Ayurvedic Care for Pregnant and Postpartum Women

A pregnant woman

Introduction

Ayurveda is a science based on the knowledge that the human body like nature, is made of five elements; namely earth, fire, wind, space and ether. For optimal health, there must be balance between the five elements. A combination of these five elements is classified under three doshas namely, vata, pitta and kapha.  Vata is composed of air and ether. Pitta is composed of fire and water, kapha is composed of earth and water. Each dosha has its own functions. Vata because it governs movement is known as the “queen” of doshas. Childbirth, nervous system function, movement of food through the intestines, elimination of wastes are some of the functions of vata.  The concept that improper decisions and lifestyle are responsible for the genesis of disease is a well-known Ayurvedic idea.  Ayurveda advises a great degree of care and attention in the management of a pregnant woman.  Especially when she approaches full term, critical care is necessary as “one foot is considered to be in this world and the other in the world of Yama” (the god of death).  New mothers also require and deserve a great of support and nourishment to heal their bodies and to fulfill their motherly responsibilities. In India, it is said that if the mother is happy then her baby is happy. So every effort is made and great care is taken to ensure the mother’s needs are met and that she is happy. Her health and happiness are vital for the blossoming of the mother-baby relationship.

Pregnancy Care

In Maharishi Vedic Medicine, it is understood that pregnancy is a time when everything the pregnant mother tastes, sees, touches, hears, and smells should be nourishing to the mother and child. There are very specific recommendations to bring about a state of balance in the consciousness, mind, body, behavior, and environment of the pregnant woman.  “When a mother is pregnant, the kind of soul she can accept depends on her mental attitude. And then there is another beauty that within the realm of your belly, which is your pregnancy, you can totally transform the soul. The soul is pure and has nothing to do, but the subtle body carries the karma of the previous life. A mother can totally purify the subtle body of the new child.”  (Yogi Bhajan, Women’s Camp 1976.)  The connection between mother and baby is very strong. Therefore, the mother’s diet, mood, and emotions affect the baby. If the mother is feeling well, the baby feels well. It’s so important that the mother be happy and healthy, for then the baby will be happy and healthy, and will have the, best possible start in life.

Diet for Pregnancy

The Vedic texts recommend sattvic foods, which are pure, easily digested foods that nourish the dhatus (tissues) of mother and the unborn child. The food she eats should be tasty, more of it should be in a liquid form, moist, nourishing, enriched with all the six rasas (tastes.)  These include foods such as milk, rice, wheat, and ghee (clarified butter), fresh vegetables, fruits and grains.  Sattvic foods do not cause constipation or indigestion, and they create a more settled state of mind. These foods help the mother enjoy ideal health and vitality, and also help with the growth of the baby. Ayurveda Vata Churna is a convenient way to add Vata-balancing spices to your diet.

Practices for Balance

In Maharishi Vedic Medicine it has been recognized for thousands of years that the mother must be very happy and feel harmony with nature during pregnancy. For this, various strategies have been recognized. One is the social environment, which means that the family tries to keep her happy, especially her partner. The ayurvedic tradition says, “Let her hear good news, let her hear harmonious music, let her eat sweet foods, let her attend monthly celebrations to always keep her uplifted and nourished.  Techniques such as abhyanga, (Ayurvedic oil massage) are recommended for the mother. Mothers who do this once a day, on arising, find that they feel more evenness, more balance, more energy throughout the day. The massage and other techniques balance her Vata dosha (the mind-body operator that governs movement and many mental functions), so that the mother feels steadier, more even, and less anxious. This creates more happiness, and more balance in her entire nervous system. Any feelings of agitation, depression, or sorrow dissolve.

Postpartum Care

In Western medicine, the typical mother gives birth, stays in the hospital between 24 and 48 hours, and then is on her own. In modern medicine we do recognize that it takes six weeks for tissues to recover from childbirth, and consequently the mother usually returns to the hospital for a six-week check-up. But otherwise, there is literally no support for the healthy mother who does not have a medical condition.  In contrast, Ayurveda focuses on the revitalization of every mother through specific diet, rejuvenation techniques, and rest.  This phase is called the Sutika period – a term derived from the word prasuta or the mother after delivery. There are different opinions about the duration of this period, which ranges from six weeks to six months and some believe that it lasts until the restoration of menstrual cycle.

In Western medicine, the typical mother gives birth, stays in the hospital between 24 and 48 hours, and then is on her own. In modern medicine we do recognize that it takes six weeks for tissues to recover from childbirth, and consequently the mother usually returns to the hospital for a six-week check-up. But otherwise, there is literally no support for the healthy mother who does not have a medical condition.  In contrast, Ayurveda focuses on the revitalization of every mother through specific diet, rejuvenation techniques, and rest.  This phase is called the Sutika period – a term derived from the word prasuta or the mother after delivery. There are different opinions about the duration of this period, which ranges from six weeks to six months and some believe that it lasts until the restoration of menstrual cycle.

Ayurveda says that after delivery the mothers agni will be low and her vata is vitiated immediately after delivery.  Basic postpartum care in India lasts for a minimum of 40 days during which the mother is massaged with herbalized oils. During this time, the mother is not allowed to do any tasks or chores in the home. In fact, her only activity is nursing the baby, bonding and resting. This 40-day period of rest and recuperation is considered a long-term investment in the mother’s health. Since the mother is never left alone to deal with any anxieties of motherhood and is encouraged to breastfeed the baby on demand, postpartum depression rates are low among Indian mothers.  There is recognition in ayurveda that even the healthiest of mothers can experience enormous postpartum fatigue and stress. A first-time mother, especially, is facing the transition into motherhood with all of its tremendous responsibilities and joys just when she feels most exhausted and depleted. If one helps a mother rejuvenate, if one “mothers the mother,” then she can care for her newborn with joy and ease instead of feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. She can be a better mother. Thus the aims of postnatal care are: to restore the agni, normalize the vata, optimize the quality of breast milk, to avoid exertion, and her diet should be very light.

Diet for Postpartum

The mother’s digestion is usually very weak after giving birth. Foods must be easily digestible, yet very nourishing. Rice, warm vegetable soups, milk and Ghee (clarified butter) are all part of the postpartum diet. Yet it is very specific, because certain Vata-producing vegetables will cause gas, and will show up in the baby as colic. So those foods must be avoided.  Regular intake of the canned foods, hot, pungent, and spicy food recipes should be avoided, as these decrease milk secretion. The best diet for a nursing mother is a simple, bland vegetarian menu.  Also, Ghee and oils should be taken in adequate amount to improve digestion, facilitate the evacuation of bowels, nourish the traumatized tissues, and subdue the vitiated vata dosha.  All of a mother’s food should have these qualities: liquid or moist, oily, warm, spiced.  Food ideas for immediate postpartum include:

Rice pudding with spices, ghee, raw sugar, basmati rice

Oily, spiced cooked vegetable soups

Cream of wheat with dates

Barley konji with sesame seeds

Yams, sweet potatoes, cooked roots

Date & almond shake – soak the almond!

Spiced warm raw cow’s milk

Simple yogurt lassis (homemade yogurt, water, spices, salt,

Dahl & kitchari

Simple vegetable soups

Foods that are not part of the postpartum diet are ones that are difficult to digest and those which extract nutrients. It is important to simplify this process of digestion and absorption as much as possible. Otherwise, a mother may develop a slew of postpartum symptoms including: bloating, constipation, postpartum depression, insomnia, irritability, and cravings for poor food choices. Furthermore, her baby may become colicky, irritable, or develop thrush. Therefore she should watch what she eats for the first 42 days postpartum.

Practices for Balance

In addition to proper nutrition, it is a known fact that many cultures do not leave a mother alone to care for herself and the new baby. New mothers need tremendous support and rest and help in caring for other children. In most ancient cultures older women in the family care for the new mother. Mothers are nurtured during pregnancy and after birth as well. It is a special time for care and pampering by women family members. The expectant or new mother becomes the central figure in a family. Doulas can provide the same care to new mothers.  Belly binding after birth is a practice used traditionally in Ayurveda.  It offers stability and comfort, like being hugged at a time when there is so much flab or stretched tissue and empty spaces inside.   The body is able to function and heal better.  This healing includes tissue rejuvenation, proper bowel movements, digestion, reducing gas and bloating, and support of the mood and hormones.

In the first week of the postpartum period special care should be taken for Lochia- (accumulation of abnormal blood in the uterus). The vagina should be cleaned twice daily with medicated lukewarm water. Use of medicated jaggery water is also recommended for three to four days.  The pelvic region and thighs and the parturient canal should be massaged regularly with warm mustard oil, at least for of thirty days. After the body massage the stomach should be wrapped tightly with large piece of clean cloth. The wrapping helps in compression of the abdomen and it avoids the presence of hollow space in the abdominal region thereby obviating the possibility of vata vitiation. The massage should be followed by a bath with sufficient amount of lukewarm water.

During this period the head of the mother should be properly covered and care taken to avoid her contacting the cold air. Light physical exercise is suggested, however care should be taken to avoid physical stress and fatigue. She should not indulge in sexual activity during this period.  Proper adherence to this regimen results in faster recuperation and restoration of the health of the mother.

120th Day Celebration

Yogic tradition celebrates that woman becomes a mother one hundred-twenty days after conception. The Creative Force grants full incarnation of the soul into the body. Previously, the soul was subtly linked to the growing cells in the womb. The woman is now the vehicle for the soul to fully incarnate; now she is mother.  Before the 120th day, the incarnating soul is still unaffected by the limitations and influences of the earth. After the 120th day of pregnancy until the navel cord is separated from the mother, the subconscious mind of the child is formed. While the child is in the womb, the mother is the vibratory receptor for the child.

“On the 120th day, we give our women a blessing and tell them to meditate more, and look toward God, so that they may have very calm, quiet, intelligent, self-creative children.” (Yogi Bhajan, Women’s Camp 1979) On the 120th day of pregnancy, family and close friends are invited to rejoice. The celebration is to honor the mother and offer her loving support. Everyone gathers to meditate, chant, and reflect on the reality that a soul is entering her womb. This celebration also offers prayers for the woman’s spiritual, mental, and physical well-being so that she may inspire, teach, and guide her child.

Conclusion

From examining the postpartum traditions of many cultures, it is clear that care for a postpartum mother is just as important as prenatal care particularly for her long-term health.  Mothers need, desire and expect quality holistic postpartum care.  As health practitioners, it is imperative that we are more attentive to the women we are serving. Caring for the mother in a loving way will help restore strength, vitality, muscle tone, mental clarity and an overall sense of well-being.  Mothering the mother is one of the greatest gifts that we can give a mother before and after birth. She will be forever appreciative of all the love.

Resources 

Bu, Ysha.  (2013). Belly Binding after Birth. Retrieved from online source: http://sacredwindow.com/

Khalnolkar, Aparna. (2008) Post-partum Care — The Ayurvedic Way. Retrieved from online source: http://www.medhajournal.com/medha-health/578-post-partum-care-the-ayurvedic-way.html

Reddy, Kamuna. An Ayurvedic View On Pregnancy and Early Motherhood.  Retrieved from online source: http://www.mapi.com/ayurveda_health_care/newsletters/index.html

Kundalini Women. (2009). Conscious Pregnancy.  Retrieved from online source: http://kundaliniwomen.org/pregnancy_pages/pregnancy.html

Vedangi Ayurveda Kendra. (2010).  Antenatal Care; Pregnancy and Motherhood in Ayurveda.  Retrieved from online source: http://sandeepaniayurveda.blogspot.com/2010/01/antenatal-n-postnatal-care-in-ayurveda.html

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