Belly wrapping, eating warm and wet, oil massage – they’re all nurturing ways to help new mums ease into their parenting journey. And they may also help avoid postnatal depression.
Mum’s Grapevine expert contributor and birth educator Stacey Astley-Clark is lifting the lid on the secrets of Ayurveda, and how it may help mums get a positive start to motherhood.
Did you know that as a new mum you now have a one in seven chance of experiencing postnatal depression? And we’re not just talking a few tears as your milk comes in. Postpartum depression is a full-blown mental illness which can prevent bonding with your baby, cause intense anxiety attacks and ruin your first year (or more) of motherhood.
So what’s causing so many women to be plunging into depression during what they’d assumed would be the most joyous moments of their lives? That is a huge question, involving many factors, which range from sleep deprivation to birth trauma to relationship difficulties.
The best chance at a positive start
What we do know is that postnatal depression is never anyone’s ‘fault’. But that doesn’t mean you’re entirely powerless – there are most definitely proactive steps you can take to prepare yourself for the postpartum period and reduce your likelihood of becoming that one-in-seven.
And while preparing for labour using hypnobirthing or prenatal yoga will give the best chance of an empowered birth and a positive start to motherhood, the effort mustn’t stop when your baby is born. In fact, that’s exactly when you need to dig even deeper into your self-care toolkit.
According to the science of Ayurveda (one of the oldest medical systems in the world), at the moment of giving birth, your body experiences a dramatic shift in its energetic state – from the heavy, earthy state of ‘Kapha’ to the spacey state of ‘Vata’. Essentially, the watermelon-sized bag which once contained your bouncing baby is now suddenly filled with ‘air’. And if it isn’t properly managed, this empty space can wreak havoc with your nervous system and ultimately lead to postpartum depression.
Fortunately, ayurvedic wisdom also offers some beautiful practices for staying well during your postpartum period; practices that nurture both you and your baby.
Let’s start by looking at the qualities of Vata (the air and space element). Vata is basically like the wind; cold, light dry, fast moving and busy. So, bringing yourself back into balance means doing more of the opposite; being warm, heavy, moist, slow and quiet.
The choices you make throughout your day, either support or diminish these qualities and can mean the difference between feeling burnt out and vulnerable by the end of the day or vital and connected to your new life.
Five ways to help avoid postpartum depression
1. Wrap your belly
I personally encountered the ‘belly full of air’ experience, two hours after giving birth to my first child. I was standing in the shower and sneezed and it literally felt like my organs were bouncing around inside a vast cavern (my body!). Wrapping your belly is one of the most nurturing, supportive things you can do in the hours after birth. It’s like giving yourself a big, warm hug and keeps everything feeling tightly packed and snug. It also helps with digestion and core stability.
How do I wrap my belly?
Belly wrapping doesn’t need to be complicated. The traditional way is to perform an oil massage (see below) then wrap stretchy cotton or muslin around your abdomen until it feels tight but not uncomfortable. However, you can also just use a tubular bandage or even buy a custom-made ‘belly band’ which fastens using velcro. In India, it’s standard practice to wrap newborn mothers for six weeks after giving birth, but the first week or two is the most crucial, especially overnight.
2. Get some rest
This might seem a ridiculous request given the ‘sleepless nights’ stereotype of new mothers. However, newborn babies do usually sleep around 16-18 hours a day, just not always (or often!) at night. Use this time to put your put your feet up. Even if you can’t sleep, the very act of raising your legs off the ground and lying down is amazingly restorative.
And turn off your phone. The urge to share photos of your snuggly newborn can be irresistible, but give your mind the rest it needs now and when bub wakes you’ll be energised and ready to interact.
3. Eat warm and wet
Every time I see a birth video with a new mum sat in bed eating toast, I cringe. No doubt delivered with the best of intentions, toast is one of the worst things a new mother can eat. From a basic nutrition perspective it’s pretty empty, but from an Ayurvedic standpoint (unless it’s absolutely dripping with real, warm butter), it’s pure ‘Vata-fuel’.
Thankfully, cooking for a new mother needn’t be hard. In fact, you don’t have to cook at all – a simple, warm Postpartum Power Smoothie can be knocked up in two minutes and will give you far more nutrients, plus the sustenance needed to make milk and heal your postpartum body.
Another classic ayurvedic postnatal recipe is the New Mothers Kitchari – a delicious rice-based dish that provides the perfect blend of protein, energy-sustaining carbs and Vata-balancing vegetables. This takes a bit more preparation, but you can make up a big batch before your baby is born (excellent nesting activity!) and heat it up as needed with a bit of ghee or butter.
Drinking a blend of chamomile and peppermint tea will calm both your nerves and your baby’s digestion (if breastfed). Try and avoid caffeine (or at least coffee) in the early days as it plays havoc with your already frazzled adrenals.
4. Oil self-massage
Oil massage (or Abayanga as its known) is one of the fundamentals of Ayurvedic postpartum recovery. This powerful practice is believed to nourish your entire being from the outside in. Sesame oil, a warming and nurturing oil, is used to pacify the dryness of Vata and leaves you feeling instantly more grounded and calm.
Here’s a simplified technique which you can complete in just five or 10 minutes, ideally before going to bed:
1. Visit your local health shop and find some Organic Sesame Oil (make sure it’s ‘untoasted’ or you’ll smell like a takeaway!).
2. Rub a generous slick of oil between your hands, until it’s warm.
3. Start by slowly massaging your head in a gentle circular motion until you feel the tightness in your scalp start to release.
4. Move down to your face, paying particular attention to the temples and jaw.
5. Continue down through your body, doing long ‘up and down’ strokes over your arms and legs and clockwise motions on the joints and abdomen.
6. Your skin can feel very dry as a new mother (a sign of Vata imbalance) so keep massaging in more oil until no more can be absorbed.
7. Spend extra time massaging the feet – pressing firmly with the thumbs into the soles of the feet.
8. Pop some light cotton socks on and go to bed, letting the oil work its magic while you sleep.
Remember, this is an act of self-nurturing so keep your strokes slow and mindful. If you don’t have the time for a full body massage, just massaging the feet with plenty of oil can work wonders.
5. Stay at home
While it’s tempting to rush out and parade your newest family member, you’ll reap the rewards by staying at home and ‘nesting in’. In traditional Ayurvedic cultures, mother and baby stay cocooned for six weeks. While this is unrealistic for most families, both you and your baby will benefit from a quiet week or two at home to bond, recover from birth and establish feeding and sleeping patterns.
It’s a rare and precious time in your life, so forget about the cleaning, stay in your pjs and indulge yourself with those endless newborn cuddles. Post a Facebook update announcing the birth and explaining that you’re enjoying some time in the baby cave and will respond to messages when you emerge.
And above all, remember the old adage ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’. Mothers need mothering too, so look after yourself now and you’ll look back at this time as one of your most magical.
Stacey Astley-Clark is the founder of Buddha Babies; a social enterprise that helps expectant parents experience beautiful births using the power of Hypnobirthing and prenatal yoga. She teaches the official Hypnobirthing Australia™ course and donates 20 per cent of all fees to the fight against child trafficking. For more information visit Buddha Babies.