In many cultures, the weeks following the birth of a baby are rich with ceremonies and traditions allowing new mothers an opportunity to heal.
I will never forget a birth story I heard years ago. The mother shared that she gave birth to her son in the morning and was back on the floor for her shift as a nurse later that evening. Perhaps the experience was embellished somewhat, but nevertheless, it stuck with me.
Not because I admired her strength, but because I was saddened by the fact that she had little time to slow down and honor her body’s need to heal.
We are all aware our culture is fast-paced and sadly, maternity leave benefits are lacking. It is often up to ourselves to advocate for the importance of slowing down postpartum so we can (hopefully) start shifting the culture.
I believe we can truly learn from traditional postpartum practices followed in other parts of the world, as they are practiced to promote rest and protect a new mother’s health in the years to come.
In fact, rates of postpartum depression are lower in many countries that practice postpartum ceremony and tradition, leading some researchers to believe that postpartum depression may be a “culture-bound syndrome” in the West.
Here are some postpartum traditions from around the world:
1. Satogaeri Bunben
In Japan, a new mother may return home to her mother’s care. The stay is often from 32-35 weeks of pregnancy through 8-weeks postpartum.
2. Extended Rest
Many cultures honor rest periods that are at least one-month long. When practiced, a commonality is the belief that future illnesses (including physical and emotional ailments, even infertility in Hmong traditions) will be avoided. Some cultures place restraints on the activities of women postpartum. For example, watching television is discouraged for Chinese and Vietnamese women to protect eye health.
3. Kao Krachome
A Thai tradition where a new mother sits wrapped in a blanket with a pot of boiled herbs. This is believed to help mom sweat out harmful water and absorb beneficial water that leads to good health.
Several cultures respect a period of warmth and avoidance of the wind postpartum. In Cambodia, women may lay down on a bamboo bed over a fire. They then place heated stones on their stomachs to reduce blood clotting. During yu fai, a Thai practice, new mothers may be massaged with hot salts.
Mother roasting, a practice in East Asia, is done with moxibustion (burning mugwort—a Chinese medicine technique) applied to certain places on a mother’s lower back and stomach. This is believed to reduce lower-back pain while preserving chi (life force) protecting the mother’s health.
5. Belly Binding
This Malaysian tradition (although many other cultures practice as well) is practiced to guide organs back in position and reduce the risk of diastasis (separation of abdominal walls). There are many other benefits including added warmth, better posture, and a reduction in back pain.
The wrap is typically worn for at least six hours daily for several weeks postpartum.
A Brazilian postpartum tradition that lasts 40 or 41 days after an infant’s birth (when a boy is born the tradition lasts longer as it is believed boys put “more strain” on mothers). During this time period, the mother follows certain dietary restrictions and limitations on workload.
At first, the women stay lying in hammocks and then may gradually return to light household tasks, such as washing their newborn’s clothing. New mothers are also encouraged to stay out the wind, sunlight, and rain or mist.
7. Closing of the Bones
A Mexican ritual in which new mothers lay down and Rebozos (long cloths) are used to wrap her and squeeze or hug her body, from head to foot, together. This symbolizes a closing energy, after so much has opened for a mother, physically and emotionally before and during birth.
The ritual may also include a detoxification process, where a new mother is bathed with hot water, “mummy-wrapped,” and sweats in an enclosure.
To encourage myself to slow down and respect postpartum recovery, I chose to have a postnatal sealing ceremony of my own at home. The ceremony was led by my friend, a doula with Sacred Rhythms.
We opened the space in my bedroom with the telling of my son’s birth story. It felt wonderful to share his story out loud for the first time, the perfect start to processing this beautiful first journey with my son.
Afterward, I chose things that I wished to release related to his birth (emotionally and physically) and blew that energy into roses —which I later composted.
We continued with a modified closing of the bones ceremony and a Reiki session. Scarves were used to gently hug different areas of my body — my head, shoulders, hips, legs, and feet. I feel hugging describes the sensation perfectly as I felt an extremely loving and safe energy in the scarves.
I requested that the scarf around my hips be hugged a second time as it provided gentle relief to the back tension I have struggled with since my son’s birth. After Reiki, my husband was invited in to rub frankincense on my feet, an essential oil with grounding properties.
We ended the ceremony with belly bending, in which a long cloth was wrapped around my torso. It felt amazing once in place, so much so, that I had to remind myself that I was still recovering so I would continue to take it slow as I went throughout the rest of my day.
This ceremony was the perfect way to honor my fourth trimester and I will always cherish the experience.