For centuries, many different cultures have used the crushed leaves of the henna plant to temporarily tattoo the skin in special designs to offer good-wishes and protection during a major transition in a person’s life, including childbirth. The dye found in the henna leaf was believed to send out positive energy that would help keep the unborn child and mother safe during delivery. The hands and feet of the expectant mother were usually tattooed some time in the last trimester. In a new twist to old traditions, many henna shops are offering belly henna, with which an expectant mother’s expanding stomach is tattooed with protective designs — instead of the hands and feet — at any time during her pregnancy.
The type of design an expectant mother chooses usually depends on her beliefs and how far along she is in her pregnancy. Women who are still in the first or second trimester may want a design that illustrates a fetus that is not yet full-term and still needs time to grow. In later pregnancy, the design may include the way the woman wishes to give birth. It is usually best to have the belly henna applied by a professional artist who can translate the mother’s wishes into a traditional henna art design.
Henna powder usually has to be mixed with another liquid to get the thin paste needed to paint the design. Some shops use harsh chemicals, such as hair dye, in their mixture to make the temporary tattoo darker and last longer. This is typically referred to as 'black henna' and should be avoided by pregnant women as it can cause blistering of the skin and even some scaring. The paste used on pregnant women is usually mixed with natural substances, like lemon juice or strong tea. Before having henna tattoos during pregnancy, a woman should ask what the artist uses in his or her paste to make sure it is the natural version.
The paste for belly henna is usually wet and very black when it is first applied to the stomach. It is typically left on the skin for four to eight hours. As the paste dries, it will start to flake off and leave behind a red-orange stain. How dark the stain is generally depends on body chemistry and how long it is left on. Some henna belly tattoos will be a very bright brown-red, while others will be a lighter red-orange.
Pregnant henna tattoos should last around seven to ten days. If applied to the hands and feet, the stain may last a few days longer in those areas. Belly henna typically fades quicker because the skin is thinner around the stomach and the stain does not penetrate as deeply as it does on the hands and feet.
For the most part, henna tattoos during pregnancy are relatively safe, but an expectant mother should discuss any possible complications with her doctor before having one done. There are some instances in which henna could be dangerous, such as if the expectant mother is anemic or the baby is lacking in a specific enzyme, known as glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency. A doctor will be able to advise if belly henna is safe for the woman and baby.