On Gina Ford and postpartum rest

Taiwanxifu baby is a fat, happy baby. But since coming down with a recent cold, he hasn’t been so great at sleeping through the night. Since I am heading back to full-time work soon, I figured it was time to start getting him into a routine so that I don’t suffer from quite so much baby brain. So I went straight to one of the baby care classics — The Contended Little Baby Book by top UK childcare author, Gina Ford.  And from reading her book I discovered she also advocates the importance of adequate rest after childbirth.

Some people are in favour of following schedules for babies, while others criticise this approach as being too rigid. The conventional breast-feeding wisdom is to allow feeding on demand in order to help promote lactation.  And a recent study suggests that babies fed on demand have better I.Q. levels, too.  But for a healthy baby, who is feeding well and where lactation is established, schedules can be a godsend for the busy Mum who wants to regain some sense of order in her life.  Especially where the mother has work commitments, which is the reality for many women.  Of course, not everything goes to plan (even with a written plan stuck to the fridge) but at least it provides a basic structure to the day. And hopefully less disrupted sleep.

As far as schedules go, Gina Ford’s is the bees knees. She is thorough in her schedules to the extent of spelling out what a mother should eat when, and to the minute instructions on how long to feed baby and from which breast. But the timings of her schedule make more sense to the daily flow than for instance the traditional four-hourly feed model (many of which do not allow any evening feeds — I’ve tried it and it is not much fun when baby is screaming because he is truly hungry).

From reading Gina Ford I see clear support for the concept of rest inherent in Chinese postpartum confinement (zuo yuezi). In The Contented Baby with Toddler Book, Gina writes that:

“Forty years ago, a woman would usually stay in bed for up to two weeks after giving birth and during this time she would be looked after and not expected to do anything other than feed her baby. We may not feel that this is necessary any more, but allowing yourself time to recover after the birth is vital, especially when you have an older child to care for as well.

From my personal experience, mothers who are realistic regarding their need for rest, and calm, not only recuperate more quickly but they fulfil the needs of their newborn baby and toddler more easily. A calm, peaceful home gives all the family time to adjust to the new arrival.”

Yes, that’s right, in her experience — and she has a LOT of experience as the case studies on her website attest — resting properly after childbirth makes a huge difference to a woman’s recovery.

These days, it is fashionable for women to be discharged from hospital early. The usual scenario is three days (and two nights) after a natural birth, and less than five days after a caesarean.  And many hospitals have in place policies that encourage women to go home early or opt to stay in a local hotel.  Hospitals are busy revolving doors with queues for limited hospital beds (even in maternity wards). And the worrying growth in virulent superbugs is another reason to push patients home as early as possible.

I find that while being in hospital provides support in the event of a medical contingency, it is not actually the best place for rest and recuperation. I was thankful for the post-birth care both of my sons received (the first one for complications due to prematurity, the second treatment for jaundice). But with the unavoidable 24/7 din of life in a hospital, bright lights and unfamiliar beds (and well-meaning visitors) I always find it exhausting being in hospital. Sometimes there is no place like home.

But coming home immediately after birth does not mean that you and your body are ready to jump back into the hectic pace of normal life. It takes time for a woman’s body to recover from the physical effort of giving birth (or from post-operative issues if she has had a Caesarian).  A new mother’s uterus is still contracting, and she will likely bleed for several weeks.  Hormonal changes are ongoing, and it is not unusual to have night sweats during the first few weeks in addition to mood swings.  A mother’s breast milk often only starts to come in as she is leaving hospital, so she is often dealing with painful engorged breasts at the same time.  And many women have lactation problems including sore nipples (bleeding, blisters and/or cracks), problems with the baby latching on or low milk supply.  As for sleep, well if you manage to catch a few hours in between three or four hourly feeds during those first weeks you are doing well.

So after birth is not the right time for a woman to prove she is supermum by cooking gourmet meals, maintaining a spotless home and entertaining guests.  Yet that’s exactly what many women (myself included) try to do.

One of my reasons for writing about my zuo yuezi experience is to help encourage a thought shift.  New mothers need to value themselves more through allowing space and time to heal after childbirth.  And hopefully Western society will respond by giving women the support they need and deserve to do this.

When I first began writing about zuo yuezi, some readers were aghast at the cost.  One friend, with whom I shared my post about the cost of postpartum confinement centers, thought that the hotel-like accommodation was only for the extremely wealthy.  Actually, while the per night tariff is not cheap, many people I know have stayed at them for a month or longer after having a baby.  Others have spent between US$1,000 and US$2,000 a month on special home delivered postpartum meals.

Why is there instead a perception in Western cultures that it is wrong to spend money (and time) on a woman’s recovery?  If a husband loves his wife, why wouldn’t he want her to have the best care?  And if she loves herself, why doesn’t she demand it?

When my sister studied marketing at University, she learnt that one of the first purchases a couple makes when they are expecting a baby is a new car.  Other people invest in a new house (I have known of couples who move only days before the baby is due), while if they already own a home they will usually renovate to build nurseries equipped with expensive baby furniture.  A couple will also often splurge on a ‘babymoon’ — a last opportunity to enjoy a romantic holiday together before the baby comes.  And then there is the status pram (I inherited one from someone who realised only after purchase it was too big to fit in their car), the Moses basket (often with electronic assisted movement and music), the bouncers and the change tables.  Oh, and if you chose to have a private obstetrician so that you can enjoy a luxury suite in hospital, that will be a few extra thousand dollars.

But getting someone to come in and help the mother with cooking, cleaning and looking after baby so that she can get some sleep?  What extravagance!  Why, people would think she was lazy, or that she was a negligent mother who could not perform her duties.  Real mothers prove themselves by feeding through the night, changing dirty nappies, cleaning up vomit and doing several loads of washing.  Then they put on some lipstick and try to look glamorous as they entertain guests.

Unfortunately, most supermums fizzle out eventually.  In my case, it took less than a month with first baby before I began to get worn out and very cranky.  After resting for over a month with the second baby, I was pleasantly surprised at how much energy (and breastmilk) I had.  In the two months since I completed confinement, I have been amazed at how much I have been able to do compared with the first baby.  Arguably I need to slow down (doh!), but I do feel that my experience of allowing recovery has given me strength to be a better mother.

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About taiwanxifu

‘Taiwanxifu’ (pronounced ‘shee foo’) means ‘Taiwan daughter-in-law’ in Chinese and has been my nickname ever since I married my Taiwanese husband, Sam. I love sampling Taiwanese food, even local specialties such as stinky tofu, pigs blood cake and Taipei beef noodle soup with offal. But there are many other options on the menu. Promise!
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