Entering motherhood is a transition like no other. It is becoming a full-time caretaker and nurturer. In my life, it has been the closest I have ever been to true service. But getting to the point where I was physically, emotionally, and mentally whole again after the tremendous task of giving birth was quite a process that took much time and work.
The key to postpartum care of the mother is to calm vata (the ether and air elements). The mother is full of the mobile, light, dry, and cold qualities after the loss of energy and blood and fluids, not to mention the loss of a huge space in the abdomen (previously occupied by the baby). Add to that sleep deprivation and fatigue that comes from feeding and nourishing a newborn and you can see how vata pops up in every aspect of this period.
To that end, in Ayurveda we nurture the mother with as much heavy, warm, oily, smooth, and stable qualities as possible. Traditionally, the mother is taken care of by a team of women who provide these qualities with food, herbs, massage, and other practices. In my case, I was lucky enough to have my mother, mother-in-law, and my sister-in-law to care for me (with many other women to call upon for advice). The three main pillars to support the above qualities are diet, herbs, and oil massage for the full forty-two days after delivery. By calming vata and nourishing the mother’s body, you enable her mind and being to also heal and take her form as a mother.
Always start with diet before anything else. It is important to note that the large depletion and high vata that accompanies delivery take a huge toll on the digestive fire (agni). If the mother starts to go to town on pizza or a hamburger right after delivery, gas and bloating or other digestive issues are soon to follow. And as we know in Ayurveda, if the digestion is weak, other ailments in the body are sure to come.
During labor I had easy-to-digest but high-energy foods (like nuts, fruit, and soup). Once I delivered my baby and we were cleaned up, went through our religious rituals, and had some time to bond, the first thing I ate was a spoon of panchakola ghee when I had my first craving for nourishment. This is a special ghee infused with five herbs—pippali, pippali mula (the root of pippali), ginger, black pepper, and chitrak. My sister-in-law made this for me but you can also take ghee and Vata Digest (which includes the above herbs and others that are great for vata) together.
Thereafter, my diet was a very slow progression of adding foods in complexity. Initially I ate a very watery soup made of water and mung dal, increasing the thickness of this soup. After a day or two, root vegetables (asparagus, beets, sweet potato, yam) were thrown in. Green vegetables came after (because they have more of an air quality and are therefore harder to digest), followed by milk and dairy. If you eat meat, that is the last thing you would add to the diet. This whole process took several weeks to about a month.
The two things that we used to gauge whether I was ready for the next step or not was my agni and level of ama (by looking at my tongue). Look for the signs mentioned in this article to determine whether your agni is strong or weak and needs more time before progressing to the next stage. If there was a thick white coating on my tongue, bloating, gas, or other digestive issues (or if the baby had any of these), it was a sign to hold on progressing.
Remember to stick with the qualities opposite of vata—warm, mushy, oily, heavy, smooth, and dense. That means to also add ample amounts of ghee to each meal (unless you had a cesarean section, in which case you want to add ghee to your diet a little later after the incision has healed).
My herbal regimen combined herbs together in the following manner (largely determined by my mother, mother-in-law, and grandmothers according to tradition). Note again that they all mostly combat vata. These herbs will support the mother’s diet, vata, and recovery. As always, make sure you check with your practitioner before taking any herbs while nursing.
- Fenugreek seeds soaked in water over night. Fenugreek is well-known to support lactation. It is also very helpful with vata and lower back discomfort.
- Small ball made of turmeric powder mixed with some ginger powder, jaggery, and ghee. I had this to support healing and jump-start my agni for the day first thing in the morning with the fenugreek water.
- Water boiled with dill, cumin, coriander, fennel, and vakumba (Careya arborea). All of these herbs are great digestive aids and some (dill, fennel) also support lactation. Vakumba is bitter and cleansing to the blood and liver and also helps kindle agni. My mothers made a huge pot of this every morning and I drank it throughout the day.
- Ladoo (ball of herbs and sweets) with my breakfast. My mother-in-law said that these are are made with thirty-two herbs. For the sake ofsimplicity, the main ingredients are ginger powder, shatavari powder, ashwagandha powder, pippali powder, nirgundi powder, saffron, and cardamom powder. As you can see, there are many agni kindling and building herbs. This herb mix was combined with whole wheat flour, ghee, coconut flakes, almonds, and golden raisins.
- A soup called raab, made of a spoon of whole wheat flour, a cinnamon stick, a couple clove buds, and a pinch of ajmoda seeds sautéed in ghee, which is then mixed in with hot water that has some jaggery melted in it. I had this with my breakfast as well.
- Afternoon sweet made up of wheat flour and urad daal flour, jaggary, ghee, a pinch of saffron, cashew powder, almond powder, coconut powder, and herbs (ginger, pippali, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, cardamom, gundar or edible gum). I had this with my afternoon milk once I was able to digest the milk.
- A spoon of panchakola ghee to end the evening.
Yes it seems like a lot but all of these herbs worked synergistically to heal and build, while nourishing my digestive fire. Later on in my postpartum period I had to cut down on the herbs because my daughter was getting some heat rashes and baby acne—it’s important to gauge your and your baby’s bodies to see how to adjust your herbal intake.
Massage is the third cornerstone to maternal care after delivery. Nothing calms vata and soothes the entire body like warm oil. My mother gave me a full body massage with Ashwagandha Bala Oil every day in the morning. I showered with hot water with the oil on me and kept the oil in my hair (I washed my hair every third day or so). The oil tones the body, provides oleation where there is a lot of dryness, helps the healing of tissues, and infuses strength and a sense of groundedness. It was my thirty minutes of complete relaxation and allowing myself the gift of nourishment and love.
We ended the massage with fumigation. We made a tent with my knees bent up and a towel covering my legs. Then my mother lit some guggulu on a piece of charcoal and put it in the tent. The smoke helps with the healing of the perineum and strengthens the tissue in that area. I felt noticeably less swollen after this treatment.
If you do not have someone available to give you a massage or even just a head and foot massage, try to incorporate a self-massage as often as possible. In the end, we can only do the best that we can with what we have. Keep in mind the qualities that you want to bring and use diet, herbs, and massage to the best of your ability to support those qualities. The littlest things can truly go a long way.