Pregnancy is not an illness, right? And birth is normal. So why is the postpartum period associated with recovery? What’s the fuss about rest and keeping the baby in the home?
Often, women want or feel pressured to resume chores, errands or exercise shortly after birth. Some have other young children to care for, and not enough support to make it possible to lay around for weeks. Sometimes it feels so great to NOT BE PREGNANT anymore that mothers forget to honor what their bodies are still doing (making milk, bleeding, undergoing hormonal transitions, etc). Additionally, other people in the home, guests, spouses, mothers or in-laws, consider the quick resumption of normal activity to be a sign that all is going well for the mother after birth. But not so fast…
5 Reasons Rest and Recovery are Important after Childbirth
- Long-term Pelvic Floor Health. Pregnancy and childbirth can weaken women’s core abdominal and pelvic muscles. In the first few weeks after birth, before these muscles have had a chance to strengthen, prolapse of pelvic organs such as the bladder or uterus are more common. Rest is helpful to prevent prolapsed organs and allow some tone to return without the pressure of gravity. Just minimal movement from resting, sitting up in bed, nrrsing in different positions, and getting up to shower or use the bathroom, will allow you to begin using core muscles that have been underused during the latter part of pregnancy. This gradual re-toning of the abdominal and pelvic muscles should be accompanied by gradual return to activity. Vacuuming the carpet or carrying laundry up the stairs in the early days of postpartum is inviting too much strain on muscles and tissues before they are ready to support that kind of activity. Even if you don’t experience any symptoms of prolapsed organs (incontinence, pain or pressure, constipation), early activity after childbirth can impact your long term pelvic floor health.
- Breast Milk Production. Breast milk supply is established in the early days of the postpartum period. Milk usually “comes in” on the third day and can take a week or more to regulate. When you are in bed with your baby, skin-to-skin, you are more likely to establish an ample milk supply and learn your baby’s hunger cues. New mothers and baby’s bodies ‘whisper’ to each other through hormones, pheromones, and response to touch and stimulation. This body communication, which requires relaxed, close contact, paves the way to a good latch and a balanced supply of healthy breast milk.
- Postpartum Bleeding. Placentas are usually about the size of salad plates, and the implantation site inside your uterus needs time to heal. As your uterus shrinks, it clamps off the blood vessels that fed the placenta. The blood-rich inner lining of the uterus sheds after birth. All the while, your uterus is shrinking back to its pre-pregnancy size. Postpartum bleeding can continue for up to 6 weeks postpartum. However, with rest, bleeding often ceases after just a few weeks or less. In fact, the duration and amount of bleeding postpartum can be used as a barometer of sorts, giving you feedback about how much activity you are ready for. If you see bright red bleeding or spotting return after it had diminished, or continue bleeding for several weeks, you are doing too much.
- Bonding With Your Baby. Create a ‘Babymoon,’ time specifically focused on bonding with and getting to know your newborn. Bonding is not optional; babies need to bond to thrive, even to survive. Bonding behaviors, such as rocking, feeding, talking to, holding, touching your baby and staring into your newborn’s eyes, literally develop your baby’s nervous system and contribute to brain growth and development. Sometimes falling in love with your newborn is instant at birth, and other times, it is caretaking of the newborn that slips parents into this emotional wonderland. Be sure that fathers, partners, and other family members participate in bonding and caretaking as well.
- Honoring Your Transition. Becoming a mother is a transition on many levels, physical and emotional. Some physical changes are sudden, such as hormonal shifts and body adjustments. Becoming a mother can also shift a woman’s identity and her relationship roles to other family members or friends. Sometimes these transitions are smooth and blissful and sometimes they are very challenging, and most of the time they are a little bit of everything. You will appreciate some time afterwards to integrate and process the transitions. It’s so easy to burst the ‘postpartum bubble’ by letting the mundane or hectic daily life creep back in too quickly during this special time. Celebrate being taken care of while you are taking care of the new baby! Resting and recovering from childbirth isn’t necessary because childbirth is an illness, it’s a necessary because it honors women, babies, and families during this worthy time.
10 Tips for Childbirth Recovery
- Plan to rest. Here’s a formula to consider: One week mostly in bed, one week mostly around the bed, and a week or two in the house. Many traditional cultures employ a 40 day resting ritual for new mothers. Another idea is to primarily rest for the duration of your postpartum bleeding, plus three days (to be sure it doesn’t start again).
- Say yes to help. Allow and recruit support. Talk to your partner and family members before you give birth about your needs and desires for this time. Have friends and family bring meals, let visitors take your garbage out when they leave, arrange for other trusted adults to take your toddler to pre-school. Hire a postpartum doula or a housecleaner, or ask for these services as a shower gift.
- Nourish your body. Breastfeeding requires good hydration and good nutrition. Go for good fats, such as avocados, fish, butter, coconut milk and oil, which contribute to your baby’s brain growth through your breast milk. Leafy greens and red meats can help mothers recover from blood loss. Dried fruit and plenty of water can contribute to softer stool if constipation is a concern. Dates can help shrink the uterus and limit postpartum bleeding. Colorful vegetables such as yams and beets can help boost milk supply, as can oats.
- Avoid heavy lifting. A good rule of thumb is not to lift anything heavier than your baby for the first several weeks. This can be especially challenging to mothers with other young children. It is easier to accomplish when you are mostly in bed, and can encourage other children to come cuddle or sit beside you.
- Bind your belly. Postpartum belly-binders are marketed as slimming devices, but the real value is in helping you re-tone your abdominal muscles and keeping your organs in place. You can use expensive belly binders, a long strip of linen or cotton, or a think ace bandage. The idea is to support your abdominal muscles (especially if they have separated during pregnancy) and support the position of your shrinking uterus. Round ligaments that keep your uterus in place take a long time to shrink back to their pre-pregnant size, and binding your lower belly helps make up for that slack.
- Stay warm. Many traditional postpartum rituals and healing practices employ some type of remedy that returns heat to the mother’s body to help rebuild blood and chi and establish a good milk supply. Eat warm foods, wear socks, and drink nourishing teas such as Raspberry Leaf-Nettle infusion. Consider postpartum moxabustion treatments (sometimes referred to as “mother roasting,” or a postpartum massage with warmed oil. Chinese medicine ascribes warming properties to placenta capsules.
- Use herbal compresses on your perineum. Put an absorbent pad on your bed, soak a wash cloth or cloth diaper in a warm herbal infusion, and place it against your perineum for 15 minutes or so. Comfrey and/or calendula can be soothing on the perineum, especially if you have torn or have sutures, but even if you haven’t. For hemorrhoids, try Butcher’s Broom and Witch Hazel Bark, and move the compress more towards your bottom.
- Sleep when your baby sleeps. You’ll hopefully have years of infant naps to look forward to get some alone time or get-things-done time, but in the first few weeks, join your baby in a nap-filled existence. You may be up a lot at night with your baby, you probably lost at least one night of sleep during childbirth, and you may not have slept well during the last few months of pregnancy.
- Tell your birth story. Write your birth story. It’s a big deal to give birth. Women need to process their birth with good listeners. Whether women are elated, in awe of the experience, or struggling with a disappointing or traumatic birth experience, birth is profound. It’s tender; it’s powerful; it’s vulnerable.
- Maximize skin-to-skin time with your baby. Skin-to-skin contact has been proven to help the baby regulate body temperature, breathing pattern, glucose levels and heart rate, contribute to good weight gain, and establish a good latch for breastfeeding. Consider skin-to-skin contact with a parent to be the native habitat of a newborn.