There’s no question our bodies go through a lot when we give birth. If ever there’s a time when we could do with some extra tender loving care, it’s right after having a baby. Through the ages, women have passed down ways of nurturing for the new mother, allowing her rest and recovery. In modern life, we can incorporate these ideas from ages past to create a new tradition of honouring the new mother and supporting her recovery.
Not so long ago, women would stay in the hospital several days after giving birth. You have probably heard grandmothers speak of the 10 days they spent in the hospital before that significant rite of passage: “bringing the baby home from the hospital”. These days women are discharged much sooner, sometimes just a few days after major caesarean surgery or an arduous labour ending in an assisted delivery – or even a few hours after a straightforward birth. Other women choose to labour and give birth at home.
This means that the healing and recovery period of childbirth, sometimes called, “the 4th trimester” or the “babymoon” is happening in our own homes. You may still be tender from the birth, with grazes, tears, bruising, possibly stitches or haemorrhoids still to heal. You may be recovering your sleep debt if you had a long labour, still getting the hang of breastfeeding and getting your head around the enormity of this incredible transition to motherhood .
There’s plenty of sound advice around these days to support yours and your baby’s transition. Uninterrupted skin to skin contact; supporting mother-baby bonding with what Midwife tutor Carla Hartley describes as “no hatting, no patting, no chatting”; the practice of placenta encapsulation which is rising in popularity; as well as customs that have been around for hundreds of years, such as arranging a meal roster of caring folk in your own network to bring cooked meals for a couple of weeks – all help the new family have a blessed and restful babymoon.
Another way I love to pamper new mothers is the postnatal herbal healing bath. When I had my 4 babies, all born at home, this herbal bath was my favourite part of the birth process – a special ritual where I could cuddle my newborn and think, “We’re here, we’re safe – we DID IT!” Is there anything more wonderful than the scent of a newborn baby? They smelled like wildflowers. The herbal bath too had that wild, natural fragrance, which did not seem to take away my babies’ smell, the way that strong cosmetic chemicals can. Even now, a whiff of those beautiful herbs invokes a surge of blissful memories and brings a tear to my eyes.
When a baby is first born, it is best not to bath the baby because the smell of the infant, and the amazing fragrance of the amniotic fluid, actually promotes peak flows of birth hormones in both the mother and the baby. This has important benefits – helping with the safe birth of the placenta; preventing excessive bleeding; supporting bonding, connection and falling in love; and promoting breastfeeding. The smell of the mother’s sweat, breast milk and pheromones are heaven’s elixir to the baby: the smell of “home”, of love and security. The fragrance of a baby is unique and the most heavenly, precious smell to a mother. These smells play their part in the bonding process, along with “velcro-baby” care: uninterrupted skin to skin contact between mother and baby. This is more important than cleaning or wrapping a baby; more important than the mother getting “cleaned up”; and more important than the post-natal herbal bath.
That is why we usually leave the herbal bath until the next day. The herbs help reduce pain, swelling and bruising, prevent infection and promote healing. Calendula and Chamomile are soothing for healing tissues; Yarrow and Sage have antiseptic properties; while Lady’s Mantle and Lavender are valued for their pain-relieving effects. This bath is pure bliss for a postnatal mama! Some mothers may prefer to wait a few days before they take their newborn into the bath with them for a shared herbal bath, and another chance for lots of lovely skin-to-skin. This is because they are in no hurry to wash off the “smell of birth” and the lovely bonding hormone-promoting pheromones. The bath is a lovely thing – when the mother and baby dyad are good and ready. We just need to remember not to rush it or let it become another convention, but let each mama/baby dyad decide for themselves if they want to, and when they want to.
Preparing the herbs for your bath can be a delightful activity during the months of anticipation. Almost any familiar culinary herb in your garden can be dried and used for your own herbal collection. On a dry, sunny day, pick lavender, sage, rosemary, plantain, oregano, thyme or yarrow. Tie the herbs into little bunches and hang them to dry somewhere out of direct sunlight, where the air can circulate. Depending on the herb and the weather conditions, they’ll take a few weeks or more to dry fully. Then strip the herbs into a large bowl. Blend them together, then store in an air-tight container. You may wish to add a handful or two of Celtic sea salt or Epsom’s salts to your herbal blend.
Closer to the birth, you can either sew little muslin bags in which to place the herbs – or old stockings work a treat! Tie one end shut, add a few good handfuls of herbs, then tie shut the other end – a beautiful herbal bundle that will work perfectly in the bath.
Along with the bath or sitz bath (a bowl large enough for you to sit in), there are other ways these herbs can be used to support post-natal healing. Place your herbal sachet in a clean bowl and pour on hot water. Let the herbs steep for a good 10 minutes. This herbal liquid can be placed into a cleansing bottle, which delivers a gentle stream over the healing perineum while seated on the toilet. Or you can soak soft cloths in the herbal liquid, place these in a Ziploc bag and cool them in the freezer. These cold compresses are wonderful for sore, bruised areas and especially haemorrhoids – shrinks those horrid little monsters right down.
New mothers often feel more tired, sore and achy in the late afternoon, and this may be accompanied by an increased flow of the lochia. So schedule a herbal bath and a rest on the couch or bed for this time of day. Active Manuka honey is another useful tool to have in your postnatal healing toolbox. Studies from New Zealand proved the healing effectiveness of this honey. Yes it’s sticky – so smear some honey on a cloth or disposable pad and lay that gently against the perineum. Rest for half an hour or so. Hopefully, you have a ministering angel in the house who can run your bath for you and add the herbs. Then you can remove the Manuka honey dressing and sink straight into your fragrant bath. If you wish, someone can hand your little “squishy” to you so you can both enjoy more blissful skin to skin cuddles. Make sure the bath is not too hot, that mother and baby are both well-hydrated and that there is someone at hand to help you both get in and out safely. Have the camera handy!
In our modern culture where women often feel under pressure to bounce back quickly and resume their usual workload before they have fully healed or recovered, the gift of a healing herbal bath holds not only therapeutic benefits for physical healing, but also becomes a way to acknowledge the new mother’s need for proper rest and healing, and a loving ritual to honour her path to motherhood.