Letting Kids Be Kids: What Parenting in Brazil Is Like

From sandy beaches to surprising traditions, here’s what an American mom has learned about raising a child in Brazil.
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Published September 5, 2017
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The road to pregnancy and parenting is different for every family. For Shanna and Ky Adderley, it’s taken an especially unexpected path: After heading down to Rio de Janeiro for work opportunities, they welcomed their daughter Gisela in 2014 and have been navigating the twists and turns of raising a child as expats there ever since. We caught up with Shanna to learn what life as a mom in Brazil has been like.

How does raising kids in Brazil differ from the US?
Because products are marked up so high or are just not accessible in Brazil, parents go without all the “extras” that would be so common in the US. A baby’s room isn’t usually packed with tons of baby gear. For many people, strollers and baby slings aren’t available, so they just carry their babies everywhere.

One of the best aspects of raising a family here is that Brazilians love children. Even the most macho of men will fall into baby talk and play peek-a-boo with your baby on the bus. They also let kids be kids. In restaurants and public places, children are free to play and make noise without being hushed.

Preferential seating and lines is another bonus. Whether at the bank, grocery store or museum, pregnant women and parents with young kids have a line and seating specifically designated for them. It felt a little weird at first to take advantage of these special lines, but not having that as an option now seems strange whenever I come back to the US for a visit.

Have cultural differences led to any funny parenting moments?
It’s culturally acceptable for perfect strangers to offer all sorts of pregnancy and parenting advice. I happen to be a fitness professional who specializes in pre- and postnatal fitness, and I was told things like, “You shouldn’t be exercising. You should be lying in bed or on the couch for the last six months of pregnancy,” and, “If you exercise during pregnancy, your baby will be really hyper.” People would also say, “You want to have a natural birth?! A woman’s body isn’t made for that. It’ll be better for you to have a c-section.” After giving birth, I also heard other funny things, like, “You shouldn’t speak during the first four weeks after birth because it depletes your energy,” and, “You shouldn’t put your baby in a baby sling because it will cause brain damage.”

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How did your pregnancy differ from what you’d expect in the US?
I was surprised to find that there were only one or two locations that provided childbirth classes. They weren’t near where we live, so I wasn’t able to take them. But I did see a sign at the public vaccination clinic for postnatal classes that taught new moms some of the basics of infant care. I was interested in taking yoga or Pilates classes during my pregnancy, but that also seemed limited. I ended up starting my own mommy fitness sessions using a Facebook group to get moms involved. We would do things like walks or workouts on the beach. It was a really good way to connect with other women, share resources and bring together moms with babies of the same age.

When it came to health services, high-quality prenatal care is very accessible for people with means. Top care (for the small percentage of people who can afford it) is given through private healthcare at the fraction of what it would cost in the US. Doctors will spend an hour with you—totally uninterrupted—during each visit. They also give out their personal phone numbers so you can message or call them when needed.

What was your childbirth experience like in Brazil?
My labor and delivery experience was more or less the complete opposite of a typical birth in Brazil. While the majority of Brazilian women opt for a c-section (the procedure is seen as a sign of elite status, and the c-section rate is around 90 percent), I wanted to have an all-natural water birth. We had to seek out a specialist who worked with natural births. We were really fortunate to find one who is actually an advocate of natural birth and supported our decision. Because this isn’t the norm, both of the maternity wards we visited had only one room allocated for natural birth. I was concerned that someone else would be using that one room when I went into labor, but the hospital was not concerned in the least, and sure enough, the room was vacant when the time came. They also didn’t have access to a bath or birthing pool, so we ended up bringing in our own blow-up kiddie pool! I hired a doula to be by our side, but this also isn’t the norm for Brazilians. I found mine through a Facebook group for expat parents.

While an epidural would have been offered, I had declined one before going into labor. And because natural birth isn’t so common, my doctor was able to accommodate whatever I requested (sometimes it helps to have little precedent). For example, I wanted the room to be dark and quiet with no one coming in and out. I was able to have skin to skin contact right after delivery, and my doctor delayed clamping the umbilical cord. My doctor asked that the initial newborn tests be done in the room with us, so my baby and I wouldn’t have to be separated. All in all, the hospitals largely follow the doctor’s requests. My experience was unique in that my doctor really accommodated my wishes and didn’t push anything that was outside of my birth plan—but that isn’t always the case. Other moms I’ve talked with had doctors who claimed they supported natural birth but at some point ended up pushing a c-section anyway.

Were you surprised by any Brazilian childbirth traditions?
Because of the high c-section rate, the date of delivery is largely planned in advance. Women schedule hair and makeup artists to come to the hospital room to prep for photos immediately after giving birth, and parties are organized ahead of time to celebrate the birth of a child.

Another custom that took me by surprise: In order to meet the daily Vitamin D requirements, doctors tell new parents to take their babies out in the direct sun every day, as long as it’s before 9 a.m. The thing is, it can already be really hot outside at that time of morning, but everyone does it anyway.

What’s one thing parents in Brazil seem to get that you wish Americans understood?
They don’t feel any shame or worry about breastfeeding in public. It’s 100 percent normal and supported. A woman can walk down the street or do her grocery shopping while nursing her baby and no one blinks an eye.

As parents, do you receive any government perks?
Parental leave is much more accommodating in Brazil: Moms get 17 weeks with 100 percent pay and fathers receive four weeks with 100 percent pay. There’s also free public healthcare, but not everyone has access to quality care. That said, all socioeconomic classes enjoy the benefit of free vaccinations for the entire recommended schedule.

What does your daughter enjoy most about living in Brazil?
Gisela loves being outdoors: Every morning she wakes up and starts screaming, “shoes, shoes!” The next word out of her mouth is “agua, agua!” She loves living on the beach and playing in the waves and sand. She also loves playing capoeira (a Brazilian martial art) with her dad.

Do you think you’ll ever come back to the States?
Yes, because being close to family is very important for us when thinking about how we want to raise our children. But because Gisela is a dual citizen (since she was born in Brazil) and we have permanent residency, I think even once we move back, we’ll visit Brazil often enough. We started a nonprofit in Rio de Janeiro called PlayLife, which offers high-level sports training for children from under-resourced areas. We love Brazil and will always be connected to the country. When we leave, we hope Gisela will retain her Portuguese (Ky speaks mainly Portuguese with her). And when she grows up, we hope she’ll have an appreciation for different cultures and people, which will help spark her curiosity about the world.

Published September 2017

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