The first few weeks of postpartum are recognised around the world as a crucial time. This period that lasts around 40 days is marked in numerous cultures, and not just in traditional societies: think six-week check up in the UK, US or Canada.
This is roughly the amount of time it takes for your body to recover after giving birth – but there’s a lot more to it than just physical recovery. During this window of time after birth the investment you make in yourself can have a life-long impact. These 40 days can also determine your next 40 years. Ysha Oakes, Ayurvedic doula and postpartum educator summed it up beautifully:
“After birth there’s a sacred window of time. A time for complete rejuvenation of a woman’s physical, mental and spiritual health. A time for deep, extended bonding with her newborn. The first 42 days after birth set the stage for her next 42 years.”
Whether you call it a sacred window or brain developmental stage doesn’t matter; the truth is that this is a really critical stage in a woman’s life.
Your body is going through all kinds of physiological changes during these weeks: the uterus shrinks back to its normal size, breastfeeding is established (if you choose to breastfeed), and the lochia (bleeding) usually stops around this time, too. But the greatest thing of all is undoubtedly brain plasticity.
Pregnancy and postpartum is a time of high brain plasticity: which basically means your brain gets rewired. This happens so that you can learn all those new tasks mothers need to learn. Your brain gets an upgrade; it prioritises what’s important for it right now, and gets rid of other things it deems less important (this is the reason behind baby brain; you can read my post about it here).
The best thing is, when your brain is rewired you get a chance to decide what to keep, and what to get rid of. Your brain will adapt as a result of your experiences: and you can rewire it for stress and fear, or you can rewire it for love and happiness.
As postpartum doula educator Julia Jones says, she talks to mothers who years and years later are still traumatised from their birth and their postpartum, they’re still stressed out. They still haven’t found that equilibrium, that peace and joy. She believes that this is down to a less than ideal postpartum recovery.
Those first 40 days can really set you up for a positive transition into motherhood, or for a less ideal one – and we all want a positive experience, right? Let’s see what can you do to make the most of this period.
In many traditions keeping a new mum warm is a top priority: staying inside, staying out of the wind, no air conditioning, eating hot foods are all encouraged. Being cosy and comfy increases oxytocin, which is the most important hormone new mums need (you can read about it more here). Being physically warm also increases emotional warmth. Think of that feeling of being all snuggled up by the fire. We’re not talking about being too hot; we’re talking about being warm which feels really good and safe, and which allows you to feel more loving. Wrap up and stay cosy day and night, and if you live in a hot climate go easy with the air conditioning.
Eat nourishing food
Your body has been through a whole lot of upheaval while growing a tiny human and giving birth to it – now it’s time to replenish what has been lost. Try to eat nutritious food postpartum: warming soups, healthy fats and carbs, hearty, grounding meals. This is not the time for diets and losing weight – you’ll have plenty of time for that once you’ve regained your strength. The best foods for postpartum are high in nutrients, easy to digest, warm, and moist: soups, stews, bone broth, root vegetables, rice pudding, healthy comfort foods. Foods that you enjoy eating; that’s also important.
Avoid doing chores
No, really. The only job a new mother should have is falling in love with the baby, and learning to breastfeed (if she chooses to). Anything that takes you away from those two tasks should be allocated to someone else in the first few weeks. Ideally you should be resting in bed and sleeping as much as possible. Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world – but you can plan ahead. Freeze some meals in advance, get your friends and family to cook for you, get your partner to do the chores, or ask visitors to help out. People like to feel useful, they will be happy to help.
Have a support network
Having a few people around who love you and support you is crucial. Mothers are not meant to be alone in isolation. Nowadays unfortunately it’s not uncommon for the husband to go back to work after a week or two, which leaves the new mum to do everything on her own. Being at home all alone however not only leads to isolation and loneliness, but it will also make it difficult to recover physically and mentally. We are social beings and we need to have a good support network we can count on. If your partner, family, or friends can’t be there to help, you should really consider paid help, such as a postpartum doula. It’s only for a few weeks and it’s certainly worth the investment.
Do what makes you happy
Do the things that bring you joy, watch a movie you love, eat the foods that you enjoy. Do whatever makes you happy – this is the best way to increase your oxytocin. This hormone will help you heal, bond with your newborn, and enjoy motherhood. If there’s something the baby books or your mother-in-law recommends but it doesn’t bring you peace and joy, don’t do it. Always ask yourself this question: is it going to bring me peace and joy if I do this? If the answer is yes, go for it. If it’s a no, forget about it.
The bottom line is, if you feel loved, supported and nourished in the first 40 days after your baby was born you will not only recover quicker but you’re also likely to enjoy a more positive experience of motherhood and better health for decades to come.
How your brain gets rewired has long term impacts on your life; and a positive postpartum experience in the first few weeks can rewire it for love and happiness. How awesome is that? So take this time to rest and recover both physically and mentally; and you’re going to enjoy a much better quality of life in the future.