Taking Care Of Mama & Baby – Traditions & Lessons To Learn From Around The World
After the birth of my third baby I remember coming home from hospital and setting my alarm the next morning to make sure I was up to make pancakes for kids one and two. I ignored everyone who told me to sleep when the baby slept and busied myself around the house desperately trying to make sure that life went on as normal, making myself available whenever the kids needed me and trying to prove (to myself) that this mama could do it all with three kids in tow. Madness really and an absolute disaster when it came to recovering post birth and being able to take care of my newborn in the best possible way (my milk supply suffered as did my sanity). Sadly my story isn’t that different to many mamas I know, for whom the idea of any kind of recovery period is just unrealistic and who are expected to squeeze into pre-maternity clothing and return to work within a crazy timeframe – I remember one friend proudly telling me that she was cooking dinner for 16 with her newborn strapped to her chest because that’s what she felt she should be doing. The pressures of society often result in maternal mental health issues and on missing out on precious bonding time with our brand new little people – I’d do anything to get those first few weeks back with all of my babies and to do what instinct told me to – just hold them, learn about them and rest!!
In so many countries around the world, postpartum traditions focus on a mother’s recovery and the bonding between mother and child. And in many of them, a strong community and family involvement is totally the norm. There are plenty of lessons to be learned from some of these traditions, about how new mamas should allow themselves to be looked after and to ask for help and support in those first few weeks. While some of them may not be realistic in the environment we live in, one thing’s for sure – understanding that women need a whole lot of extra love and care post birth and learning from some of the postpartum rituals and traditions that have been around for so many years might just help with a really positive and healthy post-birth recovery – I just wish I’d found out about them sooner! Curious? Check out some of these wonderful examples below, taken from ‘The First Forty Days: The Essential Art Of Nourishing A New Mother‘, a book all new mamas should have by their bedside based on author Heng Ou’s own postpartum experience and the lost art of caring for the mother after birth.
China: In its purest form, traditional Chinese zuo yuezi advises a tough-love approach of sponge baths instead of showers (to reduce the chance of catching a chill), no books in case reading strains the eyes, and no movies in case sad scenes upset you and disrupt your flow of chi—while others take over all your household duties, of course. Zuo yuezi is often referred to as “the Gateway,” as it is a threshold between one way of being (your life before baby) and an entirely new existence (life with baby). The reward for spending dedicated time in this revitalizing in-between space? The mother can emerge more beautiful and rejuvenated than before. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) doctors say that if the woman shirks this recovery, she may experience a yin deficiency, resulting in insomnia, excessive night sweats, hair loss, anxiety, or headaches.
Latin America: In many parts of Latin America, a forty-day period known as la cuarentena—it literally means “quarantine” yet also plays off the Spanish word for “forty,” cuarenta—has female relatives take on all domestic duties to ensure the new mother rests at home, in order to safeguard against future exhaustion-related illnesses or ailments. Her midwife may visit frequently over the first two weeks to check on baby and mother’s well-being, and homemade chicken soup simmers on the stove (overly spicy or heavy dishes are nixed). The new mother’s abdomen is wrapped in a faja or cloth to help keep her belly warm.
Japan: Japanese mothers return to their mothers’ houses for a month or two of focused care and traditional food.
Native Americans: In many Native American tribes, ceremony is key: The customary “lying in” period after birth culminates in ritualistic bathing, a baby-naming ceremony, and going to a sweat lodge to boost circulation and help mom’s body eliminate any toxins. The Hopi people in the southwestern United States recall practices of twenty-day seclusion periods for mother and babe, during which the mother might be served blue corn piki bread, a ceremonial food. Prepared in an hours-long process by a wise elder woman of the community, the flaky, thin-as-air bread was served to honor rites of passage.
India: In India, the new mother often returns to her parents’ home with her newborn for up to three months of focused care. There, many pairs of hands are on call throughout the day. The women of the family cook soft and nurturing foods, boil fresh milk three times in a row to break down its proteins, and stir in melted ghee (clarified butter) and special spices, so it becomes easy to digest and restores the mother’s depleted state. These loving hands also hold the baby whenever mom needs a break. If members of the new mother’s family are versed in Ayurveda—the five-thousand-year-old healing art of India—she may drink herbal tonics for energy, immunity, and lactation and receive daily, warm-oil massages from a specially trained technician to soothe her nerves by calming the excess vata or “wind” in her system after birth. She even gets taught how to gently massage her little one’s body as well—a relaxing and bonding experience for both parties.
Korea: Korea’s postpartum tradition of samchilil decrees a period of at least twenty-one days, and ideally thirty days, of specialized maternal care dedicated to keeping mom warm, snug, and well fed. Miyeokguk, a traditional seaweed soup with beef, chicken, or anchovies, is served several times a day, every day, to boost circulation, restore lost nutrients, and enrich breast milk. Gums are tender so icy foods are banned to avoid dental problems later. At one hundred days, the baby is introduced to the wider family for the first time with a baek-il ceremony—a kind of fourth-trimester graduation party! This also ends the close-up focus on mom care—she’s ready to graduate, too.
Ivory Coast: Female relatives descend on the new mother’s home in the Ivory Coast right after birth. The mother is bathed and massaged in shea butter by her own mother—a pampering rite that saturates skin with healing oils—while her grandmother and grandaunts gently bathe and dress the baby. Younger cousins and aunts cook a delicious meal, and after eating all together, the circle lets the new mother nap, with baby safe in their sights.
Indonesia: In Indonesia, a bright light burns in the new mother’s home for forty days after birth to honor the new life that has arrived. The midwife visits daily to massage mom; bathe her in therapeutic baths; feed her jamu, a special nourishing concoction of egg yolks, palm sugar, tamarind, and healing herbs; and wrap her belly to support her uterine healing while also checking in on baby. For forty days, the placenta is preserved and kept near the mother before being ceremonially buried. It is believed that the placenta still holds protective spiritual power that can safeguard the new mother from infection or illness.
Moldova: The Eastern European country of Moldova has a special chicken soup to encourage breast milk production.
Malaysia: In Malaysia’s pantang protocol, the mother secludes herself for forty-four days and receives hot stone massages, full-body exfoliation, herbal baths, and hot compresses to care for the life force that is sourced in her womb. Her mother or mother-in-law may oversee this, or an experienced live-in helper might guide her through this process. And it doesn’t stop there. Ask women of different ethnicities and backgrounds about their maternal customs and the stories keep coming. What does it take to help the expanded winter melon-sized uterus return to its normal pear-like size? The dramatic changes in the body of a new mother have to be nurtured slowly back to its prenatal form. If the new mother does not take care during this time, the roots of various ailments will establish themselves and lie dormant in her body, surfacing in her middle age. Thus, a new mother should not be annoyed when her mother-in-law keeps advising her to eat more digestive food, drink more nutritional tonics and soups, and keep away from specific foods. Proper postnatal care, rest, and diet will rebuild a
more mature, yet beautiful, body for the new mother.
Shanghai & Hong Kong: At the far other end of the scale, in Shanghai and Hong Kong, high-luxury “confinement hotels” offer upwardly mobile women a red-carpet way to experience zuo yuezi—call it five-star confinement—and conveniently lets them sidestep the drama of having mother-in-law take up camp in their home for a month. Sumptuously bathrobed in her plush hotel room, the new mom is served medicinal soups from gourmet chefs and can visit an on-site spa as often as she likes, while uniformed nannies handle baby’s every need, taking him out for sun baths daily and dipping him in warm pools to tone his muscles. It may be the antithesis of attachment parenting—and it certainly is a status symbol for the parents—but it hits the spot for busy women of means: Every moment of the month is devoted to optimal health for the newborn, and optimal rest and pampering for mom.