The importance of Ayurvedic Postpartum Care
The transition into motherhood is a time of profound change and transformation on every level: emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually.
It is also a conflicted time: both positive and negative are fluctuating in a heady mix of hormones and sleep-deprivation – absolute joy, bliss, wonderment, exhaustion, irritation, sadness and maybe grief.
But with the birth of every child, whether it be her first or her fifth, a new mother is born. She is as open, raw and vulnerable as her newborn baby.
Just as her baby needs warmth, nurturing and the correct rehydration and nourishment, so too does the mother.
Just as her baby needs to feel protected, cared for and held, do does she. A new mother is a precious cargo, in need of love, support, understanding, kindness and gentleness.
For the new mother to emerge resplendent, colourful and bright as a butterfly, ready to face the world and take on this new charge she has successfully carried and birthed, she first needs the cocoon; the chrysallis in which this transformation takes place.
The modern care of the mothering journey in the West is primarily focussed on on pregnancy and birth. Once baby is here, mothers are relegated to second place and the job of health professionals is, primarily, to ensure that baby is developing well. Families, who often live far away, visit expecting cups of tea and cuddles with the new baby and buy expensive presents but the mother is given little of the nurturing and care she truly needs. The result is a crisis of maternal mental health as new mothers find themselves isolated, alone and struggling to juggle the tremendous pressure of looking after a newborn 24 hours a day 7 days a week with the school run, care of other children and running the house without much sleep or rest.
In contrast across Asia and Africa they have held onto ancient traditions and practices that understand the importance of pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period.
India has its own natural and complete healthcare system called Ayurveda. Put simply it is the art of living in harmony with nature; your unique nature, the cycles of nature in the day, year, season and the different stages of life. It can be relied upon because its advice has not changed in 5000 years – how can nature change? When we start tuning into ourselves more and understanding the flows of nature and life we feel more aligned, balanced, happier and healthier.
Ayurveda believes that the key to a happy home life, is a happy mother. According to Ayurveda, the first 42 days postpartum (6 weeks) is such an important time that, how she is cared for at this time, can affect a woman’s health positively or negatively for the next 42 years of her life!
In India the extended family and community rally around the new mother, relieving her of domestic duties, cooking for her and caring for her other children for a period of six weeks. This gives the new mother one job only; to rest, bond with and feed her new baby.
New mothers are also rejuvenated by correct nutritional and lifestyle guidelines at this time. If this is not done a new mother can feel completely drained, anxious, ungrounded, sleepless and irritable culminating in post natal depression if left unchecked.
The primary energy to be out of balance in pregnancy and postpartum is Vata dosha. Vata dosha is the wind element which is cold, light, dry and mobile. Ayurvedic protocol is to treat this unbalanced energy with things which have the opposite qualities of warmth, heaviness, unctuousness, regularity and routine.
From a lifestyle perspective, she is massaged daily with traditional Ayurvedic Abhyanaga massages using warm sesame oil, given herbal baths and encouraged to do nothing but rest and feed her baby. Abhyanga massage is vital to reset the body, remove the physical stresses of pregnancy and labour, strengthen the immune system and pacify the central nervous system aiding her to sleep and rest well. Routines are important for both mother and baby. Babies are also massaged daily once the umbilical cord is healed to protect and strengthen their immune system and calm them. Loving touch is vital for new babies. Herbal supplements may be given to the mother to balance out hormones and support lactation.
It is also supremely important to give her the right nutrition at regular times. A mothers digestive capacity is severely compromised during the birthing process so the primary aim is to correct this with the right foods. These are divided up into the first 24 hours, the first 10 days and the next 32 days.
Doing this prevents any digestive disturbances that occur in the mother to be passed onto the baby in her milk or her energy field. Digestive and emotional disturbances in the mother are passed on in this way and can cause symptoms of colic, restlessness, sleeplessness and a generally cranky, hard to pacify baby.
Foods need to be of the same quality: warm, heavy and unctuous building up in strength as the days go by. Anything cold, light, dry or raw or that are wind-causing need to be avoided taking into account an individual mother’s constitution and digestive capacity. Spices and herbs are keenly used to antidote food and increase digestion. If a mother is cared for in this way she will be calmer, more grounded and feel much more rejuvenated and able to bond with her baby. The incidences of post natal depression in women who are cared for in this way are much lower than in women who do not receive this care.
It is in complete contrast to the Western mother who receives none of this and who is encouraged (and pressured) by society to get ‘back to normal’ as soon as possible. Back on the school run, at the supermarket, to pre-pregnancy weight and resuming her normal social life or sex life. This is the mother who rushes about as though nothing has happened, attending multiple baby classes and ends up not being able to cope, not enjoying her new baby, having post natal depression or, in extreme cases, even suicidal thoughts.
We need to return to the old ways of taking care of our new mothers as new mothers are suffering from an epidemic of overwhelm and loneliness. We need to love, nurture and support them in a multitude of ways: by hiring Ayurdoulas who can take care of them in this way, asking for help from families and friends to bring food, keeping them close at this time, hiring a cleaner and educating both pregnant women and their partners about this crucial time.
New mothers need to understand and honour the tremendous job they have just done to carry and birth new life which requires much self-love and self-care and a time spent in their own postpartum cocoon if they want to enjoy this immense transformation in our lives and be the mother they long to be.
Vanessa Long is an Ayurvedic Practitioner, Ayurdoula, Pregnancy and Postpartum Coach and mother who is passionate about natural heath, natural birth and mothering.