As we all know from the imagery our media and social media are saturated with, postpartum is a beautiful, blissful, peaceful time of newborn cuddles and showing off your baby while you finally start to feel like yourself again - right?
Well... no. Usually not, anyway. Just as there are incredible pregnancy unicorns out there, there are bound to be incredible postpartum unicorns, too. But for the majority of us, postpartum is a period we are utterly unprepared for.
The reality is that postpartum is a time of major emotional, physical, hormonal, and spiritual change that is happening to us while we are often more sleep deprived than we've ever been and recovering physically from the equivalent of running at least one marathon or major abdominal surgery (or both!), all the while still bleeding and cramping as one major, muscular organ contracts regularly to close off blood vessels and return to its original size after being stretched five to six times that.
Not quite the same blissful image, is it?
Please don't get me wrong - I don't mean to make it sound terrible. It is also an absolutely magical and transformative time, but it is hard. Not that long ago, we would never have been doing this all on our own - in living memory, as Sophie Messager shares in "Why Postnatal Recovery Matters", in the UK, a woman was provided by the government to cook and clean and generally assist a new mother as she settled into her this new role alongside her physical recovery. In many, many traditional cultures, there is still support for new mothers in a way that we just don't seem to do in the West anymore.
Instead we get inane advice like "sleep when the baby sleeps" which, sure, is valid advice, but without physical help and assistance at home, is simply impractical. Because what about everything else that still needs doing (and often even more so once an extra person has been added to the household)? Should you vacuum when the baby vacuums, and wash dishes when the baby does?
Which brings us to the question, what can we do to look after and nourish ourselves, or each other, in this time? I have some ideas.
Make a postpartum plan
You've heard of the birth plan, but what about a postpartum plan? Jotting down some ideas about what your support network looks like, how ready they are to be relied on, what kind of tasks you will need help with and who can help you with them, where you will turn to if you need extra help with motherhood, breastfeeding or baby care, or physical recovery... Preparing yourself and your partner with the tools and information you need to know when you need to call in extra help. Even just going over the signs and symptoms of postnatal depression and anxiety together and deciding what your first steps would be if you identify these things happening.
As part of this postpartum plan, I'd encourage you to discuss with partner how you both plan on adjusting to this new life as a couple. What can you do to keep communication lines open? What support do you expect from partner during hours of cluster feeding and long night wakes? Are you both prepared for how your physical relationship might be affected? What can you do to check in with your relationship and keep a strong bond?
Ready your support networks
Prepare your friends and family for the fact that you will be relying on them to help you during these early days (and often the not-so-early days too). Give them an idea of the kind of help you will be needing to help manage expectations when your baby has arrived.
Use social media to prepare friends and family for your expectations
It can often be easier to make a general social media announcement explaining how you and your partner will be approaching your postpartum to get a bunch of information across to a large group in one go. This announcement might indicate when and how people can expect to visit and what expectations you will have of visitors (like helping out, vaccinations, not wearing scents or perfumes, whether or not they can hold the baby, maximum time for a visit, etc), and might even make suggestions for what people can gift in lieu of flowers or onesies if they would like (like food).
This can often be an easier way to broach this conversation with friends or family members that are a little more set in their ways (to put it politely) and expect that they will be able to head straight over the moment the baby has arrived and hold said baby the entire time while you make them a cup of tea, but you might also find that you need to clearly explain to these types of friends and family that yes, your these rules will also apply to them. This can sometimes be a tricky conversation to have, but remember that this is your time and not theirs, your baby and not theirs and despite how they might feel, you are entitled to set boundaries that you are comfortable with. Having the conversation in advance often helps to give people time to accept these boundaries, rather than having to have the conversation with them on your doorstep with a baby that's barely 24 hours old.
Make a list and stick it to the door
A list of chores that people can easily see as they come to visit that are straightforward and simple for a person with two free hands and a full night's sleep to do, for example: pack/unpack dishwasher or wash dishes, put on or hang out a load of laundry, make the bed(s), vacuum, fold clean washing (and put away if you're not like me and get filled with stress that someone might put your washing in the wrong place or stack it incorrectly), water the plants, take the dog for a walk, take the siblings out to the park, etc. Whatever chores you are comfortable with others helping you with.
Pro trip: leave the vacuum visible in the main room for when people come over ;-)
Stock the freezer
You can do this gradually, or you can invite a bunch of people over to help you prep a whole bunch of things to pop in the freezer! Don't forget breakfast and snacks - it's not just dinner and lunch you will need. Look into Ayurvedic recipes that can nourish your postpartum body and mind the best possible, but also think about what foods and snacks are going to be practically useful for you on days where you mightn't have helpers around.
Some excellent resources for postpartum recovery meals are Julia Jones' "Nourishing Newborn Mothers" and "The First Forty Days - The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother" by Ou, Greeven and Belger
Physical recovery aids
Things like postpartum padsicles, sitz bath herbs, peri bottles, special massage oil blends, compression bands/shorts, belly binding, etc. can all be of huge help in physical healing and comfort in those early postpartum days. Manuka honey and medihoney might also be useful to have on hand.
Getting a suitable carrier for your new baby can make this time far easier. Babies crave close contact with their mothers and baby wearing is a fantastic way to give them this while also freeing up your hands and going easy on your body. You would be amazed at the physical difference between holding a baby against you and wearing them in a carrier - so much easier on your back, neck, shoulders and more.
Your abdominal muscles, including your core, have spent nine months being stretched way out, so it can take a good while to build back your core strength and re-learn how to activate it properly. While this is happening, often your back muscles try to take up the slack, which means when you are carrying your baby, your back can get very sore very quickly. Baby wearing helps distribute the weight of the baby more evenly across your upper body and helps you maintain better posture, which can help you avoid pain and build back that core strength.
Plus, babies being worn are often very settled and comfortable to be held close, which in turn helps mum feel comfortable and calm.
Mentally prepare yourself for a long physical recovery
Forget about this "bounce back" bullshit. Your body has undergone enormous physical changes to grow and birth an entire person, and it will continue to nourish and nurture that person for months still to come.
It can be really difficult to come to terms with the idea that your body is not as strong as it once was, and looks different. Pregnancy and birth leaves often permanent marks on our body. Stretch marks, saggy skin, caesarean scars, episiotomy scars. Pelvic floor weakness, loss of core strength, loss of muscle tone, extra fat stores, hair loss, dark circles under the eyes... There are so many ways that our body changes during this time, and rather than trying to figure out how to get it back to what it was, I propose this difficult truth to you: your body is as permanently changed as your life after having a baby.
Yes, you can build back your strength, yes, you can often shift your extra weight gain. Many of these things are temporary, sure. But I think just as we can never return to a time before we were mothers, we also have to accept that our bodies will never be our pre-baby bodies. Your body has gone through something that is as close to an every day miracle as it gets, and we do it a disservice by expecting that it can ever completely return to the state it was in before that.
If you are a person who knows they struggle with their body relationship, it might be an idea to set up some counselling or therapy to start that process of coming to terms with these things in advance.
Be gentle with yourself
Allow yourself negative emotions without guilt. This can be a very difficult time, especially with babies who need a lot of attention and reassurance. It can be all-encompassing and hugely draining.
Postpartum is a real time of competing feelings, but it is actually completely normal to feel these competing emotions simultaneously. You can be overwhelmed with love for you baby, and still desperately crave an hour to yourself. You can grieve for the life you had before you had a baby, and still feel your heart expand when you see your baby smile for the first time.
You might even worry that you aren't overwhelmed with love for your baby straight away. That is also perfectly normal. This is particularly common after a traumatic or difficult birth, but it can absolutely happen to anyone. If this is you, just try to enjoy as much skin-to-skin time and soaking up your baby's scent as possible to encourage those hormones along.
I know, I criticised this advice before, but only because it is useless when it's being handed to you by the person at the supermarket check-out or the Great Aunt who comes over for three hours and has you playing hostess the whole time.
The fact remains that rest is critical for a postpartum mother, and specifically, horizontal rest. This might look like you and bub snuggle up in bed asleep together, or it might just be you lying down on the couch while your bigger kids watch some TV or put a puzzle together. Allowing the body this time of physical rest is really, really, important.
If you have a baby who is waking frequently through the night, sleeping during the day is going to become a necessity for you, and putting all of these other things into place so that you can do so is going to be just as important.
Hydration and nutrition
Back to basics. It seems obvious, but it is worth the reminder! Drink plenty of water, especially if breastfeeding, and eat wholesome, nutritious food. That doesn't mean you can't also eat chocolate (or whatever your snack food vice may be), but it means try to get a great variety of nutrient dense food which will help your body repair damage, restore its nutrient levels and keep your hormones regulated.
See a women's health or pelvic floor physio soon after birth
Even if you're feeling good, but especially if you're not! It is absolutely worth having a check up with a pelvic floor specialist to assess your body and give you feedback on how to help it recover. Issues like prolapse or abdominal separation can often be fully recovered from with the right treatment and advice. There's a great podcast episode by Welcome to the Womb here that can give you some more info, and I also recommend checking out Core and Floor Restore on insta for more information.
Hire a cleaner or, even better, a postnatal doula (like me!)
Firstly, let's be very clear - these two things are not the same. A cleaner is there to do exactly that, and for some women, that will be exactly what they need. Someone to just take care of household cleanliness for a month or two after the baby has arrived.
A postnatal or postpartum doula is so much more than a cleaner. They might help you with light tidying or cleaning tasks, but they are primarily there to support you in whatever ways they can in adjusting to new motherhood and your physical, emotional and spiritual recovery. Postpartum doulas all have different offerings, but generally will provide or cook nourishing meals for you and your family, take care of some light household tasks, help with entertaining older children, provide a gentle shoulder to cry on or a non-judgemental ear to listen, offer breastfeeding support, and try to help you get some rest where they can and you need. Additional and often more specialised offerings can include postpartum massage, baby wearing and settling advice, yoni steaming, herbal baths or sitz baths, belly binding or wrapping, closing the bones ceremonies, and even more. A postpartum doula attempts to fill to fill the void our western society has created and nurture the new mother as best as possible.
If you want to know more about postpartum doulas and what's involved, feel free to contact me.
Postnatal massage and/or belly binding
As part of the physical recovery from pregnancy and birth, our internal organs need to literally move back into their original positions and our muscles fibres pull back together after being stretched to their limits. Aside from horizontal rest, two active methods to assist with this level of healing are postnatal massage and belly binding. Often, a postnatal doula may offer one of these services, but you may also be able to seek them out individually.
You can also purchase ready-made belly binders, or compression shorts/leggings which can do a similar job.
Where can I find help or more information?
Below is a guide for where you can go for more help. I have included practitioners and organisations in the Western Sydney and Blue Mountains area, as well as national and state organisations and those who operate online. If you know of any great resources that aren't featured, please let me know!
Or check out my blog on breastfeeding here
Pelvic Foor Health:
Postpartum Meal Services:
Birth Trauma Counsellors:
See my blog on "In the Aftermath of a Bad Birth"
Mums' groups and activities: