Updated: Mar 8, 2022
Colourful baby-grows, adorable socks and hats, blankets with cute prints, a fashionable changing bag, a trunkful of super-soft teddies,…
Our shopping lists, as well as our todo-lists, in the last months of pregnancy tend to focus mostly on the new baby. Which is really quite understandable, since we’re so much looking forward to meeting this new little person for the first time, holding them close, touching them, smelling them… (And at the same time that might all feel quite surreal and scary when you’re expecting!)
And then after the birth, even more of the attention goes to the new baby: how much they are gaining, how they are sleeping, how they are feeding, what’s in their nappy, etc etc.
But every time a new baby is born, a new mother is born. A mother whose body just spent 9 months growing that baby, and then proceeded to give birth. A woman, who has undergone not only a huge physical transformation, but also an enormous mental and emotional transformation.
Yet so little attention goes to her well-being in the period after birth. We live in a culture where the ideal is that a mother should just magically “bounce back”, “get on with it” and preferably fit into those pre-pregnancy jeans asap.
Yet not even a hundred years ago things were quite different in the UK, and most other cultures today still have a much more sensible view on the postnatal period: they understand that not caring for a new mother in the postnatal period or giving her time to recover and adjust to her new life, can have long-lasting consequences for the mother’s well-being (physically, mentally and emotionally), and inevitably that of her baby and her family.
When did we get so hung up on the idea of independence that needing or asking for support is seen as a sign of weakness?
To quote Brené Brown: “We don’t have to do it all alone, we were never meant to.”
Looking after a new baby often isn’t exactly like in the rosy pictures we see in adds on TV. As wonderful and awe-inspiring as the experience can be, it is also exhausting, messy, stress-full, overwhelming, non-stop,… and did I mention exhausting? It is a whole new 24/7 job that will challenge you in ways you have never been challenged before, and most people will agree it is the hardest job they have ever done.
Surely you don’t need to be a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon to understand that a mother who is cared for, nurtured and supported, will be better able to give her little one the care they need? That she will be in a better mental and physical state to take on this monumental task day after day?
So what can you do when you live in a society that doesn’t seem to value the importance of postnatal care for the mother?
How can you protect yourself from depleting your own reserves by constantly giving to this little being who needs so much, when there might not be anyone around to look after your needs?
Well, put down that paint brush for the nursery room your baby might not sleep in any time soon anyway, and have a look at this list of 10 suggestions you might like to consider:
1. Make a Postnatal Plan. You might well have a birth plan ready by now. Well, now is also the time to make a plan for what you would like to happen in the weeks after birth. Just as with a birth plan, it is important to realise that not everything might go to plan, but thinking of different strategies and options beforehand can make it easier to cope with different scenarios and find solutions that are acceptable to you when the time comes. For inspiration on what to include in your Postnatal Plan, you could speak with a postnatal doula (more on this later), or you could find inspiration in books like “Why Postnatal Recovery Matters” by Sophie Messager, or “The Fourth Trimester” by Kimberly Ann Johnson.
2. Rest before birth. You are likely to feel easily tired in the last trimester before birth. This is your body trying to send you a message! You might be keen to work as long as possible to have more time at home after the birth (or for any other reason), but it has been suggested that resting before birth can have a positive effect on the course of birth, as well as on how you feel and are able to deal with challenges after birth.
3. When you are not resting, consider doing some batch cooking and stocking your freezer with nutritious meals that make you feel good. Good nutrition and warm wholesome meals after birth are essential for a good recovery! Also stock up on nutritious snacks to keep you going throughout the day. Have a nice variety at hand, in your larder and fridge, and, once the baby is born, place them strategically - along with a bottle of water with a sport cap - in a place where you are likely to sit down with your baby. Many babies don’t like to be put down (even when they look like they are fast asleep, since their instinct tells them they are safest in your arms… clever little things!), so you may find yourself stuck in one place for quite a while.
4. Build a support network! This can be your partner, family, friends, neighbours,… As said before, we really aren’t meant to do this alone, and it is so important to surround yourself with people who will listen to you without criticising, who are in your corner, to whom you can reach out when you need a helping hand or a listening ear. Don’t hesitate to be clear on the kind of support you need (people often mean well, but don’t always know what they can do for you): whether it is doing some shopping for you when they visit, keeping you company, setting up a meal train,… There really is no shame in asking for or accepting help from others. This can make us all stronger and happier in the end! Organise and communicate this beforehand as much as possible.
5. Limit visitors after birth. This can sound a bit contradictory, and it depends of course on how you personally feel, but you might also like to have some private time after birth with your baby and your partner and be shielded from the expectations of the outside world. Having lots of visitors who all want pictures with the new baby can interfere with resting, establishing feeding or bonding with your baby, and you may feel obliged to be up and dressed or - God forbid - even make tea and serve biscuits to the guests. If you do receive visitors, feel free to stay in your dressing gown (to send a clear message) and consider asking them to do a small job for you when they come over.
6. Adjust your expectations. Life will not be as it was before birth, and you will not be able to do everything you were doing before. It can be a wise strategy to be very selective at first: sit down with your partner (if you have one), and discuss what is most important to you both, what is essential, and what can wait. Next, you will need to be flexible and get creative to see how you can make this work so that it fits around the baby’s needs. Be prepared to think outside the box and compromise.
7. Allow yourself to rest as much as you can after birth. You don’t need anyone else’s permission, just your own. Rest (or sleep if you can) whenever your baby naps, don’t be tempted to use that time to do all the cleaning up. Shield yourself from criticism: not everyone may appreciate that a happy baby and mummy is more important than a tidy house. Don’t feel guilty about seemingly “doing nothing” in a day. The most important part of your job as a mother simply isn’t very visible or measurable: it is not the pile of clean laundry you have done by the end of the day, but every time you picked up your baby and tended to their needs to help them feel warm, safe and loved in this confusing new world.
8. Explore different strategies to aid your physical recovery. No matter what type of birth you’ve had and what your experience of birth was, what your body has achieved, is nothing short of miraculous and it deserves to be treated with care and respect. Sadly, we often still have unhealthy and unrealistic expectations when it comes to the postpartum body, and the focus is often more on looking good rather than healing and feeling proud and powerful. But different practices exist that can nurture your body after birth and support the healing process. Take time to learn about them and explore what appeals to you. Again, a postnatal doula or the books I mentioned above can be a good starting point to find out more.
9. Ask for help. Don’t wait, don’t hesitate. If something doesn’t feel quite right, getting support sooner rather than later, can make things go a lot smoother. No matter what the issue is. Remember that you deserve attention too, you are worth it, it is important. Reaching out is a very brave thing to do. And if you still need an excuse, know that your well-being matters to your baby: you are their whole world and support system, they need you in good shape.
10. Consider hiring a postnatal doula. Many people might know about birth doula’s, but not many are familiar with what a postnatal doula does. (Another indication that postnatal recovery is very much an afterthought in our culture nowadays!). A postnatal doula can help with many of the above listed points. A doula can provide practical support, informational support, emotional support,… - depending on what your specific needs are, - which means you will be able to focus on healing, adjusting to your new life and growing in confidence, as well as bonding with your baby. Every postnatal doula works slightly differently and will have a different approach and focus, but here are some of the specific jobs a postnatal doula might be able to help with:
Check how you are doing and spend time listening without judgment to what is going on for you (you might like to talk about your birth experience, or your feelings as a new mother);
Help guide you and answer any questions you might have (whether it is about baby care, feeding, your own wellbeing,…), helping you to feel more confident in your new role and learn to trust your instincts;
Refer to more specialist support if needed, or help you find services and groups that are right for you;
Talk about any anxieties or worries you might have and discuss strategies of dealing with them;
Support you with feeding your baby;
Cook wholesome meals and stock up your fridge and larder;
Offer practical help around the house such as tidying, doing your dishes or laundry, feeding your pets,…;
Give you time to rest or take a shower while she holds your baby or keeps your toddler distracted;
Listen to your partner and how they are dealing with their feelings with regards to the birth of your baby or becoming a parent;
Offer a variety of more specialist services such as support with baby-wearing, breastfeeding, massage, specific postpartum healing techniques, etc.
If you are interested in hiring a doula to support you, it is helpful to speak to different postnatal doulas to discuss what you need and see what they might be able to offer you. It is also important to find someone you connect with and whom you feel you can trust and open up to.
So now is a good time to figure out what you want and make sure everything is in place to increase your chances of getting it and having a postpartum period that you feel satisfied with and that leaves you feeling stronger, healthier and more confident than before.
Talk it through with your partner, so that you understand each other’s expectations and can support each other as much as possible.
Gather information, speak with people with personal experience and read books: knowledge is power and it is important to know your options and find what is right for you and your family.
In short, give your postnatal period the attention it deserves, you will thank yourself later!
by Anne, Postnatal Doula, Breastfeeding Counsellor and founder of MamaMoon.uk
Why Postnatal Recovery Matters, Sophie Messager, Pinter&Martin, 2020
The Fourth Trimester, Kimberly Ann Johnson, Shambala, 2017