What We Can Learn from Postpartum Care Beyond the Western World
Many ancient cultures believe that an extended period of special care during the postpartum period has important benefits for a new mother and her infant. Learn about postpartum practices around the world (no passport required!).
Around the World
In some ancient cultures such as China, India, Thailand, and Arabia, it is a time-honored tradition for new mothers to spend the first 40 days after childbirth in seclusion or confinement. This practice helps the mother get the rest she needs so that she feels energized when it is time to resume normal activities.
These cultures also believe the newborn is tender and needs to be protected. Family and friends step forward to relieve the new mother of household chores such as cooking, cleaning, shopping, and babysitting so that she has time to care for her little one. Here are just a couple examples of traditional postpartum care in cultures where new mothers are honored and given special attention.
Pregnancy and childbirth are extremely risky propositions in Haiti—one of the world’s least developed and poorest countries. Many Haitians face childbirth without a skilled physician or midwife, and according a 2002 United Nations report, Haitian women face an astoundingly high maternal mortality rate, with 523 deaths per 100,000 births.
Despite this, Haitian culture dictates that new mothers are nurtured and cared for as much as possible during their postpartum recovery. Baths, warm teas, warmth, and a period of restful confinement help women regain energy and vitality after delivery.
During the first days after giving birth, the new mother keeps her body warm, wearing long sleeves and keeping her head covered. She stays in the house for at least three days, and this time of bed rest ensures ample physical relaxation.
On a physical and psychological level it is soothing and settling for the woman to be kept warm and safe from drafty conditions. Such a protected environment may help counteract mood swings and possibly even the baby blues so frequent among new mothers.
Massage, consisting of patting the new mother’s body to help it regain its shape, is part of care for new mothers in Haiti. Additionally, a special diet is traditional postpartum practice, and includes warm foods and drinks.
In China, there is a well-defined traditional postpartum practice called “doing the month” or “sitting month.” During this time, a new mother does not leave the home. There are regional variances in practices associated with this period; for example, the mother may rest in bed, lying flat on her back during this special time. By Chinese tradition, a new mother should have someone—most often her mother-in-law—to accompany her in doing the month.
A new mother is also encouraged to observe traditional dietary practices and is kept very warm. Because it is believed women enter a “cold phase” due to blood loss during delivery, mothers are to avoid eating cold, raw foods and are instead advised to consume warm foods and drinks to restore their energy. Family and relatives relieve the new mom of her household chores so she can get all the rest she needs.
Indonesian and Malaysian Cultures
According to tradition, new life is seen as a carrier of light. So, for a 40-day postpartum period, Indonesian and Malaysian families burn a light day and night in the new baby’s home.
Because of lochia, postpartum women are thought to be more suspect to the influence of evil spirits, so they are discouraged from leaving their homes and are forbidden to cook or clean. Instead, the new mother rests during the 40-day period and a midwife visits her daily to administer full-body massages and therapeutic baths. She also wraps the new mother’s postpartum belly tightly to help shrink her stomach.
The word for Korean methods of postpartum care is Samchilil, which literally means “21 days.” Traditionally, Koreans believe that a new mother should be looked after carefully for at least three weeks following childbirth before resuming her normal life.
Postpartum women are encouraged to rest and practice only moderate body movement to help the uterus contract. No eating of cold or hard foods is allowed, nor is exposure to cold weather. Showers are also discouraged.
Many Thai women adhere to traditional postpartum practices related to the notion of regaining heat, much like Chinese and Haitian women. This includes lying by a fire or other heat source, food restrictions, taking hot baths, and enjoying hot drinks. Avoiding drafts and not exposing the body to heat loss are also practiced. To abide by these beliefs, Thai women avoid shampooing their hair, windy weather, and practice sexual abstinence.
Research on Traditional Postpartum Practices
A number of researchers assume that these practices, including the extended rest period, may help protect new mothers against postpartum depression.
Studies with groups of mothers in China, Malaysia, and Taiwan showed less postpartum depression among those mothers who followed the traditional practices of rest. This does not necessarily mean resting in isolation, but limiting outside activities and relaxing at home. It also means following the prescribed postpartum diet, receiving massages, staying warm, and drinking teas to rest, recover, and rejuvenate.
What We Can Learn
These cultures place great emphasis on the health and recovery of the new mother. Relieved of housework, she is able to restore her energy and strength, and focus on caring for her baby and herself. The new mother and her baby are shown great attention and love.
Western culture could surely benefit from some of these simple, delightful, and inexpensive ways for a woman to ease her way into new motherhood and protect herself against postpartum depression.
This rest time also helps to establish the bond between a mother and her baby. The more rested a mother is, the more relaxed she will feel—experiencing less irritability and fewer mood swings, and becoming more capable of caring for her infant.
According to modern medicine, it takes about six weeks for a woman’s internal organs and tissues to heal after she gives birth—and rest facilitates healing. Ancient cultures have long practiced extended rest for new mothers for four to six weeks following childbirth. Even in the United States early in the 20th century, hospitalization for six weeks—with the first two spent on bed rest—wasn’t uncommon.
If possible, schedule a good period of rest after you give birth so that you can regain your energy and strength. If you’re a family member or friend, do what you can to lovingly help the new mother and child. Doing so is a combination of ancient wisdom and modern science.
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