11 Traditional Newborn Practices that may NOT be Safe

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Towards the end of my pregnancy, I was a nervous wreck. Having absolutely no firsthand experience in newborn care, I was frantically interviewing mommy friends and reading all over the internet about the various aspects of catering a newborn. Finally, with the baby in hand, thank God there were elders to fill in the gaps.

Grandparents are a great source of support in these critical days of a mother. What would we do without their expertise!

Exercise caution with these 11 traditional newborn practices

traditional newborn practices

However, I learnt that some of the suggestions coming from our experienced seniors may no longer hold good. It might have been carried out in their times due to lack of knowledge or lack of better options. Pediatricians and the modern science are against such practices.

In this article, I attempt to discuss some of the unsafe traditional newborn regimes. I have put forward scientific and my personal viewpoints on why they are not safe.

#1. Topping up with cow’s milk

We may receive advice to top up our breastfeed with cow’s milk. But pediatricians now recommend not giving anything other than breast milk or formula for the first six months of a baby’s life.

The composition of cow’s milk is ideal for calves, not human babies. When your baby becomes old enough to have a variety of nutritious foods, cow’s milk can provide some nutrition as part of balanced diet. But for a young baby who relies only on milk for nutrition, cow’s milk is in no way an ideal food.

In the first six months, an alternative should be sought only if there is a deficit in breast milk, showing as poor weight gain or infrequent urination. The alternative, in this case, should be formula.

You can refer to the posts on why cow’s milk is not advised for babies below 1 year.

#2. Topping up with semi solid foods

When my baby was just a month old, I was given advice to top up my feeds with milk extracted from ragi (finger millet). The argument was that baby was crying a lot.

I was shocked. Digestive system is not fully developed for small babies and at least until 17 weeks, they are not capable of digesting anything other than breast milk or formula.

Many babies younger than two months cry a lot and hunger or insufficient breast milk may not always be the reason. Again, weight gain and urination frequency are the best indicators of adequate breast milk.

#3. Smothering baby with powder

Some of our previous generations have learnt to associate a clean baby with the perfume of baby powder. You might receive advice to smother your baby with powder after bathing.

Babies tend to spit milk a lot and they smell because of that. Masking the smell with powder is not a great idea. Not only is powder unnecessary for a baby, it’s unsafe. The small particles in talcum powder can be inhaled by baby and cause breathing problems. We are also hearing a lot of news recently about baby powders containing carcinogens.

If you are particular about making your baby smell good, use lotions instead.

Powder is also used to dry baby hair after bathing and to dry the diaper area between diaper changes. It’s totally unnecessary. The obvious right thing to do is, dry them well with a towel.

#4. Kajal on eyes, eyebrows and all over the body

It’s traditional in South India to put large kajal dots on the baby’s forehead, cheeks and wherever space is available. It is said to give better growth to eyebrows etc. It is also to ward off evil eyes that are jealous of the baby.

However, the real evil might be lying in the chemical filled kajal products we buy. In olden days, kajal was made at home and was relatively safer.

When elders insisted on kajal, I make it at home and keep the dots as small as possible.

You can also refer to the earlier post on why I hate kajal in babies.

#5. Bathing baby in very hot water

We have a tradition of giving bath to baby in very hot water. It is supposed to relieve the pains that the tiny bodies experience and to help them sleep better.

Babies should be bathed in warm water just the way we adults prefer. I have heard of a baby developing blisters all over the body after a very hot bath. It can even lead to scalding. The ideal bath water temperature for baby is 37 to 38 degree Celsius.

When elders insisted on a hot bath, I diplomatically countered it by buying a bath thermometer. This gadget, when dropped in bath water, would show whether the temperature is ideal for baby. I always used it to test temperature before letting them give a bath.

#6. Having a person to come and give bath to your baby

It’s traditional in many places to have an expert come and bath your baby. With modern newborn bath tubs, bathing a baby can be easily done by mom or dad.

If you hire a person to bathe your baby, make sure she uses the right bath temperature. Also watch carefully whether she massages vigorously or carries out any unsafe traditional practices.

#7. Camphor/ Vicks for cold or congestion

When a small baby has a cold, it is advised to apply camphor melted in coconut oil all over their body.

While is it a great home remedy, remember that camphor is not edible and is poisonous even in small quantities. It should be used with caution and certainly not used near the mouth or nose. Make sure it is kept out of reach of children.

Our trusted friend Vicks vaporub contains menthol and it is not safe for babies under two years. Vicks makes a special product for babies over 3 months. But to my knowledge it is not available in India. It’s a handy product to get if you have a relative visiting from USA. Even then, it has to be applied on chest and back, not on the nose.

You can refer to the 21 safe home remedies for cold and cough in babies, toddlers and kids.

#8. Giving water to newborns

Recently, there was news of a baby dying in US because of water intoxication. The mother had low milk supply and the parents couldn’t afford to buy formula powder. Hence the breast milk given to baby was diluted with water. It was an extreme case to show how dangerous water can get for small babies.

Babies get adequate hydration from breast milk even during hot weather. If given formula, it should be mixed in the suggested concentration.

Giving water can interfere with baby’s appetite and cause her to take less breast milk. If water is not boiled well, it can increase risk of water borne diseases too. Babies need no water until they are introduced to solids around 6 months.

An exception can be made if baby is dehydrated due to diarrhea or vomiting, only upon pediatrician’s advice. You can refer to the earlire post on whether the water intake of your baby or kid is suffficient.

#9. Giving Ora marundhu or herbal medicine

In Tamil Nadu and other South Indian states, there is a traditional recipe of making a medicine for the newborn baby using specific herbs like vasambu, jaadhikkai etc in pre-determined quantities. It is orally administered for the general well-being of the baby.

Although it might be a great medicine, our pediatricians advise not to give anything other than breast milk, vitamin drops and prescribed medicines (when sick) to a small baby. Also think of the authenticity of these herbs in this modern world of inorganic farming. It’s better to stay away from this. I never gave this to my baby.

#10. Making baby sleep in hammock

Thooli or cloth hammock is traditionally used to put babies to sleep. There are some great aspects about the hammock. It hugs the baby closely and hence the baby will feel the warmth of the womb. It can be swung to make baby sleep.

However, when a small baby accidentally turns over, with her nose against the cloth, she may suffocate to death. I have personally heard of a few unexplained deaths when baby was sleeping in the hammock.

I did use thooli, because that was the only way to put my baby to sleep. However, I always stayed close by, watched him from time to time and was very alert even at nights.  I used a breathable cotton sari to make the hammock. Of course, I swung him gently to make sure I don’t accidentally hit his head against something.

#11. Other traditional practices

In additional to this there are a lot of traditional practices that may differ from region to region.

Here in Tamil Nadu, we have the practice of pulling a baby’s nose to shape it properly, pouring sesame oil in baby eyes, approaching a local, self-appointed expert when baby seems to have a sprain etc. Such practices may be dangerous. When in doubt, always consult your pediatrician.

Remember these points and get them across wisely to the elders in your family.

Happy Parenting! In just a few months, you will be an expert in understanding your baby needs.

Are there any other traditional newborn practices in your place? Do you think these practices are safe or unsafe for your newborn? How was your experience with those? Share with me in comments for the benefit of all other moms.

About Author

Vandana quit her software career because she found her mother brain lost capability to process anything beyond her child's needs. She lives in Chennai with her husband and two year old Vihaan Krishna. Becoming a parent has helped her understand life in a much better way. She wants to share her new found wisdom to the benefit of other judicious parents who are constantly wanting to give the best to their kids.

16 Comments

  1. Anjana. S. Vijayan on

    Most of the that u had with out any pre decision… this is not an authentic view. Its only your faults that u had done. Ura marunnu is not advised to use from the early period of birth…. It should be taken only after 2 yr. After this age the the intestine of baby should able to assimilate the drugs… Drug Adultration is the only authentic thing that u can promising…..

  2. Ashvini Naik on

    Great post, Vandana!

    Many new moms these days still feel intimidated by the advices of elders. And I’m sure, these overbearing elders are not our parents either.

    You could add another one there! Removing the witch’s milk. They don’t even try to know the science behind it. It’s just there for a few days under the influence of the prolactin hormones of the mum that were passed to the baby while in womb n through nursing.

  3. Ashwini S Anantha Krishna on

    I am really sorry to comment like this but some of above said traditional practices that you denied are totally untrue, some helped me a lot. I am telling this based in my experience. Till 6 months are complete no elders will suggest semi solid food or cow milk to new born. Hot water bath is necessary for baby’s body pain to go and sleep well, provided water is not too hot.
    Ora marundhu or herbal medicine helped my child cure fever and cold which English medicine failed to do. Ora marundhu has natural antibiotics and paracitamal properties which helps to prevent diseases in babies.
    Boiled coconut oil with Camphor soothes baby during congestion.
    Homemade kajal is very good for kajal if you have very old grandma she prepare it in home and give you.
    Bathing baby in tub is fine but when an elder baths baby its good for their health because us without any experience in bathing newborn we will kill it instead of saving it.
    Water is good for health. After 3 months you give water to baby so that their digestive system gets adjusted to goodness of water.
    Sugar water as soon as birth will protect baby from getting dehydrated.
    Pulling nose at least till 6 months helps nose to be in shape till your death. Because baby’s tenderness will put things out of place as they grow.
    I m against powder. Our ancient elder were against powder too. Instead of powder I use vibhuthi for my baby in some places.
    Hammock was hated by me as well therefore I provide a stick in between the hammock so that light and air is sufficient and baby doesn’t soffocate.
    Please don’t tell ora marundhu as dangerous without knowing its properties.
    Analyse before jumping into conclusion. I have read many articles before I adopted these traditional practices. I go for English medicine by pediatrician as well.
    My baby is growing up without much English medicines and practices and he is very healthy.
    Our ancestors have brought about some practices which even westner researchers and doctors appreciate.
    Hope all mothers analyse these peactices before denying them.

    • Preethi S R on

      Honestly, if you say you’d rather have an elder bathe the baby because you might kill it, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry… Bathing the baby is a basic comfort n hygeine we can provide for the baby.. if you cannot learn n give your baby something as basic as a bath why give birth at all… Women who feel they CANNOT do basic things for their own babies should not think of giving birth in the first place.. my baby was born in the Indian summer n we didn’t give sugar water..n I know of MANY mothers who have not either n all these babies are absolutely hydrated with JUST breastmilk.. think with your brains please, sugar is heavily processed sugarcane juice, which means an abundance of chemicals goes into it… How can that be good?! Secondly sugar as we know it today came only in 1800s.. the earliest known use of ‘kalkand’ is 400AD, but India n its cultural practices n Vedas dates several thousand years back n we as a human race have survived! Babies survive in DESERTS for God’s sake..
      I can go on about your comment.. so please check your facts, think with the God given brain before giving your baby anything – God help that soul!

  4. Very informative article, every women must read this article during her pregnancy and be well prepared. Also to add on, post pregnancy care for mother and baby is very important too. Gentle massage for both will result – mother healing post pregnancy and baby in effective growth. Just as it helped me and my baby, i tried sangopan for massage service and i would recommend it to all pregnant women around me. 🙂

  5. You are right Sareena. I have even mentioned in the article that the babyrub can be used on babies over 3 months. Yes, saline drops is the best solution for smaller babies. Nasal aspirator can be used if needed

  6. Hi Vandana..well written..And once again , the baby rub I know can be used as needed for 3 months and older babies.. Not on newborns..and simply saline from arm & hammer, for nasal relief..Correct me if am wrong.

  7. Oh yes Preethi, I’ve even heard of tales like why some men’s breasts are large because the milk was not taken out in babyhood. A handout from my pediatrician clearly mentioned it should not be taken out

  8. Yes Anu, even I have been subjected to sesame oil in eyes. But those were the days of organic farming and cold pressed oil from the oil mill.

  9. Well written post vandana! Adding to this which came immediately to my mind is removing witch’s milk which is not at all safe on babies. I had hard time hearing comments as my baby’s breast was hard and everyone blamed me as i didn’t allow them to remove the witch’s milk. As expected, it gradually disappeared and became normal within 10 days of birth, by itself.

  10. Ah! Temporary enemies! So true Roshni! Thanks for sharing more info about your babyrub brand. The brand which I have is Vicks BabyRub only.

  11. Roshni Mathew on

    Loved it Vandana!
    I followed my pediatrician so religiously that I made few temporary enemies 🙂 I was also poured with advices like giving water, starting solids early, putting kajal so on .. I am sure all of us would have gone through this. And the vapour rub u get in US is called a baby rub by little remedies. It’s very mild and suggested by pediatricians. Once again, good one 🙂
    Roshni

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