26 Sep Mothering the new mother during her ‘fourth trimester’ – Part Two
In this article, I explore the various postpartum care practices from around the world and how they benefit and support the new mother. You can read Part One here.
FORTY TWO DAYS FOR FORTY TWO YEARS
“After birth, there’s a sacred window of time. A time for complete rejuvenation of a woman’s physical, mental and spiritual health. A time for deep, extended bonding with her newborn. The first 42 days after birth set the stage for her next 42 years.” Ysha Oakes, Postpartum Ayurvedic Doula – Founder of The Sacred Window School
Although postpartum care practices for new mothers may differ slightly according to where in the world and in what culture they are practised, there are some overriding similarities. When I teach workshops to my expectant couples I categorise them as follows
- REST In every traditional culture around the world new mothers are expected and encouraged to rest deeply for a period of twenty to sixty days following birth. In India, they say that the new mother should stay “in, on or around the bed” for 40 days. During this time she is either resting, sleeping or feeding her baby. This sustained period of rest allows her body time to heal from the exertions of her pregnancy and birth and reduces her stress levels as she is abdicated from all household duties such as housework, cleaning and cooking. Her baby is with her or being cared for by her family members while she sleeps. Stimulation is kept as low as possible with screens, bright lights and even reading kept to a minimum.
2. WARMTH A new mother is encouraged to keep warm and to avoid getting chilled. In some cultures, she is expected not to wash her hair for the postpartum weeks although this probably because historically water would have been cold and wet hair may have left her chilled. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the acupuncturist may perform a ‘Mother Roasting’ where her abdomen is warmed with a Moxa stick before being bound tightly. In Thailand and Indonesian warm herbal compresses are used to re-energise the abdominal area which is seen as weak and depleted. In every culture, she is advised to avoid cold and/or raw foods and instead given warming, cooked food.
3. NOURISHMENT In both the Chinese Medicine system and Ayurveda (traditional Indian medicine) a new mothers digestive system is understood to be weak and depleted after pregnancy and birth. All of the digestive ‘fire’ (known as Agni) is reduced which leaves her prone to conditions such as indigestion, constipation and gas as well as low energy. In order to warm up and stimulate the digestion as well as give her the energy to make nutritious breast milk for her baby it is important to feed the new mother foods that are well cooked, easy to digest and delicious. These range from delicately spiced dhals and rice puddings in India to bone broths, chicken soup and herbal teas in China. The similarity is that the mother is not expected to cook for herself, the food is prepared and served to her with love and care.
4. MASSAGE In countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia the new mother will receive a massage every day for 40 days! These treatments are designed to soothe and relax her postpartum body, help her recover from her birth and ease her baby care aches and pains. Following the massage, her belly is covered with a paste made from spices and herbs to warm and energise her and then tightly bound. This ‘belly binding’ which is a common theme in postpartum care has the effect of bringing together her abdominal muscles, supporting her lower back and encouraging the correct placement of internal organs.
5. RITUAL AND CELEBRATION “Three months after the birth of her child, the Chagga woman’s head is shaved and crowned with a beaded tiara, she is robed in an ancient skin garment worked with beads, a staff such as the elders carry is put in her hand, and she emerges from her hut for her first public appearance with her baby. Proceeding slowly towards the market, they are greeted with songs such as are sung to warriors returning from battle. She and her baby have survived the weeks of danger. The child is no longer vulnerable, but a baby who has learned what love means, has smiled its first smiles, and is now ready to learn about the bright, loud world outside (Dunham, 1992; p. 148).” This differentiation of a woman’s journey from ‘maiden’ to ‘mother’ is a common theme throughout the world and gives a new mother the chance to be honoured for her important contribution, not only to her child but also to the community as a whole.
BIRTHING, BONDING & BREASTFEEDING
“All you need is love “ …. Lennon/McCartney
Julia Jones, the founder of the Newborn Mothers Collective and the author of “Nourishing Newborn Mothers – Ayurvedic Recipes to heal your mind, body and soul after childbirth’ states that “the only two jobs that a newborn mother should have is to fall in love with her baby and to learn how to breastfeed (if she chooses to).” When I started my postpartum doula training with Julia, it was a lightbulb moment for me to learn that modern-day neuroscience is now confirming what women who care for new mothers and babies have intuitively known all along. That when a new mother is cared for lovingly and respectfully, when she is warm and well nourished, when she has the time and space to rest deeply and gaze into her baby’s eyes as she feeds, then Oxytocin, the hormone of love, connection and breastfeeding will increase in her body facilitating the process of bonding the two together in a beautiful dance that will last a lifetime.
Conversely, if a new mother is stressed, exhausted, hungry and unsupported then stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline will have an adverse effect on her oxytocin levels, potentially making the bonding between mother and baby more difficult and/or affecting the production of breastmilk.
In my role as a postpartum doula, I often describe myself as ‘the facilitator of oxytocin’. Celebrating, caring for and holding space for a new mother so that she can do the important job of falling in love with her new baby.
HOW TO PLAN YOUR POSTPARTUM SANCTUARY
It is unfortunate that many of us do not have the means or support systems to enjoy our forty days of rest. However, we can and should prioritise our postpartum plan in the same way as we do our birth plan. You might not be able to include a daily massage but there are definitely ways that you might prepare for this time to be as nourishing and nurturing as possible. Here are a few tips to consider.
Gather your village. As I often say to my students, being a good parent is far too many jobs for two people, let alone one. It truly does take a community to support your when you bring your baby home. If you don’t have close family or friends around you may need to think outside the box. Your village can be as diverse as your midwife, your Plunket nurse, your work colleagues, a cleaner occasionally and a meal train or delivery service now and then. Anything that will make your life easier and ensure you are well cared for.
But also allow yourself a retreat. Think of the postpartum ‘sacred window’ of forty days as a time of sanctuary. A ‘staycation’ as it’s sometimes called, in your own home snuggled up with your newborn and being cared for by others. Think of all the things that bring you peace and joy, and do those things. Watch funny movies (laughing increases oxytocin and our happy hormones), nap when your baby naps and surround yourself with beautiful things and call on helpful people. There will be plenty of opportunities to take baby out into the world and to receive visitors in the coming days but make these first few weeks a time just for the two of you and those closest.
Ask for help! This one is the most important and also, for many of us the hardest. When someone asks you if you need anything, your answer should always be yes! Then you can figure out what it might be afterwards – hint it’s usually nutritious food, but might also be a pair of loving arms to hold baby while you sleep, some housework, shopping picked up. Let go of your reservations and wholeheartedly allow yourself to be vulnerable and in need of TLC. Consider hiring a postpartum doula to give you focussed care and support over these important few weeks.
The postpartum doesn’t have to be a time of exhaustion and stress but instead can be honoured and appreciated as a time of deep transformation and dedicated care, not only for the newborn baby but for the newborn mother too.
Jojo Hogan is an international postpartum doula, former owner of the Bella Mama Pregnancy Spa & Wellness Centre and the founder of Slow Postpartum™ – an movement that works to educate and empower society as to the importance of the postpartum ‘sacred window’ and to care for mothers and babies worldwide. To find out more or to work with Jojo, visit www.slowpostpartum.com
This article was first published in ‘Bump & Baby Magazine NZ’ 2017