Many cultures across the world hold sacred the idea of a ‘lying in’ or confinement period after a woman has given birth. This period should be dedicated to restful recovery, where the new mother is expected to do little other than rest, eat, and feed and snuggle her new baby, while her family, friends, or hired help take care of her.
It could be referred to as a ‘baby-moon’, a time to get to know her baby and give her body and mind time to recover and get used to her new role as a mother. The time of this confinement period varies across the world. For example, in China women are expected to be in confinement for 30 days, in Mexico for 40 days, and in India for up to 60 days.
Looking at this practice from both a physical and an emotional point of view, I can see many reasons to recommend it. Physical exertion and depletion during pregnancy and childbirth, coupled with the exhaustion of life with a newborn and fluctuating hormones, mean that new mothers are in desperate need of being nurtured – of being mothered themselves. It is also known that having long periods of uninterrupted time lying skin to skin with a new baby is important to encourage the breastfeeding relationship as well as safe attachment. It actually takes a full 40 days for the womb to return to its pre-pregnancy size (although most of that happens in the first 10 days), but giving the body time to get all its organs back in the right places again is rarely thought about in the west.
In the UK there is no such culture of confinement. Instead, it feels as though there is huge pressure on women to lose their baby weight, to be good hosts, to post photos on social media of their babies’ spotless nurseries in their spotless homes. Often it is seen as an achievement to be out shopping and continue as normal only days after giving birth. We have forgotten what it means to nurture and replenish ourselves, to honour the enormous shift that every mother goes through following childbirth as her heart and body transform to accommodate another life. We bandy about words like ‘self-care’, but for most new mothers, caring for themselves comes far down the list of important things to do, even though we know that lack of support and care in the early days can trigger postnatal mental illness. It’s all very well saying that mothers should put their own wellbeing first when a crying baby will always take priority, unless they have some help so that they don’t have to be the person who has to do it all. The village we need to raise a child is no longer there, and it can be a lonely journey on your own.
Although taking 40 days out to lie in bed and be pampered is unlikely to be practical or possible for many women (although if it is in your case, good for you!), I believe we can do more to protect the vital postnatal period and the need for rest, recovery, healing and bonding during those early days and weeks. Drawing on my experience as a mother and as a doula, here are my suggestions for planning a healing and nurturing postnatal period:
Make a plan for your postnatal recovery.
Many women now write a birth plan. I would argue that a plan for what comes next is just as important! You might want to think about how you will manage guests to your home; having support in place with regard to feeding your baby; who could come and spend time with any older children; whether you will use your placenta for encapsulation or smoothies; what sort of meals you would like to be eating; how you will create a calm, oxytocin-rich environment to get to know your baby in. Include in your plan the phone numbers for any professionals you have decided to use during the early weeks, such as your postnatal doula, acupuncturist, lactation consultant, or placenta encapsulation specialist.
Get organised beforehand.
Stock your freezer with wholesome, delicious meals – ideally things that can be eaten one-handed over a sleeping baby – and fill your cupboards with nutritious snacks such as nuts, dried fruit, crackers and dark chocolate. Prepare a ‘set’ shopping list with an online supermarket, so that all you have to do is log in and order without having to think about what you might need. (Remember to include toiletries and snacks – even if you’re not usually a snack person you probably will be after giving birth.) You might like to note down any box sets you’d like to watch, or easy-going books you’d like to read – if breastfeeding, your baby is likely to spend long chunks of time cluster feeding in the first few weeks, with you unable to do much else. Make sure you have a comfortable place to spend time in with everything you might need at hand.
Build a newborn nest.
This will be somewhere you can lie and relax with your newborn in the days after the birth. It might be as simple as decluttering your bedroom, adding a basket next to the bed for snacks and drinks, piling on some blankets and cushions, and treating yourself to some new candles or a house plant. If you don’t have an electrical socket nearby, consider an extension cable so that you can charge your phone for those late-night feeds. Learn about newborn behaviour and especially get a good understanding of the fourth trimester. So many parents have unrealistic expectations of their newborn, which can turn the first few weeks into a fight against what is, instead of accepting and enjoying the very short period that your child is a baby.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help – or to buy it in.
We can be very British about asking for help, but most people will be delighted to be asked. Speak to relatives about staggering their visits, and ask them to put on a wash or do the dishes when they come around. Ask a friend to organise a meal train for you. If you have pets, consider leaving a spare key with a neighbour who can pop in to feed them during a hospital stay. Many new parents find it helpful to hire a cleaner, even if it’s just for a while until they feel they can take over again. If you don’t have people around who can cook for you, consider ready-prepared meals to remove some of the burden. Hiring a postnatal doula can be a wonderful investment; she or he can help with cooking, light housework or spending time with older children, or simply hold the baby while you nap or bathe. A doula can be a huge help in easing the transition when your partner returns to work and suddenly you find yourself alone with a baby (and possibly other children too).
Be kind to yourself.
It’s important to be realistic when considering the weeks after the birth. We can put tremendous pressure on ourselves to bounce back quickly after our children are born, yet our bodies have just gone through a huge physiological change. The days immediately following birth are physically tough – we lose blood, we produce milk, our hormones are changing, and we are adapting to life with a newborn who needs to be fed around the clock and who is adjusting to life outside the womb. I will be honest with you: your house is probably not going to be at its tidiest, you might not have washed your hair in a few days, and there may be moments where you wonder, “What have I done?” as your baby cries and you can’t understand how other people make it look so easy. All of that is OK. The intense postnatal period will not last forever, and practising self-kindness is one of the most important things you can do while you are in it. I promise you that your home doesn’t need to be spotless before you receive guests – they’ve come to meet the baby, not inspect your bathroom.
Kicki Hansard lives in Hertfordshire with her husband, two daughters and their dog. She is an award-winning doula with 15 years’ experience, and has supported hundreds of families through birth and the postnatal period. She has written The Secrets of Birth, is launching an online antenatal course, and runs training courses for aspiring doulas across the UK. birthblissdoulacourses.co.uk
First published in Issue 50 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.