Raising children is confusing and stressful, which is why new parents rely on traditional wisdom and the experiences of others to help guide their decisions. But what one person considers traditional knowledge, another may interpret as bizarre or irrational. In psychology, this phenomenon is called magical thinking. Or, more commonly—superstitions.
When it comes to children, superstitions arise out of a need to exert control over the randomness of life and the difficulty of parenting. Parents act on superstitions to protect their offspring from the dangerous, unpredictable outside world. But how real or superstitious a certain custom seems depends on personal belief. Distinct cultural lenses are necessary to focus the blurry line between superstition and age-old wisdom, as is the knowledge that many of these traditions were born in times of high infant mortality and provided much-needed comfort. Read on to learn about some of the most unique ways parents around the world use superstitions.
1. SUMO WRESTLERS AND CRYING INFANTS // JAPAN
For 400 years, bringing babies to tears at the hands of sumo wrestlers has been a tradition carried out during Tokyo’s annual Nakizumo Festival. During the event, two sumo wrestlers stand in a ring while trying to make the baby they each hold cry. If the babies don’t cry, a referee will don a terrifying mask to help bring the babies to tears. There is a saying in Japan that says "Naku ko wa sodatsu," which translates to "crying babies grow fastest." The proverb harkens back to a traditional belief that a baby’s cry can ward off demons and promote the healthy growth of the child.
2. FLYING INFANTS // INDIA
In a few remote villages in the eastern Indian provinces of Maharashtra and Karnataka, a reportedly 700-year-old superstition continues to draw the ire of outsiders. Babies under the age of 2 (although some reports claim most of the infants are less than 2 months old) are dropped from the top of Muslim mosques and Hindu temples. The infants are dropped on their backs from dizzying heights upwards of 50 feet and caught by a group of men who break the fall with a blanket. Though widely condemned (and although most Indians don't even know the custom exists) and illegal under Indian law, some villagers gather to watch the (extremely uncommon) event and participating parents believe that it will bring their children good health, strength, and long life.
3. POST-BIRTH NAMING CEREMONY // EGYPT
Seven days after a baby is born, Egyptian families hold a gathering called the Sebou, which is like a post-birth baby shower. The Sebou is a rite of passage and the first ceremonial acknowledgment of a newborn; to celebrate a birth before the seven days is considered bad luck. Traditional Sebous involve scaring the baby with loud noises, like banging a mortar and pestle, to teach courage. At some ceremonies, the baby is placed on a sieve with a knife on their chest to keep away evil while the mother hops back and forth seven times over her newborn. Guests sprinkle salt around the home and on the mother to guard against the evil eye. After that, guests place grains and gold around the baby; other common gifts include religious verses written on prayer rolls and turquoise stones for luck.
4. DEVIL JUMPING // CASTRILLO DE MURCIA, SPAIN
The devil comes to the streets of Castrillo de Murcia, Spain each June to steal original sin from infants. During the celebration a man playing the character of el Colacho parades around the streets dressed in the garb of the devil. At the end of the multi-day festival, parents lay their babies down on mattresses in the street, and as el Colacho flees the town, he jumps over the hordes of infants. When he leaps over the babies, it is believed the devil soaks in the sin babies were born with and takes it with him. Catholics believe that all humans are born with sin, and this ceremony protects infants from their inherent wickedness.
5. STAY OFF THE GROUND // BALI, INDONESIA
On the largely Hindu island of Bali, after a child is born the placenta is buried in a special location and the cord cutting is delayed. But just as importantly, babies aren't allowed to touch the ground. After 105 days have passed, families celebrate by throwing Penyambutan, when the baby's feet get to touch soil for the first time, and it is during this celebration that the baby is given a name. A priest comes to the celebration where he blesses the family and the baby and helps as the family gives offerings to various Hindu gods.
6. CALLING BABIES UGLY // VARIOUS LOCATIONS
Westerners love to ooh and aah over babies, but in other places, admirers are purposely less enthusiastic. In Bulgaria it is believed that if a child is praised the devil will become jealous, so adults (generally) pretend to spit on babies while saying things like "May the chickens poop on you." In other cultures, including in Greece, Romania, and India, it is customary to spit on or near a baby that has been complimented to ward off the evil eye. In Vietnam, there is a superstition that calling a baby "cute" will make the baby turn ugly. Among families who want to keep away evil spirits, they will affectionately coo, "You’re such an ugly baby." Variations on this belief include Thailand, where ghosts will steal sweet-looking babies, and China, where superstitions say that praising a newborn will bring on evil spirits.
7. NEONATAL BABY TEETH // VARIOUS LOCATIONS
Not all superstitions are actions that people carry out; some are based on biological functions that no one can control. Natal and neonatal teeth are baby teeth that appear either in the womb or in the first month after birth. They have long been associated with superstitions around the world. Malaysian families have associated them with good luck. Nearby in China, the opposite is believed, with some communities going as far as considering babies with them monsters and demanding the removal of the teeth. There have been multiple accounts of isolated villages in parts of Africa where infants with neonatal or natal teeth have been killed or abandoned. In parts of Europe, it was believed babies with these early teeth would become great leaders—or potentially a vampire. And of course, the superstitions around losing baby teeth later on are just as old and widespread.