Postpartum Care: Global Lessons and How the U.S. Lags Behind

Learning from Global Excellence and the U.S. Gap

MOTHERHOOD

Manasa S Rao

8/28/20236 min read

Hospital postpartum with newborn
Hospital postpartum with newborn

The birth of a child is a momentous event, a joyful celebration of life's continuity. However, while the United States is known for its medical advancements and top-notch healthcare system, it has been criticized for lagging behind in a crucial aspect: postpartum care.

Three years ago, during the early stages of the 2019 pandemic, I experienced the joy of bringing my son into the world. However, this momentous occasion was tinged with sadness as I keenly felt the distance between my current residence in the United States and my mother's home in India. Compounding this separation was the unfortunate circumstance of a lockdown, which prevented my mother from being by my side during my postpartum period. As a first-time mother, I was left to navigate this new chapter with limited knowledge and understanding. It was during this time that I truly grasped the immense value of family, friends, and holistic wisdom in caring for both myself and my newborn.

The Crucial Postpartum Period:

The postpartum period, often referred to as the "fourth trimester," is a critical time for new mothers and their babies. It's a period of physical and emotional recovery for the mother, as well as a time for bonding with the newborn. Proper care during this period can significantly impact the long-term health and well-being of both mother and child. There have been many instances where improper care during this time has led to early onset of aches, pains and illnesses. The body is in its most vulnerable state at this time, and it needs to recover completely. 

Curious to know more about the importance placed on postpartum care, which includes sufficient maternity leave to encourage family bonding and paid support, I researched and compiled a list of some such countries leaps and bounds ahead of the U.S. (Who's ready to move to Sweden with me!?)

Learning from Global Excellence:

1. The Netherlands: A Comprehensive Approach

  • Healing Foods: Dutch postpartum care prioritizes the use of herbal teas such as chamomile and fennel, known for their digestive and calming properties.

  • Holistic Practices: Maternity nurses provide massages to alleviate muscle tension and promote relaxation.

  • Maternity Leave: In the Netherlands, mothers are entitled to a generous 16 weeks of paid maternity leave.

2. Japan: Blending Tradition and Progress

  • Healing Foods: Japanese postpartum cuisine incorporates seaweed and fish rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, aiding in post-birth recovery.  "Yomogi baths," infused with mugwort (yomogi), offer soothing and healing benefits.

  • Holistic Practices: Japan's "sanka" experience combines modern medical care with traditional wisdom, including shiatsu massages and mindfulness techniques.

  • Maternity Leave: Japanese mothers can enjoy up to 14 weeks of paid maternity leave.

3. Sweden: Prioritizing Families

  • Healing Foods: Sweden emphasizes the consumption of raspberry leaf tea to support uterine recovery.

  • Holistic Practices: Hot and cold showers are encouraged to enhance circulation and reduce swelling.

  • Maternity and Paternal Leave: Swedish parents are offered a remarkable 480 days of paid parental leave, which can be shared between both parents.

4. India: Ayurvedic Wisdom and Nourishment

  • Healing Foods: Indian postpartum nutrition revolves around Ayurvedic principles, featuring ghee, turmeric, and nutrient-rich lentils, believed to aid healing and rejuvenation.

  • Holistic Practices: Traditional Indian postpartum care includes herbal baths, with ingredients like neem and holy basil providing purification and soothing effects.

Indian postpartum practices and care have been passed down for generations and the fourth trimester period is often more important than the previous three. Great care is taken of the mother postpartum, since women are quick to show early symptoms of arthritis, back pain, muscle spasms, sagging belly and more when the first six weeks after delivery are neglected. 

New mothers are kept in a “confinement” period where they are to rest and not do much else. Family members care for the baby and mother in tandem, allowing full recovery. The new moms are to stay covered with hats or cotton in their ears to prevent their vulnerable bodies from picking up infections. Foods that are rich in minerals and vitamins, not gassy and warm are prepared. Old food will not be served, and most of these freshly prepared meals help shrink the womb and improve milk supply.

The stomach is bound constantly to encourage slow healing and prevent back aches, even after natural births. New moms are given daily oil massages to improve blood flow and healing herbal baths, meant to heal the birthing canals. Women often stay with and are cared for by their moms, mother in law, aunts and other relatives. 

  • Maternity Leave: India offers 26 weeks of paid maternity leave.

5. Nigeria: Embracing Traditional Wisdom

  • Nourishing Foods: Nigerian postpartum meals incorporate pounded yam and egusi soup, rich in essential nutrients.

  • Holistic Practices: Common Nigerian postpartum practices involve herbal baths and massages using natural oils to soothe sore muscles and promote relaxation.

  • Maternity Leave: Nigeria provides 12 weeks of paid maternity leave.

6. Ecuador: Andean Wisdom and Healing Herbs

  • Healing Foods: In the Andean regions of Ecuador, postpartum nourishment often includes corn-based dishes and quinoa, providing essential nutrients.

  • Holistic Practices: Indigenous healing practices incorporate herbs such as chamomile and calendula for baths and massages, promoting healing and relaxation.

  • Maternity Leave: Ecuador offers 12 weeks of paid maternity leave.

7. Morocco: The Magic of Dates

  • Healing Foods: Moroccan postpartum care features dates, believed to possess numerous health benefits. They are frequently combined with other ingredients to create nutritious energy balls.

  • Holistic Practices: Traditional Moroccan postpartum practices encompass warm baths and massages to promote relaxation and well-being.

  • Maternity Leave: Morocco provides 14 weeks of paid maternity leave.

Postpartum Care in the U.S.: Falling Short

Despite its advancements, the U.S. has struggled to provide comprehensive postpartum care, leaving many new mothers and families grappling with challenges:

1. Short Hospital Stays:

In the U.S., the average postpartum hospital stay is often limited to just 48 hours, barely allowing mothers to recover from childbirth.

Stat: Only 8% of U.S. hospitals offer postpartum stays longer than 48 hours.

2. Lack of Paid Parental Leave:

The absence of federal paid parental leave policies puts significant financial and emotional strain on new parents.

Stat: The U.S. is one of only six countries in the world without federally mandated paid parental leave - and the only rich one.

comparison chart of postpartum care, practices and maternity leave in different countries
comparison chart of postpartum care, practices and maternity leave in different countries
PTSD, fatigue, loneliness, anxiety postpartum
PTSD, fatigue, loneliness, anxiety postpartum

3. Mental Health Neglect:

Postpartum depression and anxiety are often overlooked, with limited access to mental health support for new mothers. It is also common to see new mothers feeling overwhelmed from lack of sleep or support to share the burden of caring for the newborn.

Stat: Approximately 1 in 7 women in the U.S. experience postpartum depression, but only 15% receive treatment.

4. Insufficient Postpartum Care:

Adequate postpartum care, including home visits and emotional support, is often lacking.

Stat: In the U.S., more than 50% of mothers report feeling that their healthcare providers do not offer enough information or support during the postpartum period.

U.S. Hospital Food: A Shortcoming in Postpartum Healing:

It's not just the duration of postpartum care that's lacking in the U.S. The nutritional aspect also falls short. Hospital food during the postpartum period often lacks the essential nutrients needed for recovery. We also notice this when thoughtful but misinformed family members bring food for the new mom, which is often fast or processed food instead of the healing nourishment they vitally need after labor. This oversight is a significant gap in holistic postpartum care.

A Call for Communal Care?

Ecclesiastes 4:9-10: "Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up."

In examining postpartum care from a biblical and historic standpoint, we find a recurring theme of communal support and the importance of caring for new mothers and their infants. Proverbs 31:8-9 reminds us of our duty to speak up for those who cannot, advocating for the well-being of mothers and children. In biblical times, raising children was indeed a communal activity, with extended families and close-knit communities coming together to provide care, wisdom, and nourishment. We still see this in certain remote tribes or villages in many countries, and perhaps in a few tight-knit urban communities. This practice underscores the significance of not leaving new mothers to navigate the postpartum period alone. It serves as a reminder that support networks and holistic care, both spiritually and physically, are not just valuable but integral to the well-being of mothers and their precious newborns.

Lessons learned from Global Trends:

These insights from around the world, drawing on centuries-old traditions and modern holistic practices, underscore the importance of holistic well-being during the postpartum phase. Embrace the support around you, nourish your body and spirit, and prioritize self-care.

A Global Journey to Nurturing Well-being:

As you embark on your postpartum journey, remember that these traditions, whether from Japan's mindful blending of the old and new, India's profound Ayurvedic wisdom, or Morocco's reliance on the magic of dates, provide valuable guidance. The postpartum period is a unique time that requires specialized care and support. Comprehensive postpartum care should become a standard, ensuring a healthy start for every family. It's a global lesson the U.S. can't afford to ignore.

flat lay photography of leaves with cup of coffee and three macarons on chopping board
flat lay photography of leaves with cup of coffee and three macarons on chopping board