Pregnancy Henna and Henna “Belly Blessings”
As most henna enthusiasts know, Henna as an art form has been used by many cultures, religions and countries for millennia. The most common thread that binds such disparate elements together is that of celebration. Every imaginable group has at one time or another wanted to celebrate a particular persona or a rite of passage. Historically, the most frequent uses for henna applications were to celebrate formal engagements and to prepare brides for their weddings, although many other occasions certainly saw the bold and delicate lines, the swirls, the browns and oranges of henna blossom on the skin of people all over the regions where henna is cultivated.
Although henna has become so popular and familiar that it can now be found at just about any fair or festival anywhere in the world, many henna artists today still specialize in creating designs for important milestones in life. Engagements, bridal showers/ bachelorette parties, weddings, etc. all welcome this ancient and ephemeral decoration.
Another obvious -and increasingly popular- occasion that invites the loveliness of henna is the modern baby shower. An exponentially increasing number of expectant mothers are choosing to hold Blessingways (also known as belly blessings) in lieu of or in addition to the traditional western “baby shower.”
I am one of those mothers and I am delighted to share my own story with you! I have been a lover of henna ever since I was first introduced to it in the world of belly dance. To truly appreciate how special my belly blessing was for me, I do need to give you a little background on myself.
I began bellydancing in 2001 and spent years actively learning, performing, studying, and eventually teaching and producing. I don’t remember the first time I saw henna at a dance event, or the first time I had it applied, but I do know it quickly became a ritual of sorts for me to always seek out the henna-even if I ended up not having time to get decorated. Since I live in Southern California, it was a wonderful inevitability that Debi Varvi and I would meet and become friends. Who doesn’t know and love Debi???
I was even honored to dance for her celebration party when she finally went full-time henna artist and quit her day job!
Naturally, despite my affection for henna itself, it became a tradition to ALWAYS book Debi (whenever possible- if she was at an event, I got henna, if I hosted or produced an event, I called Debi.
We developed a rhythm- I would tell her my emotional process- my theme for the moment, if you will- and she would have free license to create whatever imagery called to her…and it was always just exactly what I needed.
I discovered I was pregnant in July of 2014 -it was a HUGE surprise. After I adjusted to the idea, I started to think about all the preparations I wanted to make for my child, and of course, I knew right away that a celebration…or two… would be in order! I did not want a traditional baby shower-I have never really enjoyed them. (Ok I really dislike them, but I love my friends, so I go!) So my mom and a very dear friend planned a very mellow, non-traditional shower for me, and I planned a blessingway for myself.
I asked Debi to henna my belly in preparation for the blessingway, as she was the obvious choice for such a huge milestone for me- and she said yes! The preparations for the blessingway went smoothly with the help of my dear friends, and the day before, Debi (who would not be able to attend) came to my apartment to do what I felt was the actual blessing of the belly- the HENNA.
I was SO excited to see her and show her my huge BUMP! We talked and drank tea as she worked, and as always she came up with an inspired design that I absolutely LOVE. In the center was the Tree of Life. The tree had deep, strong roots, and the branches reached up to the sky. On one side a Lion reared up on its hind legs (my son’s name is Spanish for lion) and on the other side a dove of peace flew up out of the lotus of love.
Other popular imagery for belly blessings (depending on the mother’s personal inclination, needs, feelings, or wishes surrounding the birth and pregnancy): tree of life, lotus, flowers, fish, birds and mandalas.
I only have the stain shot -no paste shot, sad to say- so the design is a little hard to see:
(and what a great stain it is!!)
The next day was my Blessingway, and it was a truly beautiful event, and I adored letting my belly hang out in all of its hennaed glory! We danced, we shared words of wisdom, and I came away feeling truly loved and supported- and as prepared for birth as I possibly could.
Everyone’s Blessingway looks different, so I won’t share specifics, but I believe wholeheartedly that this is something that really helps new (or repeat!) mothers to prepare for the mammoth undertaking that birth is. When I went into labor, my henna had faded away, but the impression of my sisters voices, the warmth of their faith in me and their beautiful, fierce support was vividly present in my mind and body.
My choice to henna my belly was certainly not just to make it pretty (or hide my stretch marks!) “The increasing popularity of henna on pregnant bellies isn’t just decorative, but is a ceremonial blessing of the mother and child, whether outwardly presented as that or not. Likewise, people struggling through transitions or personal trials can use henna in a way that solidifies their intentions or some other personal commitment.”(Jim McDonald) Another interesting note “Cultures that practice postpartum henna have markedly lower rates of postpartum depression.” Ana Warren
My sweet son was born April 1,2014, perfectly healthy (after 22 hours and 40 minutes!) and I utterly adore him!
I definitely felt the application of henna to my blooming belly was a protection and a clear intention setting opportunity for me as a woman in transition.
However, as with all things pregnancy and baby related, many people have concerns about whether or not henna is really safe for expectant mothers, despite the fact that women- pregnant or otherwise- have used henna to enhance and support their fertility and health for millennia with no ill effects, and has actually been used as a medicine. (Caveat- there are MANY warnings about “black henna”- all of which should be taken quite seriously! PPD is dangerous!) That said, of course, there can be a few challenges to applying henna safely to a ripe and juicy mama!
There ARE contraindications: G6DP Deficiency (Glucose-6 Phosphate Dehydrogenase Deficiency), Hyperbilirubinemia, Anaemia, Any Chronic or acute condition which affects the your blood system, Any Chronic or acute condition which affects your immune system. (Printable PDF with guidelines here)
And in addition, applying or receiving henna on a pregnant body requires some awareness of the physiological changes that occur during pregnancy, especially in the last trimester. Some additional things to be aware of, both for mamas and henna artists, can be found here and here...note, in particular, the warnings about having the mama lie down/stand for prolonged times during the application (hint: DON’T!) AND about mixing henna paste with essential oils. MANY essential or “volatile” oils are contraindicated during pregnancy as they *COULD* cause uterine cramping and early labor.
Oils that are NOT SAFE ( Don’t use the following essential oils on pregnant women)
- Nutmeg, may have hallucinogenic effects, can react with pain-relieving drugs in labor.
- Rosemary, may increase blood pressure, and may cause contractions.
- Basil, may contribute to abnormal cell development.
- Jasmine and clary sage, may trigger contractions.
- Sage and rose, may cause bleeding in your uterus (womb).
- Juniper berry, may affect your kidneys.
- Laurel, angelica, thyme, cumin, aniseed, citronella and cinnamon leaf should also be avoided as they could stimulate contractions
(In general, as long as the pregnancy is going well, it’s fine to use the following oils! Some women do develop sensitivities during pregnancy they have not had before, so make sure to ask if they have been using these oils without problems!)
- eucalyptus- YAY!
- tea tree oil (not in labour)
- citrus oils, such as tangerine and neroli
- German chamomile
- common lavender
- black pepper
- ylang ylang
Don’t use ANY oils if you or your client (Yes, you will need to ask some personal questions OR play it safe and go sans oil.)
- has a (known) history of miscarriage
- has had any vaginal bleeding in this pregnancy
- has epilepsy
- has heart problems
- has diabetes, blood clotting problems, or have thyroid, liver or kidney disease
(EDIT: There is currently MUCH debate on the effect of all the aforementioned oils and in what dosages they are safe/problematic, and general consensus by medical personnel is to err on the side of safety. If your client wants to use oils and is already aware of all the above, the two of you can make your own informed decision on whether or not to use oils.**PLEASE SEE UPDATED NOTE AT BOTTOM OF THIS POST.)
STOP Hennaing and consult your Doctor or Midwife if you experience any of the following symptoms: Bleeding or unexpected discharge, Cramping, Faintness, Elevated blood pressure, Dizziness, Severe joint pain. (Catharine Hinton)
Side effects and other Special Precautions & Warnings: Children: Henna is considered UNSAFE for use in children, especially in infants. There have been cases of serious side effects when henna was applied to the skin of infants. See more here: Zainab Henna
All of that said, a Belly blessing is a beautiful way for almost every woman to celebrate her lifegiving powers and her journey into birth and motherhood. Want to plan your own belly blessing or one for someone you know? Get ideas HERE, HERE and HERE. Ok, one more! I especially love the candle ideas. So many lovely ideas…hmmmmm… Are you going to be applying henna on lots of blossoming bellies? Click here for some really inspiring belly henna ideas! HERE! And here!
Henna Art By:
Debi Varvi – hennacrone.com
Ana Warren – bloominglotushenna.com
Jen Helsel – jhennaart.com
Michelle Koopmans – hennavibes.co.uk
Charmaine Burnett – desertshadow.com.au
Photos Courtesy Of:
Henna Intensive & Retreat – hennaintensiveandretreat.com
Siren Song Productions – sirensongproductions.org
Ana Warren – bloominglotushenna.com
**NOTE ON ESSENTIAL OIL USE DURING PREGNANCY: I am a HUGE fan of essential oils, and did use them during my pregnancy, labor and birth. That said, the perennial question remains “BUT ARE THEY SAFE?” The simplest answer is: “it depends.” Pure Essential Oils are natural, but they ARE potent, and contaminated oils are also available on the market. For most individuals, casual use of essential oils of any quality will not create any negative effects. Exceptions do exist, though, and as artists who work with others’ bodies, we need to be as educated as possible, and understand the purpose of oils-they are not just yummy smells, or stain darkeners. For the majority of pregnant women, Lavender is a comfort, and not a problem, BUT for some women, lavender can induce nausea or -in the cases we are cautioned about- labor. There are also a few different varieties of lavender, which can have different effects. “Caution should be used by individuals to obtain the oil with the botanical name Lavandula angustifolia. Another form of lavender (Lavandula latifolia), usually called Spike Lavender, has a stimulating [problematic – it can stimulate contractions], rather than a relaxing effect. Their aromas are somewhat similar and the difference in smell may not be noticed by an inexperienced user.” Additionally, “There is a lot of confusion over the safety of lavender essential oil in pregnancy. That’s because lavender can be used to regulate periods. Rest assured that this does not mean using it in pregnancy raises the risk of miscarriage. However, for ease of mind, you may want to wait until your second trimester before using it.”
Use of essential oils can be a powerful tool, but the artist AND the recipient must both be aware of the benefits and potential risks, and choose how to proceed accordingly. Please, if you do henna on expectant mothers and/or children or other sensitive individuals, do your research. **