If you are an expectant mother, you probably want to feel valued, loved, and nurtured after giving birth. At the same time, you don’t want to give up your independence or adopt cultural practices that aren’t a good fit with your modern lifestyle.
The drawbacks of traditional postnatal practices
Recently, there’s been a surge of interest in postnatal traditions from cultures around the world. And no wonder – the “just get on with it” approach has had devastating consequences. One in seven women who birth in Australia experience postnatal depression. Over two-thirds of Australian mothers don’t meet their own breastfeeding goals. And a leading cause of maternal death is suicide.
With these gloomy reports, it’s no surprise that mothers and postnatal health workers are looking elsewhere for answers.
But there are some drawbacks to blindly adopting traditional practices.
Many societies support specific practices that are harmful for both mother and baby. For example, at least 50 cultures worldwide withhold colostrum from newborns based on a belief that it is “ dirty, poisonous, or contaminated.”
But through scientific analysis of colostrum, we know that far from being “contaminated,” it’s like liquid gold, with uncountable benefits for a newborn. And we know that mothers who miss out on feeding their newborn may struggle with milk supply or experience other problems.
To give another example, some Asian cultures call for the mother to rest while someone else looks after the baby full-time (often the grandmother or mother-in-law). Does this sound idyllic to you? If you’ve already had a baby, you probably remember the sleeplessness of the early days. A little extra snooze time wouldn’t have been unwelcome.
But mothers and babies are wired to be together after birth. Modern research shows the long-lasting harm that is done when a mother is separated from her baby. Some mothers have told me that they felt infantilised or out of control during their traditional postnatal experiences. While they appreciated the nourishing food and extra sleep, they were not respected as adults or allowed to make independent choices.
Best of Both Worlds
Fortunately, postnatal care is not an all-or-nothing proposition. As a new mum, you can pick and choose the traditions that are supported by medical research and are a good fit with your lifestyle. You can look at traditional postpartum practices with a curious and open mind. You can ask questions:
What was the original purpose of this tradition?
Does it have relevance in my own life?
What benefits would I gain from this?
What drawbacks are there?
Can I gain the benefits in any other way?
And most importantly: when I think about adopting this postpartum practice, do I feel relaxed and contented – or stressed and anxious?
Some cultures have a taboo against new mothers washing their hair. If we look at the origins of this tradition with a curious mind, we discover that the tradition is grounded in the scientifically-supported belief that new mothers must be kept warm.
In societies with no central heating or hot water, it makes sense for new mothers to avoid getting wet and cold. But does dirty hair benefit you if you live in a house with a hot shower and can dry your hair immediately afterwards? You can still reap the benefits of this ancient custom while adapting it to fit with your lifestyle. Keep warm by all means – but no need to skip your daily shower.
Your postnatal, your choice
Postnatal support should always be centred around the mother’s personal wishes. Whatever approach you take, it should result in you feeling valued, loved and supported. We can all benefit from a harmonious blend of traditional wisdom and scientific understanding.
The statistics I’ve referenced are from Beyond Blue, Pediatrics journal, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), and the International Journal of Nursing Studies.