The importance of rest during your postpartum period is wisdom as old as time. Indigenous cultures all around the world believe in practicing 40 days of rest after giving birth. In these cultures, birthing people and their babies are cooked for, massaged, and generally taken care of for the first six weeks after birth. People know that giving birth is the most intense, tenderizing act—and having a new baby so transformative—that this period of life deserves the utmost respect and care.
In our modern, Western society, we have none of this wisdom. Birthing people are expected to get right back to everything they did before giving birth. Back to work. Back to cleaning. Back to Target.
In my opinion, as a midwife, this is why our country has such high rates of postpartum depression (about one in every seven birthing people experience postpartum depression, and about 80% experience a milder form colloquially known as the "baby blues"). People are so open (physically, emotionally and spiritually) after giving birth, and they need time to be cared for and come back together. Babies, too, have just exited their quiet, warm environment in the womb. The world—with all its bright lights, loud noises and cold breezes—is a lot for their little nervous systems to handle.
Preparing for 40 days of rest in the postpartum period is the most powerful choice that any parent can make for their new family. Here are some specific reasons why it's so important.
1. It will help you emotionally
We already know that birthing people in the U.S. have a one in seven risk of developing postpartum depression (PPD). This number increases if they have a history of mental illness or depression.
In my midwifery practice, I have seen firsthand the emotional differences between my clients who rest and receive support during their postpartum period and those who don't. Research also shows that having strong social support during the postpartum period can reduce the risk of PPD. The ones who don't receive as much support or take the necessary time to rest often feel more overwhelmed, more anxious and more depressed. And too often, they blame themselves for these feelings.
When you rest, you save your energy for your internal healing. The postpartum period should be all about you and your baby, and not about cleaning the kitchen or traveling to a distant relative's house so they can meet the baby. Pregnancy and postpartum are the perfect time to hone your boundary skills and say no to things that won't nourish you—your emotional health depends on it.
Got more questions about postpartum healing and the fourth trimester? Motherly created the perfect postpartum wellness class. Learn more about navigating this wild new world by signing up for our digital class here.
2. It will help you physically
Giving birth is the single most physically intense experience any human can willingly go through. First, we grow a human from scratch inside our uterus. Then when it gets to be about the size of a large butternut squash, we go through hours to days of contractions, then either push it out of our vaginas or undergo surgery. No matter how you birth, it is wildly intense on your physical body.
That's not all—after giving birth to your baby, your placenta is born. The attachment site inside your uterus is then a newly formed wound the size of a dinner plate, actively bleeding and healing, for three to six weeks. If you had a wound the size of a dinner plate on the outside of your body, you would be resting to make sure it healed properly. But because we can't see the placental wound, it's easy to ignore it.
Rest is essential for physical healing.
People who rest after giving birth stop bleeding from that wound generally between two to three weeks postpartum. People who don't rest often bleed for closer to six to eight weeks. Our bodies tell us what they need, but it's our choice whether or not to listen.
3. It will help you spiritually
I don't think there is anything more transformative than giving birth. Not only are you bringing another human into the world, your whole self changes.
When I gave birth for the first time, I became a different person. The first two weeks, I felt like a caterpillar in my cocoon—mushy and without protection. When people came into my room, I needed them to speak in quiet voices and not make any sudden movements. My brain slowed down. I cried regularly out of love for my new baby and grief that the world isn't an entirely safe place for anyone.
Being pregnant, giving birth and having a child is a spiritual act. You go through a portal that you can never go back through. It takes time—and space—to process these profound changes.
4. It will help your baby feel calmer and less fussy
In our culture it's common to forget that babies are actually having their own experiences of the world. Try to think about your baby's perspective: They have grown inside a warm, dark womb for their entire lives, and all of a sudden, they are pushed into the outside world—colder, louder and completely unknown.
It's a lot for a baby to process.
It's important to give our infants time to process their own transformation and to keep their environments as still and womblike as possible.
If you feel overwhelmed going to the grocery store, your baby will too. If you feel like you need to rest, so does your baby.
There have been so many studies about skin-to-skin contact helping babies regulate their temperature, their moods and improving breastfeeding relationships as well as deep connection between parent and child.
Resting for six weeks after birth doesn't only support your mental, emotional, and physically health—it also supports your baby's.
5. It will shake up patterns in your life and in your relationships (in a good way)
When I gave birth, my wife, who is also a midwife, took amazing care of me (and our other two kids). But it was hard for me to let her. I'm someone who wants my food prepared a certain way. Who feels vulnerable if I can't do everything for myself. Who wants to be in control.
After giving birth, I had no choice but to succumb to being taken care of. I lost a lot of blood after my baby was born and the first few days I couldn't even walk to the bathroom by myself. For someone used to handling everything, that dependence was very hard for me to stomach.
But my relationship benefited from it. Where before I felt like I had to handle certain things, my partner started doing them. And she did them well. Instead of feeling like I needed to do everything myself, I began to see that my partner was also very competent, and that I could trust her to handle everything from feeding me to washing the diapers to doing our taxes.
It's always a gift to get a change of perspective. Many of us feel like we need to do everything ourselves. But it's healthy to let patterns change. Our partners (or parents or friends) might even surprise us.
Rest is a privilege
There is no doubt that there is privilege in being able to rest and receive care at any time in one's life. Some people have no maternity leave and no choice but to return to work two weeks after giving birth, which is an abomination. But most people have someone in their life—a parent, partner, friend, relative or hired help—who can support them in some way after having a baby.
We need to educate the people in our lives about what we need after giving birth. Since this is not a common cultural practice in our society, many don't understand how much their support is needed in the postpartum period. If you are preparing to give birth, share this information with your inner circle. Sometimes we have to teach others how to be there for us.
Making the choice to rest in the postpartum is a huge contradiction to the messages that we receive from society. It's OK to rest. It's OK to prioritize our own well-being and that of our babies. We don't need to always be productive. And if you think about it, growing a human is the most productive thing in the world.
Corrigan CP, Kwasky AN, Groh CJ. Social Support, Postpartum Depression, and Professional Assistance: A Survey of Mothers in the Midwestern United States. J Perinat Educ. 2015;24(1):48-60. doi:10.1891/1058-1243.24.1.48
Ni PK, Siew Lin SK. The role of family and friends in providing social support towards enhancing the wellbeing of postpartum women: a comprehensive systematic review. JBI Libr Syst Rev. 2011;9(10):313-370. doi:10.11124/01938924-201109100-00001