The links between immune function and pregnancy, birth and postpartum are still unclear. Some inflammatory markers rise after birth and return to baseline about 12 weeks later. Psychological stress during pregnancy seems to raise inflammation as well. The brain-immune connection is continuing to be explored. Many studies already associate psychological stress with immune suppression as well as inflammatory responses. Inflammation is present in many autoimmune disorders, however, a direct causal link between autoimmune disease and stress has yet to be established.
I’ve noticed a pattern in my patients with autoimmune disorders. Many bundled symptoms or new symptoms seem to develop just a few years after childbirth. Since we know there is an early effect on the immune system after giving birth, it may be helpful to do all we can to create a supportive postpartum experience for new mothers. This support can ensure maternal health and that of the new baby.
Our history as humans, included support after birth. Thousands of years ago until relatively recently, we lived in groups. New mothers very likely received the support of several older and experienced women when a new baby arrived. New moms didn’t have to return to work right away. They were less likely to cook, clean or care for multiple children without help. Postpartum practices around the world today seem to focus on supporting a new mother for the first six weeks after birth. She isn’t left alone to fend for herself after 1 or 2 weeks as in many modern homes.
In current homes if there is a significant other in the home, work leave is often limited to about two weeks for a new birth. After the first two weeks, a new mother is continuing to struggle with sleep deprivation, healing from the birth process, and coping with numerous life and body changes. It can be a lonely and anxious time in life, creating significant psychological stress and impacting immune response.
The best time to plan for this post-birth period is while a woman is still expecting. Yet, many expectant mothers are focused more on the birth process. It can be overwhelming to think beyond childbirth. However, having a plan in place can prevent burn-out and health issues later. Here are some possible options.
For expectant moms:
Manage your expectations: if this is your first baby, you aren’t going to be an expert. You will feel overwhelmed, exhausted, worried and sometimes resentful of this cute little being who is totally dependent on his/her caregivers for everything. You may instantly love the baby or it may take time. This is completely normal depending on your birth experience, temperament and other factors. So try to be gentle with yourself.
Mobilize a support system: Who are the supportive people in your life? Choose help from those who will be positive and understanding. Give yourself permission to take the lead on what you want help with – it could be tasks such as changing a diaper, making you a smoothie while you are feeding baby, cooking, cleaning or just about anything you would find helpful when you aren’t feeling your best.
Consider saving money to hire a doula to help with the birth and early postpartum period, or a lactation specialist if you plan to breast feed. Lactation specialists can do a home visit, provide assistance and be available for many weeks, should you need help. These can be valuable supportive resources in the adjustment period.
Assign tasks: when friends ask how they can help, assign a day/time – to prepare a meal, make you tea or coffee, do a load of laundry, straighten up – whatever you feel comfortable with. It can be difficult to reach out in this way. If you are unable to do this for yourself, remember you are making a healthy mama for that new baby.
Use online resources for support such as https://www.mother.ly/, https://takingcarababies.com/ or a Facebook group for new moms in your area. Much has changed since your mom and her friends gave birth, and mostly for the better.
If you are an expectant grandmother, aunt or close friend:
Refrain from giving outdated or unwanted advice; this is the time in a new mother’s life when she needs lots of positive reinforcement that she is doing a good job, that her feelings are normal and healthy, and that you love her and will be there for her. No matter how cute that new baby is, it’s the mother who needs you the most.
Be open to learning new methods for baby care. Many habits from a generation ago, are outdated for good reasons.
Bring comfort: if you are close with the new mom and welcome in her home, don’t show up without bringing a meal, offering to do laundry, clean the kitchen or another chore that we all need help with when we are under the weather.
Other friends and relatives:
Don’t ask to visit a new mom unless she is very close to you – wish her well and let her know you’ll be looking forward to a future visit when she’s ready.
Supporting a woman after childbirth is a wonderful gift to her and the new baby. It will reduce a new mother’s feelings of stress and overwhelm. Reducing negative feelings will help her to stay healthier with a happier immune system as she moves forward in her life.
More than a pill and a pat on the back!
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