Tips &

Tips &

Can we reclaim the first 40 days of motherhood?

May 2024
Janthea Brigden
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After the birth of my first born I was in shock. My NCT perfect birth plan went out the window as my daughter, born bottom first, took 36 hours of labour. She finally arrived after induction with pessaries, ten hours on a synthetic oxytocin drip, (five without epidural because we’d been told that singing “ten green bottles” was all the analgesic I’d need!), an eventual epidural and finally a forceps delivery by a registrar whilst observed by six students who quietly trooped in to tick off a “breach birth’ on their syllabus! My daughter scored 2 on the Apgar scale so there was lots of bustling about. I felt so exhausted I remember asking my doctor if I was going to die!  She laughed.

We were transferred to a ward were I slept very briefly before being woken up and told to change my baby’s nappy.  I had no idea how to do this and when I asked, a nurse curtly told me she would show me once and then it was down to me. Ten minutes after I crawled back into bed, another nurse came into the ward and said that all new mums needed to go to the post birth exercise class. Weak and bleary eyed I followed the others, pushing the hospital cot containing my daughter and holding myself up on it at the same time.

Halfway through the class I felt very sick and must have gone a greenish colour because the lady taking the class asked me when I’d had my baby. “5am” I answered.  It was now 9:30. She called a nurse who admonished me all the way back to the ward.

My first 40 days were a nightmare.  My daughter cried consistently. Midwives, health visitors and relatives bombarded me with constant well-meaning advice.  I didn’t have enough milk, I had too much milk, I needed to feed, standing up, lying flat, hanging off the bed, upside down. I was picking her up too much, I was feeding her too often, I was making her too hot or too cold, I was too anxious, I was not anxious enough.... 

We took our daughter to a cranial osteopath and a homeopath and a sleep expert. My husband and I argued about whose advice to take although none of it worked. I felt useless, helpless and totally overwhelmed. I cried a lot!

My husband, an out of work actor, was trying to make ends meet by working for a garden company, so after the initial ‘relative rush’, I was left alone with the baby a lot of the time. I remember meeting a mum in the local park who kindly offered to come home with me and entertain both babies whilst I had a bath.  When I came out, my daughter was asleep, her son toddling about happily and she’d hoovered my house and cooked an evening meal. I think she may have been an angel as I never saw her again after that!

My instinct led me to hold my baby constantly in a sling, feed on demand and sleep with her in my bed. I didn’t realise this was ‘attachment theory’ until a wonderful person gave me a copy of Jean Leidloff’s ‘The Continuum Concept’ which took away much of my guilt, but that’s a story for another blog.

Can we reclaim the first 40 days of motherhood? 

The first 40 days after a baby is born are widely recognised as a monumental time in a baby’s life. It is in this time the foundations of their development and sense of belonging are established and a vital time of bonding with their caregivers. During this time they will also likely receive multiple visits from care providers such as midwives and health visitors to check on everything from their weight, to how they’re feeding, how their limbs are working etc. Rightly so, a newborn’s health is considered of paramount importance at such a vulnerable period. 

The big oversight in modern day Western society is that we don’t pay much attention to the mother at this very important transitional time when she is also incredibly vulnerable. 

The reality of modern day motherhood

In the UK, most mothers will get two weeks or less with their partner before they are left alone to look after the baby. This can be completely overwhelming for new mothers, many of whom haven’t yet recovered from the birth, are surviving on minimal sleep and whose hormones haven’t yet balanced, leaving them incredibly emotionally sensitive. 

As many as one in five new mothers will develop a mental illness during pregnancy or in the first year after birth. Shockingly, suicide is the leading cause of maternal death in the UK in the year after birth. 

With people in ‘the West’ living increasingly individualistic lives, we have removed the ‘village’ of support that women used to get in the past to help them navigate the monumental life transition of becoming a mother. This is leading new mothers to feel more isolated and overwhelmed than ever before. 

Why are the first 40 days so important for mothers? 

Your body needs time to recover.

Childbirth is considered by researchers at the University of Michigan ‘arguably the most traumatic event the human body can undergo’, whilst metabolically it has been shown that pregnancy pushes the human body to the limits of human endurance. Pregnant women burn calories at a rate of 2.2 times more than a non-pregnant adult, which is up there with endurance atheletes in terms of pressure on your body!

However you end up birthing your baby, the birth and pregnancy will take a physical toll on your body. A C-section for example, is a major abdominal surgery which requires 4-6 weeks of recovery time. On top of that, the hormonal shift that happens after you give birth will also lead to an increased level of emotional vulnerability, making it even more important that the first few weeks after birth act as a protective bubble for the new mother. 

This is essential bonding time

Those initial hours, days and weeks are essential bonding time with your new baby. Not only do they help to regulate your own hormones and promote recovery, they also establish breastfeeding and promote brain development in your newborn. 

The production of the love and bonding hormone, oxytocin, also plays a critical role in this initial attachment and establishing successful breastfeeding. The more relaxed the mother is, the more oxytocin she produces, leading to a better chance of successful breastfeeding. 

Postpartum customs around the world

All over the world, the initial 30 to 40 days after giving birth is considered an important and protected time. 

In India, new mums/parents observe a 40-day confinement period called jaapa, during which they rest and are cared for by family members. The mother/parent is fed special foods and drinks, and a special massage is performed using warm herbal oils.

In China, new mums/parents observe a confinement period called zuò yuè zi, during which they avoid leaving the house and receive daily massages from a traditional practitioner. The new mum/parent is also given special foods and drinks to promote healing and lactation.

From Japan, to Brazil, Nigeria, South Korea and Mexico, there are similar rituals in which new mothers are looked after for 21-40 days by family members or midwives whilst being fed special nourishing foods. 

We even used to do it in the UK!  Up until the 17th century all new mothers observed a ‘lying in period’. Men were barred from the birthing chamber for 40 days and the mother stayed in bed, healed, was looked after by other women, where she learned to breastfeed and bonded with her baby. After that confinement, mother and baby would leave the house, walk to church and be ‘cleansed’, before re-entering normal life.

Five tips to create your own 40 day ‘lying in’ period

It’s unlikely that most of us will have the luxury of ‘lying in’ for 40 days whilst being nurtured by others, but there are definitely steps we can take to aid our recovery, bond with our baby and ease back into life at a manageable pace. 

1. Hold off on visitors

It’s a common expectation that the whole family will descend within days of your baby arriving. Although it is understandable that friends and family will want to meet the ‘little bundle of joy’, it can be incredibly overwhelming for you as a new mother and potentially take up energy resources that you don’t have whilst trying to recover. Worrying about hosting people or tidying the house, or how you look, is not going to aid in relaxation or recovery, whilst passing your baby around to visitors may not feel comfortable to you or your baby in those initial days. If you feel you need to set aside time for bonding, set your boundaries and be clear about them. A week or two of waiting for newborn cuddles isn’t going to harm your relatives but may make a huge difference to your own ability to rest and recover. 

2. Share the load where you can

If you’re breastfeeding, initially it can be a lot of pressure on the mother to be the primary caregiver. Whilst it might be unavoidable to be the one getting up for nightime feeds, you can still share a lot of the caregiving with your partner. It’s important to remember that whilst they might not be able to do the breastfeeding, partners can still do a lot of the caregiving like cuddles and rocking/walking the baby around.  Even if it gives you a 30 minute break just to have a shower or a bath, it all contributes to your overall recovery and relaxation. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help or accept it when it’s offered. Even something as simple as a friend coming round to cook you dinner or a relative cleaning your house and doing your laundry for you can make the world of difference. 

3. Hire a postnatal doula

Postnatal doulas are becoming increasingly popular where new parents pay for the services of a postnatal caregiver who comes and provides support in the form of cooking, cleaning, and generally allowing the mother time to rest and recover. If you don’t have access to support from friends and family, or your partner has to return to work soon after giving birth, a postnatal doula can be an incredibly helpful and nurturing presence to help you navigate those initial weeks. 

4. Pace yourself

It can be tempting to try to ‘get back to yourself’ as soon as possible after giving birth, This isnt helped by a culture that celebrates how quickly women can ‘bounce back’ after giving birth with celebrity news focusing on new mothers who are back to their pre-baby body and looks within weeks of having a baby. This expectation is as unrealistic as it is damaging and sets new mothers up to fail. 

Take it slowly and ease yourself back into socialising, exercising and the rest of life’s expectations, when you feel ready. Going at your own pace will lead to a more sustainable recovery and reduce the risk of you burning out by doing too much. 

5. Drop the guilt 

‘Mum guilt’ is a well-known term and will likely be a familiar feeling to many mums. And it can start as soon as the newborn stage. When all of your energy is focused on taking care of a tiny baby, it can seem almost selfish to take any time for yourself. However, if you’re feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, taking a short break to look after yourself may be exactly what you and your baby needs. Leaving the baby in the care of your partner, relative or friend, even for half an hour, whilst you have a bath or go for a short walk, may allow you to take a deep breath, clear your head and return with more patience and presence. 

What was your first 40 days of motherhood like? Is there anything you would have done differently?