Why Caring for New Mothers Matters
Finding inspiration in postpartum care traditions around the world, plus ideas to create our own
When I think back to the time after my first baby was born, it was unquestionably the most vulnerable I’ve been in my adult life. Like all first-time new mothers, I was navigating uncharted space. Everything was in flux: my body, my mind, my identity.
My first birth was traumatic. An emergency caesarean led to postpartum complications, including migraines, nightmares, and thrush, a yeast infection on my nipples that made breastfeeding acutely painful. That was simply my experience, and I’m certainly not the only woman who has felt completely overwhelmed arriving in motherhood.
Most new mothers find themselves, at some point, feeling physically and mentally depleted in ways they never could have fathomed before. When we journey into the fourth trimester, the needs of our newborns are immediate and constant. It’s a time when we’re required to give so very much of ourselves, when our own wells are not deep.
When we think about postpartum care, it’s essential to remember that giving birth is not only about having a baby, but equally about becoming a mother. So much time and energy is put towards having a healthy pregnancy and planning for birth, but it’s actually the early weeks and months that follow when many mothers struggle.
By Western standards, I had incredible postpartum support – my husband, my mother, midwives, a lactation consultant and many gentle, helpful mama friends who cared for and guided me. A woman who is cared for and supported in her postpartum experience is better able to cope with the inevitable challenges she’ll face and to thrive in her new role as mother. And there’s research to prove it.
A 2012 study on postpartum depression co-authored by Dr. Cindy-Lee Dennis, a scientist at Women’s College Research Institute and Shirley Brown Chair in Women’s Mental Health Research, followed nearly 6,500 women between five and 14 months after giving birth. The research identified several predictors of postpartum depressive symptoms. Women with a previous history of depression were nearly twice as likely to be affected. Experiencing a concurrent stressful life event also doubled the likelihood. But perhaps most revealing was that mothers with low postpartum social support were nearly four times more likely to be affected.
This is where the proverbial village needs to rise up.
We might not be able to change a mother’s mental health history or to prevent tragic events from happening, but we absolutely can create stronger, safer social spaces so that new mothers receive the support they need. Additional Women’s College research also shows that when a woman struggles with her postpartum wellness, it can negatively affect everyone in her family, including her newborn, her other children and her partner.
Caring for new mothers is about building healthy communities. In cultures around the world, there are traditions of postpartum care, often known as mothering the mother, where a woman is honoured and attended to so she is best able to care for her newborn and rediscover herself in her new role.
From Guatemala to Nepal to Uganda to Spain, care for a new mother is part of the social structure. Traditions include ritual bathing, belly binding, customary diets, seclusion and care under the tutelage of mothers in her family and community, who share their wisdom to mentor and nurture her into motherhood. (Because, goddess knows, we don’t arrive prepared.) Studies have shown that the occurrence of postpartum disorders in some of these cultures is drastically lower than in ours.
(In Canada, about 80% of mothers experience Baby Blues and approximately 15% develop postpartum depression, based on reported data. If we consider how many women don’t reach out for help, this number is likely much higher.)
Knowing all of this leads me to wonder: How on good Earth did we let this fall through the cracks? Even in previous generations in Western countries, there was a greater sense of community; of women supporting women.
Today’s expectations of new mothers are a far cry from the sort of loving support we know we need in order to thrive. Notions of bouncing back quickly to regular routines, hosting a constant flow of visitors, losing the baby weight and only reaching out for help when there’s an obvious medical concern aren’t just unrealistic, but potentially detrimental to a mother’s overall well-being.
So, let’s change that. There’s no need to try to mimic the traditions of other cultures. Instead, let’s encourage each other to create our own traditions of postpartum care, perhaps including practices from other cultures that resonate. (You might not like to have your head shaved at three months postpartum, or spend a month in bed being cared for by your mother-in-law.)
Make a postpartum plan and pull together a circle of support to perfectly carry your family through those wild and unpredictable weeks. Whatever traditions you might like to create, consider these three ideas to guide you:
Nourishment: Stock up on healthy, easy-to-prep snacks and staples to keep your pantry in good supply for the few weeks postpartum. Prepare nourishing, warm meals in advance and freeze them for easy dinners when you’re exhausted and in no mood to cook. (This will be most days in the early days!) Connect with family and friends to create a meal train, where different people will drop off delicious food on various days. (There’s even an app for that.) If it fits in your budget, connect with a local healthy meal delivery business.
Rest: In our go-go-go world, it can be hard to rest for an extended period of time, but it’s so-so-so good if you can. Clear your calendar, snuggle into bed with your sweet-smelling baby and get cozy and warm. Let your partner, other family member or friend hold your baby so you can get some much-needed deep, uninterrupted sleep. A mentor of mine, who has supported hundreds of women through birth and beyond, suggests: The first week in the bed; the second week on the bed; the third week around the bed.
Time: In many cultures, postpartum care continues for weeks and sometimes months after giving birth, and there’s a good reason for that. The fourth trimester – the first three months postpartum – is a time when both a mother and her baby are figuring out and often fumbling through a whole new existence together. There’s a lot to learn. Let go of timelines and expectations. Be patient. Be gentle.