The Sacred Power of Getting Birthing Braids as a Black Mom

Like many expecting parents, Michelle Weatherall, a full-time content creator based in Sherman Oaks, LA, was feeling so anxious ahead of giving birth in 2021 that she was having trouble getting anything done. It wasn't until she visited her local braider that she felt her sense of reality return.

"I was falling into a state of deep sadness and fear, so I decided to distract myself with a hair appointment. But getting those box braids provided something I was afraid to say I needed at the time: confidence to weather all the unknowns of the postpartum period and the reassurance that, much like my hair, I could hold it together for my babies," says Weatherall, 28. The proud mom of twins now realizes that styling her hair was a coping mechanism for all of the unknowns associated with giving birth.

"Getting those box braids provided something I was afraid to say I needed at the time."

Hair care has long been a spiritual and sacred ritual in the Black communitydifferent styles can signify transitional periods in someone's life, including a promotion, marriage, pregnancy, or even preparing for the afterlife. It's become somewhat of an unspoken rule in the Black community that braids are especially fit for two occasions: in preparation for travel and ahead of the arrival of a baby. In both situations, routines are dismissed; there's the possibility of chaos while venturing into the unknown. Having braids that are easy to maintain and style means one less worry.

Birthing braids have also recently entered mainstream consciousness. Black celebrities like Rihanna, Serena Williams, Beyoncé, and Nara Smith have gotten birthing braids, and on TikTok, the hashtag birthing braids has more than 70 million views. The platform is filled with videos of Black women around the world sharing how they intend to navigate their delivery and the fourth trimester with the help of the braids.

Ymani Blake, a birth and postpartum doula and CEO of Indigo Rose Birth in Chicago, intimately understands the role protective styles can play in a new parent's self-care ritual. As a licensed braider, she's witnessed pregnant people going into labor shortly after their hair appointments.

"That final hair appointment is like a signal for our spirit that it's okay to have the baby now."

"We've always used our hair to tell our story. When someone becomes pregnant, you are not only preparing to birth a baby, but you yourself are also being reborn," she says. "It's almost like installing a protective style before birth is like going into a cocoon. You do all this preparation before you go into labor like taking classes, cleaning your house, but that final hair appointment is like a signal for our spirit that it's okay to have the baby now."

Emma Dabiri, a hair expert and author of "Don't Touch My Hair" and "Twisted: The Tangled History Of Black Hair Culture," agrees. As she puts it, "Feeding the soul through hair is essential for mothers to reflect on the areas in which they might need more support. Depending on the style — whether box braids, crochet braids, twists, or cornrows — the hair-braiding process can take anywhere from two to 10 hours. That many hours allow parents-to-be to examine their needs, wants, and how they envision motherhood could look."

Braided styles don't just connote the sense that you're ready for anything: they're also a nod to a cultural history of triumph and perseverance — things mothers lean on and find solace in while preparing for the changes brought about by motherhood. A look back at history shows that in some African tribes, braiding was believed to transmit energy to the woman through her hair as she journeyed into marriage and motherhood. And many historians believe that during slavery, braids were used to relay messages.

When Tonya Betram, a 32-year-old author residing in Nashville, was expecting her second daughter, she made sure everyone's needs were met before her own. That included twisting her hair a few days before delivering her now 6-month-old daughter. Betram knew from her experience giving birth to her first daughter that this style would be easy to manage as she and her husband navigated the demands of parenthood.

She was also mindful that keeping her hair neatly styled meant she might be more likely to receive attentive care throughout the birthing and postpartum process. "It wasn't the main reason why I did my hair, but it did cross my mind while I was at the hospital," she says. "It sounds ridiculous, but I didn't know if my hair was going to be a concerning factor for the level of care I got or not."

Betram's fear is not unfounded. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women. And research from 2020 on structural racism and maternal health showed that Black women can be subjected to mistreatment because of their appearance.

For others, getting and doing their own braids is a radical form of self-care. Raphaela Johnson, a mother of three, credits nostalgia as a huge factor in getting birthing braids. "Today, for moms like me, cornrows and box braids remind me of the many hours spent sitting on the floor between my mother's legs with a spray bottle and a wide-tooth comb, all used to create a braided masterpiece," she says. Now, for Johnson, braiding her own hair during pregnancy "is one of the best calming tools and it helps me plan out my schedule."

Many women are trying to help others practice this form of self-care. Whether through social media or talking with friends, they're sharing their tips and tricks. As Blake explains, "the options are endless, and there's a style out there to suit all of your needs." She advises booking your appointment about two to three weeks before your due date or scheduled C-section. "A rule of thumb to keep in mind is the smaller the braids, the less quickly they will get fuzzy, so if you plan to keep them in for a long time, small to medium sizes are your best bet. Box braids and cornrows will help promote a healthy scalp, which will bless you with hair growth and retention," she adds.

Betram, similarly, is an advocate for other Black women trying out birthing braids. "I and the other Black mothers in my neighborhood didn't realize that we had been yearning for a safe space, but birthing braids provided that for us," she says. "The hair styling sessions at the local salon and tips and advice we share with each other have become a means of emotional support and helped build a community that specifically caters to the unique experiences of Black motherhood."

Victoria Goldiee is a freelance journalist with a penchant for headlining underrepresented communities in media. Her work has been featured in The Cut, New York Mag, The New York Times, and more, exploring culture, identity, and lifestyle.