“I didn’t know what was going on. My heart was racing, my head hurt, and I had no energy. I would get off of the hot coals for a while and gain my strength, and then I would get back on. It was terrible. I thought I was going to die.” My Cambodian friend described her delirious experience with an old traditional Cambodian postpartum ritual called Ang Phleung (Roasting Fire). Horrified, I thought of every way that this practice was exactly the opposite of what a new mom needed in order to recover from labor and delivery. This ancient tradition is based on the belief that women leave the “hot” state of pregnancy and enter the “cold” state of postpartum, requiring heat to preserve her health and strength. The woman will lie on a wooden bed over hot coals next to a fire for several days to a couple of weeks after delivering her child. During this time a grandmother or other family members will take care of the baby, not allowing it to nurse or snuggle with the mother. How sad! During this time, the woman will be given herbal drinks and salty “hot” foods. She will spend her time bundled up in warm clothes and a hat and smothered in blankets, despite the already sweltering climate. She will drink a tiny amount of water compared to how much she is sweating. It is truly a torturous experience and sets the mother up for lactation difficulties, weakness, dehydration, bleeding, lack of bonding with her baby, and many more issues including death. A woman in the next village over died from complications stemming from this tradition. Also, the poor little newborn doesn’t get time with Mommy or the precious colostrum milk that provides important antibodies and nutrients. Instead, he is given rice water, condensed milk or formula, and left in a hammock between feedings.
Ang Phleung is just one of the many sadly misguided practices in our local community. People here have extremely limited knowledge of proper prenatal care, newborn care and breastfeeding. Much of what they practice originates in superstitions and folklore. Due to the advertising of formula companies, much of Asia has come to believe that formula is better than breast milk. Since many families can barely afford food for themselves and their older children, expensive formula is a cruel drain on their finances. Consequently, babies often receive watered-down formula, sweetened cow’s milk, or the water from cooked rice. Many mothers have no access to lactation consultants and have a hard time conquering the hurdles of establishing a milk supply and teaching their babies to latch. For them, a bottle is just easier.
Rural hospitals are starkly ill-equipped to support a newborn in distress or a mother experiencing complications during or after delivery. Women are scolded for vocalizing during labor, and sometimes the medical staff will press on the bellies of the laboring women to “help” push the baby out. One of our neighbors suffered partial paralysis of one leg after a difficult delivery, and her baby barely survived.
Ever since moving to Cambodia and becoming aware of these needs for education and support, I have felt passionate about helping women before, during, and after pregnancy. Now that Stephanie Lewis and I have both had babies of our own and experienced some of the challenges of motherhood, we empathize with these mothers and have a little more experience and a lot more education we can bring to our community. We have discussed doing classes for prenatal care, birthing and lactation and making home visits to mothers in our area. This could open up opportunities for beautiful friendships and faith sharing. Over the past year, I have struggled to define my precise role in our project. After focusing on language learning, I now feel more able to communicate and teach about these topics, and I will learn much more along the way. Becoming a mother myself, I have gained an even greater understanding of this need and a passion to help. And now, with my own child, I have more credibility as well. Before I delivered my son, I was able to attend two classes taught by Ali Brooks (another AFM career missionary launching soon to the Fulani Project) and her colleagues at the Perinatal Rescue Network about how to provide emergency medical support to newborn babies and bleeding mothers in a low-resource setting. With these certificates (in addition to my RN training), I may be able to teach local hospital staff some of these life-saving techniques that could decrease infant and mother mortality.
We can’t stop all Cambodian women from roasting themselves on coals overnight. We are sensitive to the fact that this a longstanding cultural tradition. But by providing education and support, we hope to bring women a more fulfilling postpartum experience full of baby snuggles, enhanced nutrition and hydration and emotional and lactation support. Some of my neighbors have commented about Ang Phleung, “Oh, I didn’t do it. I didn’t want to die!” or, “I won’t have my daughters do it.” So it seems that times are changing.
Stephanie and I have lots to learn in these areas, but we can start with what we know, which could already be a blessing for many. As I write this, we are looking for an opportunity to re-enter Cambodia after the pandemic, and we look forward to making this a reality in the near future. If you have specific training in prenatal/postnatal care or lactation consultation, or if you have helpful materials of this nature that you would like to share with us, please email us at email@example.com. I am excited to see where God takes us in this new ministry to the Great River people!