.
There are many possible explanations for a baby’s crying jags or lack of appetite, and your baby’s doctor should rule out any medical conditions. A spiritual ritual may be beneficial for both your baby and your family, if it helps you all calm down. But be very wary of herbs because they can cause diarrhea and other problems.
Sometimes a breastfeeding mom who experiences susto will want to stop breastfeeding so she doesn’t pass the condition to her baby. An alternative is to pump her breast milk to maintain her supply and start breastfeeding again once the susto goes away.
According to tradition, a baby who is the victim of the evil eye, or mal de ojo, can run a fever, cry nonstop, or show other symptoms. To protect babies from the evil eye, they’re given a red or pink bracelet to wear, or a seed (such as ojo de venado or azabache) to wear around the wrist or neck.
There’s nothing wrong with protecting your baby from the evil eye, but keep safety in mind: Don’t hang the amulet around your baby’s neck or anywhere that he can grab it and swallow it. You can put it in the stroller, over the crib, or somewhere else out of reach.
As for the symptoms of evil eye, just as with the symptoms of fright, there are many possible causes. Check with your doctor and take the necessary medical steps to make your baby better.
Respecting our elders and our traditions isn’t necessarily at odds with modern medicine. But for the best chance of keeping your baby healthy, always consult a doctor to treat illnesses and ask whether the traditional practices you’re considering are safe and advisable.
If you don’t have medical insurance, there are ways your baby can be treated at no cost to you.
By Lourdes Alcañiz, author of Waiting for Bebé: A Pregnancy Guide for Latinas