The time after giving birth is for rest, rejuvenation and recovery. In many cultures the extended family (or even the whole village) chip in to help by cooking meals, looking after children, assisting with housework and providing healing foods and other therapies. Generally, the period of rest is forty days and often the new mother would not be required to do anything except look after the new baby and recover her health during this time. Forty days pretty much equates to 6 weeks, which is when we schedule a doctor check up in the West. However, in reality there is often little rest after the first couple of weeks with new mums getting straight back into shopping, cooking and looking after other children. I believe this is partly due to a vision of the ‘supermum’ who works, has children and nurtures her family. Supermum doesn’t need to rest! The second reason for the lack of rest is usually necessity. With the breakdown of strong local communities and families living further apart there is often less help available. Meals need to be cooked and toddlers need to be entertained, as well as feeding and caring for a new baby. Of course partners tend to be much more involved than perhaps they would have been in the past (or are in other cultures) but they are usually away at work during the day. This can lead to energy becoming depleted (which can exacerbate tiredness due to interrupted sleep) and leaves little time for rehabilitation of the physical body.
I’m not necessarily arguing for women to stay in bed for forty days postpartum but I do think that there needs to be dedicated time for a women to recover from birth, not just physically but mentally and emotionally, particularly if the pregnancy and/or birth was traumatic. Setting aside time during the day to focus on nourishing herself is so important for the modern mum and below are my eight (not so modern) recommended steps for postpartum healing.
1. Pelvic Floor Rehabilitation
I could have made this number 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 – it’s that important! So important that I made it its own article. You can find it here.
2. Abdominal massage
After pelvic floor strengthening, abdominal rehab is next on my list for the healing process. A gentle way to start this is by massaging the belly a few times a day. It is good to use a natural oil like sesame oil perhaps with a drop of an essential oil added (Clary Sage can also help with after birth pains). Use a medium pressure and massage in a clockwise direction before the next step – Body Wrapping.
This massage brings prana (energy) into the abdominal area promoting healing, encourages the uterus to shrink back to its original size and the clockwise motion assists with digestion, preventing constipation. It is also a relaxing and nourishing thing to do for your body after it has been through the birthing experience, especially if you get someone else to do it for you. And on that note get them to give your shoulders, feet and lower back a rub too – they take a beating during pregnancy and breastfeeding!.
3. Body wrapping
This ancient Ayurvedic technique has actually been practised in many cultures and is becoming popular again in the West with the introduction of corsets that can be worn postpartum to support the abdominal muscles, repositioning of organs, provide stability for ligament and posture improvement. This technique can further assist with encouraging the abdominal muscles back together after separation during pregnancy. It is also very grounding after the birth experience and can help with relaxation, the compression of the belly can reduce the feeling of emptiness in the body. I bought a large piece of muslin (about 1.5 metres) and wrapped it around myself after massaging, pinning with safety pins. Specifically made corsets and girdles can be purchased online (and are probably easier to put on and stay on!)
4. Eat nourishing foods
Ayurvedic medicine recommends warm, plain foods that are rich in fibre and gentle on the digestive system (and not too strong flavours particularly if breastfeeding). Foods high in Omega 3 are also great for healing and keeping the ‘baby blues’ at bay and Iron-rich foods are important where a lot of blood has been lost. So instead of reaching for the stinky soft cheeses while still in the postnatal bed (which I completely did first time around) treat yourself to:
- Breakfast – Steaming oatmeal porridge with prunes, pears and cinnamon, or scrambled eggs with salmon, or stewed fruits and natural yoghurt;
- Lunch – Hearty vegetable or chicken soups and broths;
- Dinner – Casseroles, tagines and mild curries or fish and brown rice with lots of vegetables;
- Lots of fruit as snacks.
This is a time to build strength back up after labour, cleanse the body of excess toxins and be gentle on the digestive system so that elimination of waste is not difficult.
The great thing is that most of these meals can be made in advance, before the baby is born, and frozen so that they are easily prepared when time and energy are taken up with the new family.
5. Relaxation and meditation
Combined with sleep deprivation from night waking and exhaustion from feeding and generally taking care of a new baby, the stresses of becoming a parent can really start to take their toll on your mental and physical health. Although it may seem impossible to find the time it is really important to try to find at least 15 minutes to sit or lie quietly and calm the mind.
Find a comfortable position and close the eyes. Bring awareness to the breath and observe the inhale and exhale, feeling the breath entering and leaving the body at the nose or feeling the belly rise and fall. Acknowledge any thoughts that enter the mind but gently let them go, every time bringing awareness back to the breath. Regular practise of this technique should see you calmer and happier and more able to deal with the stresses that new motherhood throws your way. I find that if no other time can be found, this meditation can be done while sitting feeding. Alternate doing pelvic floor exercises and meditation each feed!
Mindfulness techniques can also be utilised in moments of stress. Perhaps the baby has woken up for the fifth time during the night and exhaustion sets in and you feel the stress levels rising… Take a moment to take some deep inhales and exhales, really feel the breath entering the body and bringing calm and taking stress away as it leaves. Examine the feelings, emotions and thoughts that are present during this moment and then let them go. Many people I know swear that babies can feel stress and become more unsettled so remaining calm is both in the interest of your mental health and your sleep.
6. Get outside
In some cultures new mothers do not even step out of the house for 6 weeks but personally I think it is really beneficial to get some fresh air and, if possible, sunshine to re-energise the body and mind. Standing barefoot on the earth is also an incredibly grounding act and can help in the days after birth when the body is feeling particularly ‘spacey’.
7. Start gentle exercise
After pelvic floor strengthening has been undertaken and stability is felt in this area you can begin some moderate exercise (this could be a few days or weeks after birth depending on your own experience). Gentle yoga poses are great to start with such as Cat/Cow, Child’s Pose, Cobra (feels amazing to lie on the belly again), Threading the Needle (shoulder opening) and Bridge pose. After 3-4 weeks start to introduce some twists and forward folds. Around 6 weeks postpartum you can start to strengthen your core again.
Abdominal separation (Diastasis Recti) is another condition that affects many women but is not commonly discussed at postnatal doctor or nurse checkups. Pregnancy and birth can cause the Rectus Abdominis muscles to separate into two halves. Leaping into strong core work when Diastasis Recti is present can actually make the condition worse. This includes sit ups (crunches) and many yoga and pilates poses which require a strong core such as Boat pose, Chaturanga Dandasana, arm balances and head stand. Instead start by gently strengthening the inner core muscles, particularly the Transverse Abdominus muscles which are stretched when the Rectus Abdominus separate. Inhale deeply and as you exhale slowly draw the belly button in towards the spine without tucking the tailbone, sucking in the belly or moving the hips or shoulders. You can do this along with the Pelvic Floor exercises and also remember to engage these muscles during activities such as lifting, walking, yoga etc.
You can do a self-check for Diastasis Recti and this website is really useful for instructions and exercises. However, seeing a qualified physiotherapist is always a good idea.
8. Ask for, and let people, help!
Don’t try to be ‘supermum’. If sleep deprivation brings you to exhaustion point, if you feel pain or instability in your body after birth, if you have no healthy food options in the fridge, if you are feeling overwhelmed by the stress of looking after a baby (newborn or older) ask for help. Every birth, every body and every baby is different and, in the spirit of yoga, be kind to yourself so that you can be kind and nourish your new baby.