I love sharing the beautiful Indian cultural practice of postpartum “confinement” in which new moms and their babies stay home for 40 days after birth. I learned about this tradition because i was raised in a Sikh community and lived in India for 12 years. As a mother and a midwife who practiced in New Zealand for eight years, I am delighted about the resurgence of this postpartum practice in America, a tradition that is standard in most non-western cultures.
WHY 40 DAYS?
Although the time period varies, in most Indian communities confinement is forty days or roughly six weeks because this is the time during which most women establish breastfeeding. Also, physical healing is supported, and stamina is restored for normal life activities during the confinement. There is an Indian saying that ‘the first 40 days of life will impact the next 40 years of life.
Confinement allows the mother’s body to recover from the intensity of childbirth when hormone levels change dramatically, the uterus returns to pre pregnant size, milk production is established, and the perineum or caesarean section incision heals.
Women are becoming mothers (even if it is not for the first time) while processing the events of the birth, adjusting to a lack of sleep and responding to new bodily demands.This postpartum time is physically demanding but is also a precious window for bonding and offering the new baby a gentle welcome to the world.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING THE 40 DAYS?
I remember acutely the 40 days at home with my newborn daughter. While dealing with the challenges of engorgement, tender nether regions, and the wild roller coaster ride of hormonal changes, I needed the nurturance of others. The help my husband and I received facilitated our gaining confidence as new parents. Contrary to the sound of the word “confinement,” women who practice this tradition are not alone, which lowers the anxiety and stress of motherhood. In my experience, women who follow this practice—including receiving the help of others—have lower rates of postpartum depression.
The primary purposes of the 40 day seclusion are to provide the sensitive newborn physical protection and to allow the mother complete rest and recuperation. In India mothers are encouraged to abstain from chores, food preparation, cleaning or even hosting guests. Mothers are given the often underestimated need for deep rest and time with their newborn. Going out may include short walks around the block for mothers, but babies stay at home unless there is an urgent need to leave the home.
In Ayurveda, a 5000 year old Indian healing tradition, this period is considered a sensitive time for mothers, particularly for the digestive system—hence the strong emphasis on simple, digestible foods. Traditionally, mothers are given hot oil massages daily. They are fed very simple but special foods and a number of herbal drinks to promote healing and recovery, boost their immunity and improve milk supply.
HOW DOES ONE GET HELP?
In traditional Indian culture wives live with their in-laws. After giving birth new mothers either return to their mother’s home or their mothers come to stay with them. Usually many female relatives are available to help during this special time. In our society postpartum arrangements require more creativity and planning.
Some moms do have one or several female relatives who can come for periods of time. For some, like me, the best option was hiring someone for cooking and cleaning and asking close friends for other kinds of support. It required a financial commitment on our part, but my husband agrees that it was well worth it. I view it as an investment in the rest of my life, and my child’s life.
SEEK OUT HELPERS
It’s important to choose helpers who can hold the sacred space of this time.Tasks may include fielding phone calls or visitors, helping with laundry, making a Badaam Milk (see recipe below), preparing special foods and teas throughout the day, or giving a foot massage—as one friend did for me while I nursed my baby for what felt like the thousandth time that day. Postpartum doulas can fill this role by offering both physical and emotional support during the 40 days.
In our Sikh community, a network of close friends and family bring simple and delicious meals every day of the forty days. A friend can be a point person to create a meal schedule for other friends who commit to making one meal a week for six weeks. This allows mothers to keep the forty day practice when no family is close by. Other community members often offer to care for other children, or even pets, which is very helpful during this time. Any support that reduces the pressure on a mother and her family is a perfect gift in these first weeks.
I know it can be challenging for new mothers to arrange for forty days of rest in the midst of busy and stressful lives. Some moms need to return to work or have other children to care for. Regardless of circumstances, however, I encourage women to ask for and be willing to receive the help needed for healing and bonding. These first weeks are like none other. Maybe the rest of life can wait for just 40 days.
AYURVEDIC FOODS RECOMMENDED DURING THE FIRST WEEKS AFTER BIRTH
Cooked vegetables (not cruciferous: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, and bok choy)
Legumes: yellow mung, red lentils, green mung beans
Whole milk dairy products
Whole grains: well cooked
Ghee (clarified butter)
Ginger (in small amounts)
Basil, cumin, fenugreek, fennel, dill
Milk puddings; tapioca, rice pudding (without eggs)
AYURVEDIC FOODS DISCOURAGED DURING THE FIRST WEEKS AFTER BIRTH
Caffeine (chocolate, coffee)
Cigarettes and alcohol
Chilies, onions, garlic
Cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, brussel sprouts, broccoli)
Cold/icy or crunchy foods
Foods in the nightshade family: tomatoes, potatoes, sweet peppers, and eggplant, for example.
RECIPE FOR BADAAM (ALMOND) NURSING DRINK
Soak 10 almonds overnight.
1 cup of warm milk
1/2 tsp of Ghee
1 tsp of honey or maple syrup
pinch of turmeric (optional)
Slip the skins off the almonds. Blend all ingredients together, strain out the pieces of almond as desired. Heat mixture on low heat. Serve warm.
POSTPARTUM CARE RESOURCES
After the Baby’s Birth: A Woman’s Way to Wellness…A Complete Guide for Postpartum Women. by Robin Lim.
Natural Health after Birth: The Complete Guide to Postpartum Wellness. by Aviva Jill Romm.
Traditional Confinement Foods for New Moms.
For more information or recipes for the 40 day period, please feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And, here’s a great introduction to Ayurvedic cooking in general:
Ayurvedic Cooking for Westerners: Familiar Western Food Prepared with Ayurvedic Principles. by Amadea Morningstar.