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Running Head: CULTURAL COMPETENCY PAPER

Cultural Competency Paper


Micronesian Beliefs Surrounding Pregnancy, Birth, and Postpartum
Christina Post
Kapiolani Community College

Running Head: CULTURAL COMPETENCY PAPER

Micronesia is located in the northern Pacific Ocean and is made up of nearly 2,500
islands with a population of more than 100,000. The region encompasses the Federated States of
Micronesia, Guam, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Northern Mariana Islands, and Palau
(Micronesia, 2011).
The women of Micronesia are responsible for child-rearing, finances, and family
responsibilities including- maintaining the household, food preparation and pottery making.
Traditionally, Micronesia was a matrilineal society, with its people tracing kinship through the
mothers family lines. Children belonged to their mothers clans and allocation of resources,
including land, were passed down through the mothers side of the family (Hezel, 2001).
Micronesian women are thought to be superstitious and had many beliefs surrounding pregnancy,
labor and delivery, and the postpartum period, some of which are still practiced today.
The first signs of pregnancy for Micronesian women are missed periods and food
cravings. The elder women are able to detect if a woman is pregnant by a white spot that appears
on the center of the womans forehead (Birthing in Micronesia, 2008). Regarding the sex of the
infant, if the womans stomach is round, the baby will be a boy; if her stomach is pointed, the
baby will be a girl. To ensure a healthy baby, women eat breadfruit, taro, fruits and fish. They are
also restricted from performing strenuous activities. Pregnant women are treated with the respect
because it was believed the chance of survival from the birth is slim (Birthing in Micronesia,
2008). The pregnant women are strongly influenced by their mother and grandmothers beliefs
regarding pregnancy. Traditionally, as Micronesian women advance in their pregnancy, usually
around the 5th month, they return to their own lands, leaving their husbands land in hopes that
they will receive the best care during labor and delivery from their own blood relatives (Hezel,
2001). Sometimes, her husband would accompany her. If for some reason they couldnt return

Running Head: CULTURAL COMPETENCY PAPER

home, she would send her relatives to stay with her during childbirth. Upon returning home, her
mothers brother hangs a special money bead around her neck, which is said to shape the baby
(Black, 2006). In Palau, a pregnant womans daily regimen includes eating special foods,
restriction on her activities, and a daily application of a special ointment made of turmeric,
coconut oil and fragrant leaves (Black, 2006). Men are not allowed to view the birth and must
wait outside until the baby arrives.
Childbirth was looked upon as a dangerous time for Micronesian women. Illnesses and
hardships that came to mothers and infants were attributed to spirits, who generally preyed on
weaker human beings. For example, the people of Chuuk were taught to fear the class of spirits
called chenukken, who frequented the shallows and reef flats (Hezel, 2001). An anthropologist
studying the Majuro (Marshall Islands) people wrote that pregnant women are thought to be
particularly susceptible to illness caused by ghosts of the dead, they are careful to keep a lantern
burning at night and a female relative usually sleeps close by in the same room. Women are
expected to endure the pain of labor silently. If they show pain, it is a sign that they are not
woman enough to raise a child and therefore a family member may raise the child for them
(Birthing in Micronesia, 2008). After birth, the custom is to bury the placenta and umbilical cord
in the land of its mother. The umbilical cord represents the emotional link between the mother
and her child and symbolizes the lineage ties that bind the child to his or her matrilineal lineage
(Hezel, 2001). It is also believed that if a fruit tree is planted over the placenta, it will produce a
bounty of fruit.

During the postpartum period, the mother quietly recovers at home and is fed special
foods and receives massages. In Palau, first time mothers go through a childbirth ceremony. Two

Running Head: CULTURAL COMPETENCY PAPER

to three months after birth, the young mother begins the period of omesurech, or daily hot herbal
drinks and hot baths (Ryman, 2010). A medicine woman gives the steaming hot baths, scooped
by coconut shells. The purpose of the baths are to restore the womans body, remove stretch
marks, and to clean out the womb (Black, 2006). It leads up to the Ngasech and lasts for 5-10
days. On the last day, or Ngasech, she is dressed in traditional clothes, including a woven
pandanus skirt and hair ornaments, and rubbed down with coconut oil and turmeric as she gets
ready to make her first public appearance as a mother (Ryman, 2010). The new mother enters a
steam hut, or bliukel, with her kinswomen. Taking turns, they each sit on a wooden seat with a
hole in the middle, that is set over a pot of boiling herbs. After the hot steam, the husbands
relatives put a piece of bead money around her neck and her sister lays down mats from the
house to the place where her husbands family has gathered. She slowly walks over the mats to
her husbands family, who begin singing, dancing, and welcoming the new baby and new
mothers life (Black, 2006).
Breast milk is considered the primary nutrition for the baby. A traditional custom that
may not be practiced today is the taboo on sexual relations for the nursing mother. The
prohibition of sex started in pregnancy and extended throughout the period of lactation for the
mother. It was believed that sex contaminated the breast milk and put the breast-feeding infant in
danger of contracting a serious illness. Women were taught to not resume sexual relations or
return to live with her husband until her new child was old enough to hold its breath under water
(Tseng & Streltzer, 2008). This practice was thought to provide longer intervals between births
and also resulted in a natural system of family planning.
The many Micronesian traditions and superstitions surrounding pregnancy, labor and
delivery, and the postpartum period, are geared towards protecting the mother, her child, and

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ensuring their good health. Although Micronesia is comprised of many islands and different
people, their traditions all seem to be similar regarding women and their path to motherhood.
Due to modern medicine and the influence of western countries, especially the United States,
more women rely on hospitals and medical doctors to care for them during their pregnancy and
birth. However, in Hawaii, as medical professionals, it is important to know and understand the
beliefs and traditions of the people of Micronesia.

Running Head: CULTURAL COMPETENCY PAPER

References
Birthing in Micronesia. (2008). Retrieved from
http://www.hawaii.hawaii.edu/nursing/RNMicronesia08.html
Black, P. (2006). Ngasech: Celebrating a Woman's First Child. Understanding the Asia Pacific
Region: Palau, pp. 44-45.
Hezel, F. (2001). The New Shape of Old Island Cultures: A Half Century of Social Change in
Micronesia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Micronesia. (2011). Retrieved from New World Encyclopedia:
http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/micronesia
Ryman, A. (2010). Childbirth Ceremony. Retrieved from Rites of Life:
http://www.ritesoflife.com/2010/rites/forsta-fodseln/
Tseng, W.-S., & Streltzer, J. (2008). Cultural Competence in Health Care. Springer Science &
Business Media.