Omugwo (after-birth Mothercare) among the Igbos of Nigeria

Woman breastfeeding a baby

Omugwo is the traditional postpartum care given to mothers (after-birth Mothercare). The practice is usually associated with the Igbo people of south-east Nigeria and their neighbours. It is something that is usually eagerly looked forward to by mothers because it is heralded by the addition of a newborn to a family. What joyous occasion!

Traditionally (this has changed in modern times), Omugwo was an exclusive reserve for daughters but not all daughters. It was the exclusive reserve of lawfully married daughters who bore live children. For every time a lawfully married daughter gives birth to a live child, her mother provides Omugwo for her. For the mother of a new mum, going for Omugwo is one of the highlights of her motherhood. Every mother who has a married daughter hopes to go for Omugwo at least once in her lifetime, not every mother gets the privilege. This could be a result of several factors such as if a woman’s daughters never married or if none of her daughters gave birth to a live baby. In of either case, the basic requirement for Omugwo is not met and the mother may never go for Omugwo in the traditional sense. However, in some cases even when the conditions are met, circumstances might make it impractical for a mother to go for Omugwo, for example, where the married daughter lives very far away from her mother or if a woman’s health precludes her going.

However, I hasten to add that these days, a daughter needs not to be married to receive postpartum care from her mother. In such a case, it is not called Omugwo, and frankly, I do not know what it is called. The reality as we know it today is that many women either voluntarily or otherwise, have children outside wedlock. Their mothers may provide postpartum care for them but such cases are not traditionally regarded as Omugwo.

See also: Traditional marriage in Igboland: The original cultural way

1.0 What is Omugwo?

Omugwo is the after-birth Mothercare or the traditional postpartum care given to a new mum by her mother in Igbo culture. (I am using the Igbo example because that’s the one with which I’m more familiar.)

During Omugwo, the mother of a new mother provides postpartum care to her daughter (the new mum). The term Omugwo sometimes refers both to practice and the actual practice. So a person goes for Omugwo (Ije Omugwo) to give Omugwo (Ileta Omugwo). Usually, it is the mother of a new mum that gives this care but this is not set in stone. Where the mother is not available, an aunt or another close relative can take her place. The most important requirement is that the new mum is comfortable with the person coming to give Omugwo. It is expected that this person has some experience with caring for a baby and a new mum. Their role is, essentially, to assist the mum in getting back to her pre-pregnancy state and transition into her new role as a mother. They give tips, help with house chores and grocery shopping, teach the new mom how to take care of a newborn baby and generally help the mum regain back her strength.

These days, these things are taught in antenatal care but a woman receiving Omugwo care gets to see the practice in action. Our culture knows the importance of good postpartum care to the well-being of a mother and her baby.

A black woman (Mother) with her baby. Omugwo in Igbo land, Nigeria
A mum and her newborn baby boy | Image credit: Batang Latagaw @jourdan (via

2.0 What happens during Omugwo?

One of the more important tasks a mother who goes for Omugwo presumably has is to press hot water towels on the belly of the new mum, ostensibly to reduce the belly fat and help the woman regain her pre-pregnancy body. I’m sure there is no scientific basis for this practice but our mothers, grandmothers and their mothers and grandmothers swore by it. What I think perhaps happens is that the hot water massage helps blood flow and helps relax the abdominal muscles. I don’t see how the hot water helps with losing belly fat. Yet, I know friends, highly educated friends, tell me that the hot water helped them lose belly fat following postpartum care. I also know another friend who asserted that not having anyone press hot water on her belly made it all the more difficult for her to lose belly fat after giving birth to her first child. I think it was all coincidence but some people swear by it. But if the hot water massage is great, why is the practice not universal? In any case, massaging the belly with hot water is one of the postpartum care a mother gives to her daughter during Omugwo.

As an aside, this post is not really about losing belly fat after childbirth but since we are here, I will just note that losing belly fat is a function of exercise and diet. Doing those correctly can help one lose belly fat. Genetics also play a role as is the age of the person with younger people more likely to shed belly fat faster.

In addition to the hot water pressing, mothers giving Omugwo also prepare special food, which they say is good for cleansing the blood following childbirth. These foods are usually prepared with certain spices such as uda and utazi seeds, and herbs such as utazi and uziza leaves. It is said that these seeds and herbs cleanse the blood, reduce blood clot, stimulate appetite as well as reduce pain. The foods can be rather spicy as well and include ji mmiri oku, ofe nsala, fish pepper soup eaten with a side of agidi, rich soups prepared with okporoko, dry fish and snail. Of course, the new mum is also given a lot of vegetables and fruits as well. These foods are usually delicious and a woman in postpartum gets pampered to the benefit of the rest of her household because they get to share these deliciousnesses as well.

Furthermore, a mother who goes for Omugwo helps in the care of the new baby. She helps in bathing the baby, soothing them when they are irritable as babies are wont to and holding them when the new mum is too exhausted to hold her baby. Some babies cry sometimes for no apparent reason, a mother giving Omugwo care can provide insight on what might likely be the cause and what to do in such cases to bring comfort to a crying baby. A crying baby can exhaust a new mum, having her mother around can help her during the period. She has someone who understands what she is going through and on whom she can lean on, as well as someone who can help take care of and bring a semblance of order in the household. Mothers are generally happy to take on the roles and be of help to their daughters during those periods.

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3.0 Preparing for Omugwo

For many mothers, going for Omugwo is the highlight of their motherhood. In fact, once a mother hears the good news that her daughter is pregnant, especially first-time pregnancy, she begins to prepare for Omugwo in anticipation of the birth. She asks for the expected due date and will gradually get together the things she will take with her for the postpartum care of her daughter. Things like local spices such as uda, uziza seed and utazi seed are ostensibly good for new mothers. Things like akwukwo utazi and akwukwo uziza, which can be dried and stored because they are not always in season. So, she collects and preserves them to take with her to Omugwo. If there are particular things that her daughter likes, she finds them to bring with her to Omugwo. And, naturally, she packs her luggage several weeks before the due date and patiently waits for the news of the safe delivery. These days that will come as a phone call. During my mum’s time, someone was dispatched from the city (or wherever the daughter and her new family were living) to the village to announce the arrival of the new baby and to bring the mother of the new mom. The mother who has been waiting for this occasion will shout for joy, dance and inform her neighbours and well-wishers that her daughter has delivered safely. Baby powder is shared with everyone to put on their face and neck. Biscuits and drinks too are shared. They had been kept handy in anticipation of the childbirth. People are just happy. The mother (whose daughter just gave birth) laughs, her husband beams, her other children if they are still living at home smile. In the old days, this further assures and cements the place of the daughter in her husband’s home especially if her newborn is a boy. So, her family is very happy for her. As for the mother, she starts the journey to care for her daughter that day or next depending on the distance and her preparedness.

After Omugwo, which can last up to three months (could be more or less), the mother is sent home with thanks and gifts. Some of the gifts are hers to keep. There is also something for the father of the daughter who had had to make do without his wife. There is something for the women when they come around to welcome their friend back home after a successful Omugwo. Which reminds me. I told a male friend that I was writing this article. He replied that I should also make a case that fathers should go for Omugwo as well that their job was not only to receive a bottle of whisky as a gift. According to my friend, men also played a role in birthing the daughter. And, of course, I see his point so long as the men would put in the care that is required. I see no reason why a man should not go for Omugwo.

4.0 A quick overview of why mothers are especially happy when their married daughters put to bed in the old days

The family of a new mother is happy not just because their daughter or sister has been put to bed safely but also because her foothold on her husband’s family becomes more firm. This was because in most cases those days until a woman gave birth to a live male child, her worth to her husband’s family was rather questionable. Until then she was in constant fear of being sent back to her parents. Now, these comments relate to what was obtainable several years ago when the sole purpose of marriage was to propagate the family line and marriage was seen as a means to an end rather than an end itself.

Our society was a polygamous one. Men will not think twice to bring in a second wife if they perceive, rightly or wrongly, their wives to be barren or if she “gave” them only female children. Who was going to carry on the family name? Never mind that in either case, the reason may be directly traced to the man. In the one case, he may have low fertility but men believe themselves to be virile so the wife got the blame. In this case, a second or third wife probably won’t solve the problem. All eyes will now turn to the man. He will probably ask one or the other of his wives to discreetly go out and do the needful. In some cases, they actively screen the man she will meet, looking out for good genes and maybe even choosing someone that was related to the man. It was not unknown for the man’s own brother or cousin to be the chosen one.

In the case where the wife has given birth to several daughters but no son. Men still blamed the wife. But we now know, at its simplest form, that if any blame were to be apportioned, the man should get it. That’s because -chromosomes. Females have the XX type while males have the XY type. A man will just have to be sure, he “donated” the Y and he will have all the male children he wanted. But these things are random by nature and no one controls them. But those days, the wives got the blame. They could be maltreated in their marital homes as a result and could be kicked out of their homes for something that was not their fault but purely random.

So, you can see why families are very happy that their daughters have successfully put to bed, especially, if the baby were a boy. It gives them an extra assurance that there is a reduced risk that the daughter will be maltreated by her husband or his family. Even if the husband decided to bring in a second wife, it will not be because his wife was unable to “give” him a live male child. In that case, the daughter’s place has been cemented and her child will get all the privilege that is due to the first son.

5.0 Omugwo in 21st century south-east Nigeria

Culture is constantly evolving and Omugwo has also with it. While the basic tenet of Omugwo – to provide postpartum care to a new mum – has remained steadfast, the person giving the care could be anybody. Furthermore, the timing can be different especially for later (second+) births. Sometimes, where the new mum’s mother was not available to provide Omugwo, her mother-in-law may take her place. Her sister, aunt or even close friends can take up the role in such cases. Women these days also have a say in deciding what type of care they want and can be selective in what care they prefer. Some may choose to forego the hot water press. Google and the internet also provide a rich resource that new mothers can access. Women also understand their body better and may not need some of the things our grandmothers swore by. Medical science has also grown and access to better healthcare means that women can make more informed decisions regarding their bodies and general health. In such cases, Omugwo is really more of a relaxing time for the mother who comes to care for her daughter. Her duty may be limited to helping give baths to the baby, teaching her daughter the correct way to hold the baby and reading and understanding some quirks of newborns.

For working mothers, they may defer the Omugwo until the end of their maternity leave. This is very practical and I approve of it. The idea is that a woman cares for her newborn during her maternity leave and her mother takes over afterwards. That way the newborn is cared for by the grandmother and is not immediately shipped over to daycare. It also gives the mum an added peace of mind knowing that her baby was at home and being cared for by a capable family member. And most grandmothers are really happy with this arrangement if they are in a position to help a young family.

6.0 Final thoughts…

They say a photo says a thousand words but I bet a video does much better than that. So, I shall leave you with this trailer of a 2017 Kunle Afolayan film titled Omugwo. The film is a hilarious take on the practice. On the one hand, a mother who eagerly took up the duty to give postpartum care to her daughter-in-law. And on the other hand, another mother who was horrified to be called a grandmother and didn’t want to go for Omugwo until she learnt that her daughter’s mother-in-law will be performing the role. She too decided to go leading to culture clash. The film touched on some of the traditional norms of traditional Omugwo care from a hilarious perspective. Watch the trailer below.



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