The first four months after childbirth can be considered the 4th trimester. This time has a far-reaching impact on the physical, emotional, and spiritual health of both parents and their children later in life. Many mothers have a blissful postpartum period, but for others who lack appropriate support or have preexisting risk factors, it is overshadowed by a deep sense of distress. As many as 1 in 7 women in the United States experience postpartum depression (PPD), a condition that can appears days, weeks, or even months after giving birth. PPD manifests differently for every woman, but may include the following symptoms: fear of harming one’s self or baby, sadness, anxiety, anger, guilt, disinterest in loved ones, feelings of worthlessness, and changes in sleep patterns and appetite. The risk factors associated with PPD include fluctuations in hormones, preexisting anxiety and depression, marital dysfunction, difficult infant temperament, and acute stressors specific to motherhood (i.e. financial worries, childcare, etc).
In Western society, the baby gets attention while the mother is given lectures. Pregnancy is considered an illness; once the ‘illness’ is over, interest in her wanes. Mothers in ‘civilized’ countries often have no or very little help with a new baby. Women tend to be home alone to fend for themselves and the children. They are typically isolated socially and expected to complete their usual chores, including keeping the house clean and doing the cooking and shopping, while being the sole person to care for the infant. – Milk Money and Madness
When I was nearing the end of pregnancy with my daughter, Ivy, I began to seriously worry about my risk for PPD or the less severe “baby blues”. My partner Seven and I live across the country from our family, did not have an extensive network of people to help out with meals and housework, could not afford a postpartum doula, and were anticipating Seven returning to work after only 2 weeks of paternity leave. My confidence in taking care of a newborn on my own was shaky and I was terrified of being isolated. To cope with the anxiety, I delved into learning about how cultures across the world have traditionally supported new mamas in adjusting to motherhood and healing from pregnancy and childbirth. Adapting some of these customs and folk wisdom, I came up with a plan to make sure that I would be nurtured physically and emotionally during my fourth trimester, which made all the difference in having a smooth postpartum transition. Here I share with you what was effective for me and the other mamas I’ve worked with in warding off the baby blues.
Many cultures have a tradition that during the first 4-6 weeks postpartum the mother stays in bed with her newborn, while female family and community members tend to cooking, cleaning, care of older children, and other responsibilities. Known as the sitting moon in China, cuarentena in Mexico, and the 42 days in Ayurveda, all share a focus on “mothering the mother”. This custom promotes bonding between mama and baby, hastens healing because mama gets to relax and is fed nourishing foods, and protects the mama from feeling alienated. Western cultures have a much different attitude toward maternal care. There is often an expectation that new mothers resume domestic responsibilities and returning to work within mere weeks. I encourage you to enjoy this sacred time with your newborn. Take full advantage of maternity leave, turn the phone and television off, and don’t feel obligated to tend to anyone’s need but yours and baby’s. Let friends and family know what kind of practical support they provide, or alternatively hire a postpartum doula to help with baby care, cooking, and cleaning.
Find Your Community
Finding support through a community of other mothers is crucial. Consider joining a new parent support group or setting up regular play dates with other families from your childbirth class. The Mothering Arts community supported postpartum training has helped over 100 women to create a nurturing circle for mothers and babies in her community. The focus of these multi-generational gatherings which include community elders is to cultivate community, nurture the mothers and inspire joyful connection between mother and baby.
Meetup.com and the local hospital or birth center are also great place to find out about mom’s groups. Other places to find community include La Leche League, Babywearing International meetings, Attachment and Simplicity Parenting groups, and your local Hike It Baby chapter. If your birth was traumatic, you may find Birth Story Medicine a powerfully healing process.
Pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding are a tremendous pull on the mother’s vital force. Long-term depletion of nutrient stores can contribute to mood changes, fatigue, and impaired immunity. Eating a wholesome and varied diet is essential to postpartum wellness. Many traditions dictate that the mother eats warm, liquid-y and gently spiced foods for the first several weeks after birth. Good choices include coconut curry lentils, miso soup, chai spiced rice pudding, and congee – all very nourishing, easy to digest, and quick to cook in a crockpot. Korean women will consume seaweed in the days after childbirth to hasten healing and replenish nutrients, a custom borrowed from their observations of female whales post-birth. Plant foods, iron-rich foods, and sources of omega-3 fatty acids are particularly important in preventing postpartum depression by providing essential nutrients and decreasing inflammation in the body. Eating a rainbow of fresh produce provides vitamins and minerals for optimal health, iron-rich foods like lentils and meat prevent anemia, and omega-3 rich foods like salmon and walnuts decrease inflammation and protect against depression. Download four of our favorite recipes for the fourth trimester here.
Herbal teas, baths, salves, and essential oils are wonderful to include in a postpartum plan. There are many gentle and safe remedies that can hasten healing from childbirth and enhance lactation. Adaptogenic herbs such ashwagandha, shatavari, licorice and ginseng may be given after birth to strengthen and revitalize mama, while rebalancing her hormones, Chaste berry, angelica/dong quai, partridgeberry, and raspberry leaf may all be used to balance hormones as well. It is advised that you consult with an herbalist to determine dosage of hormone-regulating herbs. They are generally taken for 4-6 weeks postpartum. Milky oats, skullcap, chamomile and lemon balm are wonderful for calming the nerves and fears of new parents. Click here to get the recipe for a nourishing and lifting postpartum tea formula.
Establish Self-Care Rituals
You will no doubt be absolutely enamored with your newborn. However, it is healthy and restorative to have some moments to yourself every day. My partner and I made a deal that he would watch the baby in the mornings so that I could perform my daily ritual of abhyanga (warm oil self-massage) and a shower. This time to nourish myself was sanity saving! Other women I’ve worked with set aside time for massages, a yoga or meditation practice, gardening, or mani~pedis. It doesn’t matter what you choose as long as it is a consistent practice that makes you feel good. Read an article on nurturing your senses here.
Breastfeed if you can.
Studies show that breastfeeding may reduce the risk of postpartum depression by up to 50%. During breastfeeding a hormone called oxytocin is released by the mother and induces feelings of love and relaxation. Bonding with and nurturing your baby also increases your confidence in mothering.
Move Your Body
Physical activity is protective against PPD. Exercise causes your brain to release endorphins, chemicals that trigger positive feelings. This benefit is amplified if you’re outside in nature. Any joyful movement, from walking to gardening to weight training, counts as exercise. It’s all about what feels good for your body – it shouldn’t hurt or be stressful. A lot of moms really love wearing their baby in a woven wrap or other carrier and going for a walk or hike. Not only does it get you out and about, it is very soothing for baby. For the first 6 weeks after birth, make sure to check in with your care provider about what types of activity are appropriate for you.
Read an article on quick tips to gently recover your core after baby.
Botanical illustrations by Kathryn Cole Designs