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A look at postpartum traditions for self-care

Becoming a mother is an exciting yet mystifying experience. When a mother gives birth, the focus in our current culture tends to shift from mom to newborn baby. Often the care of a mother is forgotten or overlooked due to the abundant needs of a newborn. The fourth trimester, the 2-3 month period after birth, is equally important to mom’s and baby’s health and development.  This time should be given the same consideration as the first three trimesters.

A well-kept secret is that there is actually an incredible history of traditional postpartum care that spans many cultures and countries. As the pace of life got faster and the physical distance between us grew greater, these traditions became neglected. But they are still there if you know where to look. Chinese women practice a “lying-in” period for new mothers called Zuo yuezi. In Latina culture, 40 days of rest or La cuarentena is followed. The women of Malaysia, observe a custom called pantang, which includes secluded rest and hot stone body massages, among other things. There are many more cultures that practice similar postpartum traditions. While they each have varying ideas and guidelines, the underlying themes are the same: support, nutrition, rest, and seclusion. I believe these 4 approaches are essential for all new mothers.

Support—Long before your delivery, you should start thinking of who and what your fourth-trimester support will look like. I encourage you to write out a list of the people you want to assist you during this time. Next to each person’s name write-out characteristics that this person possesses. Then start thinking about how this will make them helpful during your postpartum period. Gather phone numbers and email addresses for these people and print this list out for your caregiving team.

Nutrition—This is another element of the fourth trimester that I highly encourage my clients to look at long before the birth of their child. Before conception even! Take your health seriously.  Your body will become depleted of essential nutrients while you are growing and sustaining another life for nine plus months. A whole-food diet is paramount to optimal health. During your pregnancy, find recipes that will nourish and heal you during your fourth trimester. You can make many of these recipes in advance and freeze them. Make a list of these meals and have it available for your support team.

Some suggested reading for nutritional information and recipes:

The First Forty Days, by Heng Ou
The Postnatal Depletion Cure, by Dr. Oscar Serrallach

Rest—“Sleep when the baby sleeps” is one of my least favorite offerings of advice that well-meaning people tell new moms. I prefer that new mothers stay in a constant state of rest as much as physically possible for as long as possible. This is often the hardest suggestion for my new mom clients to adhere to. I have a “No Pants Rule” for new moms for the first two weeks at least. Stay in bed with just underwear on (and a top if you like!) for those first weeks at home. It sounds funny, but if you aren’t wearing any bottoms you’ll be less likely to get out of bed to answer the door, do the laundry, etc.

Seclusion—I saved this one for last because it is honestly the least popular. Everyone you have ever known will want to meet that fresh, pink newborn baby. They are going to want to come to your home and hold him and coo over your beautiful newborn. Inevitably, even if they demand you not, you will feel the need to entertain your guest. Even if it is just chatting and putting on pants (see number 3), it requires energy, physical and emotional, that should be focused on your recovery. It is amazing how quickly the first three months will pass with your new little one. I encourage you to establish during pregnancy that you and your new family will be happy to receive visitors at around 3 months postpartum with the caveat that you reserve the right to move the date out further depending upon your recovery. You will undoubtedly receive some pushback  (*ahem* your mother-in-law) to this plan. But establishing this approach early in your pregnancy should help ensure everyone gets on board.   

From the excitement of finding out you are expecting through the months of watching your body change and grow life, there are many things that can employ your focus. I would encourage you to pay attention to your support, nutrition, rest, and seclusion starting from the first trimester. It is never too early to develop these habits of what is essentially self-care.

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