What other cultures can teach us about postpartum care

New mums have so many expectations placed on them. Should we be looking to other cultures for inspiration on how to do postpartum care better?

The “fourth trimester is notoriously exhausting, a steep learning curve Australian women are often left to climb alone after a swift discharge from hospital.

By contrast, many cultures around the world see the postpartum period as a sacred time where mother and baby are nurtured and supported, and new mums are allowed to heal while getting to know their baby.

Different cultural approaches to the postpartum care period

In Chinese culture,  women rest for 40 days after giving birth, a practice called Zou Yue Zi or “the sitting month”, where the mother remains at home to rest and heal after birth.

Parts of Latin America do the same in a practice known as la cuarentena, where the mother’s wellbeing is at the fore and all she has to worry about is rest, relaxation and bonding with her baby.

According to physiotherapist Sarah Duncan, cultures which practise a period of rest after birth ensure the mum is focused on doing very little for those first 40 days – which is ideal for giving the body the time and space it needs to heal.

“Rest from both a physical and mental health perspective is so important for recovery,” Sarah, of The Royal Women’s Hospital Melbourne, says.

“It’s vital for soft tissue recovery, (and) regeneration and repair of muscle tissue, but there are also mental health benefits of slowing down as well.”

Which postpartum support practices are most effective?

After birth, a mother’s instinct is to nurture the new life she’s created – but mums need nurturing too.

In India, a time-honoured tradition sees mothers return to their parents’ home after having a baby.

There, a “village” helps care for her and her baby while she focuses on rejuvenation and replenishment.

Meals are made for her, and helping hands are there whenever she needs rest; and she can draw on generations of experience.

Researcher in women’s and perinatal health Dr Tiffany De Sousa Machado has researched postpartum practices across the world.

She says the most effective support practices are those which provide the new mother with space – judgment-free, safe and supportive – to transition into the role emotionally, mentally and physically.

“These practices include gathering the experienced women to feed, bathe, listen to and talk with the new mother,” Dr De Sousa Machado explains.

The importance of nutrition after childbirth

A focus on nourishing foods is common in traditional postpartum practices and rituals around the world, especially across Asia, Africa and parts of Latin America.

Depending on the region and cultural practice, certain foods are prepared for the mother to help promote healing and restore health.

Conversely, some foods are prohibited, thought to cause illness.

In Nepal, warmed milk is given immediately after birth, and a herbal tonic and spiced semolina porridge are consumed to promote milk production; while in Guatemala, women consume tea made of artemisia, pimpinella, oregano and white honey for pain relief.

Nutritionist and postpartum doula Serena Schembri says diet is a fundamental component of recovery post-birth, after months of a woman’s body devoting its resources to nurturing a growing baby and the intense physical demands of childbirth.

“Effective recovery and replenishment post-childbirth hinge on a balanced intake of macronutrients and micronutrients,” Serena says, adding that carbohydrates alone aren’t enough.

“Fats provide essential fatty acids and aid in absorbing vitamins, while proteins are vital for tissue repair and muscle strength,” she says.

Micronutrients such as vitamin B6, vitamin B12, iron, iodine, zinc and magnesium are crucial too, Serena says.

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Written by Sarah Vercoe.