What cues can we take from cultural postnatal traditions?

With the recent passing of Sheila Kitzinger (natural childbirth activist and social anthropologist of birth) I have been looking at her work again. One of the focuses of her career highlighted the importance of the centuries old birth traditions in cultures all over the world and suggested ways that modern Western societies can learn from these practices.

Over the years I have been lucky enough to work with women and families from many different cultural backgrounds and they have shown me some of their traditions specific to childbirth. I have cared for Afghani and Persian women who drink litres of tea specifically made for the postpartum period. This tea is full of fenugreek, cardamom, aniseed, turmeric and other herbs and spices that promote a plentiful supply of breastmilk. Women from China are fed gingery bone broths that pack a punch, delivering rich nutrients and minerals that are great for immune support and promotion of tissue healing. In fact most Asian cultures I’ve come across in my work have traditions around staying warm, only ingesting hot food and drink and staying rugged up despite any influence of outside weather. Many Indian and Sri Lankan women spend a month doing little other than breastfeed and bond with their new baby. West African women are cared for by sisters, aunties and other female relatives and friends for a month while they in turn care for their newborn baby. In fact the overwhelming majority of non Westernised cultures I have come across in my work have very similar traditions focussing strongly on nutrition for mother and baby and a ‘lying-in’ period as well as many of them honouring the placenta in some way or using it as medicine. These practices promotes a healthy start to life for the baby and an important period of healing for the mother.

What does this mean for Australian women giving birth today? Many people would baulk at the thought of not leaving the house for 1-2 months, and it’s true that it may not be appropriate for many women, particularly those who find themselves alone in the house with an unsettled baby day after day. We live in a society of little practical community support and women often find themselves isolated after their baby’s birth. But I think there is something to be taken from these often strict traditions. In my opinion the first few weeks after birth are crucial to the success of breastfeeding, bonding and a gentle best way to transition into a fast-paced world. In these hormone driven, sleepless weeks a new family needs all the support, love, rest and reassurance they can get, even if this is not the first baby in the family. It is good if visitors can be kept to a minimum (it’s ok to for people to leave a meal at the door!) so that the new family can bond without having to entertain guests, and nutrient-rich foods and drinks are a must while establishing breastfeeding. Those first few weeks set up such important foundations for a family that they should really be valued.

Elizabeth Shere

See more information on different cultural practices here: http://www.cmrc.com.au/assets/files/pubs/cultural_birthing_practices_and_experiences.pdf

More information on Sheila Kitzinger Here: http://www.sheilakitzinger.com

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