When you are pregnant, your family and friends fawn all over you to ensure that your needs are met – emotional and nutritional – for healthy development of your baby. After childbirth, the focus on the newborn and its mother is heightened, as the new mother has to stay healthy and fit to look after her newborn baby.
In India, postpartum care is based on our ancient science of Ayurveda, which is a holistic system of alternative medicine that originated 5000 years ago from the ancient scriptures. The first six weeks of postpartum care in a new mother’s life is a special occasion where she is rejuvenated mentally and physically, with simple techniques in order to combat depression, indigestion and insomnia.
India, being a land of diverse cultures and traditions, postpartum care and diet varies, based on topography of the region, culture, tradition and religious practices and I have posted the confinement practices followed by women living in Kerala (southern tip of India)’
As the human body is made up of five elements in nature, such as earth, wind, water, fire and ether, you can enjoy good health when these five elements are in perfect harmony inside your body. Each element governs various body functions like proper function of nervous system, flow of energy, respiration, metabolism, digestion, toxic waste elimination, production of energy, etc.
In view of this, in India, the diet of a new mother is carefully monitored to restore the imbalances in the body, caused by childbirth. Her diet aims at rejuvenating her body for added strength and health. She is given special foods to increase her milk supply and to strengthen her bones and muscles.
It is wonderful tradition in India for an expectant woman to go to her parents house for childbirth during her last trimester or her mother comes to her house to help her cope with the delivery and continued help for the next three months with nurturing the baby. During this time, the new mother learns the rudiments of childcare and gains deeper insight into child bearing and development. After childbirth, all effort is geared to keep the new mother relaxed in order to facilitate smooth milk production and quick postpartum recovery.
Usually, a new mother and her baby are confined to their room for 40 days after childbirth in order to ward off any potential infection as well as allow her to recuperate and recover from the arduousness of childbirth. As the family support system is strong, the family members chip in to do the housework with the help of a domestic maid.
As a new mother is encouraged to nurse the baby on demand, sleep as long as she wants and get enough help to deal with everyday anxieties of motherhood, she is free from the clutches of postpartum depression. However, she can count on the wisdom and knowledge of the older women in the household to deal with her depression or anxieties, if any. During this time, the mother-baby bonding is strengthened and there is a general sense of well being between mother and baby.
In addition to massaging a newborn with oil, a new mother is also given a full body massage with warm sesame oil, in order to stimulate the blood circulation, soothe her bones & muscles and help her body cells & tissues to heal faster, thus making her calm, centered and alert. Extra pressure is gently applied on the lower abdomen in order to push the uterus back. In case of a C-section, massage is confined to the arms, legs, shoulders and the back. Very hot water is poured on the lower abdomen and the pelvic area, to hasten the contraction of the uterus and the pelvic passage.
After the birth of my first child during the month of May, which is the hottest month in Mumbai, my mother had hired the services of a masseuse for me. She had massaged my body with oil and had proceeded to pour very hot water on my body, concentrating more on my pelvic area .The water was so hot that I had howled in protest and had hopped from one foot to another to the farthest corners of the bathroom, which was not very far, just over a couple of feet, by the way. As she stood blocking the door, I could not escape. I would not have anyway, as I was starkers. But I felt great after the bath, relaxed and light as air, which more than made up for my super hot bath.
A postpartum belt is worn or a long sheet of cloth is tied around the lower abdomen, to push the uterus back and help it keep in place as well as rid the stomach of gas. Commercial soaps are avoided to wash off the body oil. Instead, a paste of chickpea flour mixed with a pinch of turmeric powder and 1 tsp of milk cream is used as soap for the new mother and the baby.
Savories made out of sesame seeds, dry nuts, fenugreek seeds/leaves, garlic, drumsticks & carom seeds (read Postpartum Diet for Breastfeeding / Lactating Mothers – Special Recipes to Increase Your Milk Supply) are given to new mothers to increase milk supply. Edible gum cooked with dry nuts and wheat is given to strengthen the back and the reproductive organs post delivery. Fresh cow’s milk is given first thing in the morning to enhance the quality of the new mother’s milk.
Veggies like beans, squash, carrots, beets, green leafy vegs, zucchini are cooked in ghee (clarified butter) in order to nourish the body and enable bowel movements. Lentils, cereals and whole grains are seasoned with whole spices and served hot. Gassy veggies like cabbage, potatoes and cauliflower are avoided for the first three weeks after childbirth, as they de-harmonize the five body elements and disturb the digestive system. Leftover food is avoided and organic fresh food is preferred. The new mother is directed to eat on time and not too much or too little, so that the digestive system is not unduly taxed. Chewing betel leaves after a meal helps in digestion.
In addition to a specific diet, the new mother is also given a series of Ayurvedic tonics like Sukumara kashayam to help in contraction of the uterus and pelvic area, Ajamamsa rasayanam to strengthen the bones and muscles and Dashamoola arishtam to improve immunity and enhance the quality of breast milk, for a duration of three months.
My great great grandmothers and their descendants lived up to the ripe old age of 90 and above, despite giving birth to over 10 children. They were free of the usual complaints of rheumatism, arthritis, back aches, joint pains etc., because they strictly followed the traditional confinement practices…so my mother said and I am inclined to believe that because some of the women I know from my generation onwards, have been riddled with chronic back, joint and pelvic ailments, from the time their kids were still in preschool, on account of a lackadaisical attitude and skepticism towards ancient norms and practices. Most of their current health issues can be traced back to the lack of proper care during the postpartum period, not realizing that the first six weeks after childbirth is a pivotal phase in a woman’s life, as medical science agree that it takes minimum six weeks for a woman to recover mentally and physically.
If a woman does not get proper rest, sleep and help during this period in order to face the overwhelming challenges and demands of motherhood, she runs the risk of depression, fatigue, sleep deprivation, anxiety and weight gain. One can scoff at these beliefs but these practices have emerged from wisdom and experience and cannot be dismissed offhand.
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