Why Postpartum Support & Recovery are Crucial for Mothers & Children
By Kerry Jones, MPH, RDN, LDN
The first 12 weeks (or 3 months) after giving birth has been termed the fourth trimester. This period of time is a critical period for both you and your newborn. Newborn babies are learning to adjust to life outside of the womb. At the same time, you are learning how to feed and care for your newborn, recovering from childbirth, and experiencing hormone fluctuations, all while dealing with considerable challenges, such as lack of sleep, pain, breastfeeding difficulties, stress, and new onset or exacerbation of mental health disorders, to name a few. That’s a lot! However, despite all that women in the fourth trimester are dealing with, our society believes, wrongly – I may add, that new mothers are instantly ready to step back into their “normal lives” as soon as their baby is born.
Why “Doing It All” is Dangerous
Many postpartum women feel obligated and pressured to not only “do it all,” but to also do it all the “right way.” Some of this sense of pressure and obligation comes from good intentioned advice new moms receive from medical professionals, family members, and friends on a regular basis. However, a lot of this obligation and pressure stems from the unrealistic depictions of new moms “doing it all” on social media and magazine covers. Therefore, after birth, many women try to transform into a supermom who cleans the house, cooks the family’s meals, exclusively breastfeeds, returns to work early, and loses the baby weight in no time.
While this is what we often see on Facebook and Instagram, this is not grounded in reality. It is important to remember that you are only seeing one perfectly edited shot of these mothers’ days, not the countless hard, imperfect, real moments they undoubtedly face. Attempting to live up to this unrealistic expectation often leads new moms to neglect their own rest and recovery and can even increase their risk for developing postpartum depression, experiencing breastfeeding difficulties, and delaying postpartum recovery.
The Importance of Postpartum Support
As we previously discussed, women in the fourth trimester are going through a lot of changes and are likely experiencing many considerable challenges. This is why postpartum support is critical in order to allow postpartum women time to be able to rest and recover and bond with their newborn. While this is the way postpartum women are traditionally cared for in other countries around the world, this is not what we typically see in modern America. However, it is crucial for the health of both mothers and babies that we adapt aspects of traditional postpartum care to fit our modern lifestyle.
If you are currently pregnant, I strongly encourage you to develop a postpartum plan. This is an important step that many women often forget about, instead putting most of their attention on the birth and delivery of their baby. However, it is crucial that you set your expectations early for how you want to be supported during those first few weeks or months.
Here are some questions to consider when developing your postpartum plan:
- Who can help you during this time? A spouse, friend, or family member? If no one would be able to help, can you hire a postpartum doula to help?
- How are you going to get nutritious food? Can someone prepare and serve meals to you? Can a meal train be set-up for you? Can you prepare and freeze meals in advance?
- If you have other children or pets, who can help you with them? Can a spouse, friend, family member, or neighbor help? Can you get additional childcare or pet care?
- How can you practice self-care? Who would be able to care for the baby, if you wanted to have a moment to relax by yourself?
- How are you going to handle visitors? Do you expect visitors the first few days? How long do you expect visitors to stay? Do you want them to help with anything or bring anything?
It can be hard to ask for help! I know this is something that many women, including myself, struggle with. We have been raised to be independent, strong women, but I promise that asking for and accepting help from others during this time only reinforces what a great and capable woman and mother you are. How are you planning to advocate for the support you need?
Eating for Postpartum Recovery
Labor and delivery can be physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. Not only is getting enough rest important for recovery, it is also important to get the nutrients you need as well. During the fourth trimester, you will need additional energy, protein, fluid, vitamins (such as vitamins A and C), and minerals (such as iron and zinc) to help with wound healing, if you had a perineal tear or a c-section, and to account for blood and fluid loss. During this time, your body is also undergoing significant changes that require additional nutrients, such as producing breastmilk and shrinking your uterus back to pre-pregnancy size.
Here are some of the nutrients that are crucial for postpartum recovery:
- Calories: Many women are surprised to find out that they need more calories during breastfeeding than during pregnancy. I like to remind women who are breastfeeding that they are still growing a baby, but now that baby is bigger and outside of your womb. Even if you are choosing not to breastfeed, you will still need more calories initially to help you recover properly.
- Protein: Protein is essential for tissues that need to heal from being torn, stretched, or cut. Therefore, it is important to get plenty of protein from meat, fish, dairy products, and legumes (such as beans, chickpeas, peanuts, & lentils).
- Fluid: Labor results in a lot of fluid and electrolyte losses. In order to help you prevent dehydration, replenish your electrolyte stores, and establish & maintain your breastmilk supply, it is important to get plenty of fluid from drinking water and eating stews, soups, and curries. I recommend that women who are breastfeeding drink at least half of their pre-pregnancy weight in fl oz of water daily. For example, if you weighed 130 lbs prior to conceiving, you would want to aim to drink at least 65 fl oz of water daily.
- Iron: Iron is important for replenishing the blood lost during labor and delivery. Try to eat enough iron daily by consuming iron-rich foods, such as: meat, seafood, nuts, beans, some vegetables (such as potatoes and tomatoes), and fortified grains (such as breakfast cereals). If you are getting your iron from non-animal sources, try pairing the food with a food rich in vitamin C. For example, adding strawberries to your iron-fortified breakfast cereal.
- Zinc: Zinc is important for wound healing and protein synthesis. Get plenty of zinc from sources such as: oysters, beef, crab, lobster, pork, beans, nuts, and dairy products.
- Vitamin A: Among its many roles in the body, vitamin A is also important for wound healing. Vitamin A is found in the highest concentrations in liver and fish oils, but it can also be found milk, eggs, leafy green, orange, & yellow vegetables, tomatoes, fruits, and some vegetable oils.
- Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is one of the vitamins that is important of red blood cell formation. Vitamin B12 is found in animal products (fish, meat, eggs, dairy), nutritional yeast, and fortified breakfast cereals. If you are vegan, talk to your registered dietitian and/or doctor about whether or not you would benefit from a vitamin B12 supplement.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C is often thought of for its role as an antioxidant, but it also plays a vital role in wound healing and collagen biosynthesis. Fruits and vegetables are the best sources of vitamin C, including citrus fruits, tomatoes, and peppers.
Remember, breastfeeding adds an additional nutritional demand on your body to help maintain the supply and quality of your breastmilk. Make sure to talk to your registered dietitian and doctor before starting any vitamins or supplements or stopping your prenatal vitamin during the fourth trimester.
Kerry Jones is a Registered Dietitian with a Master’s degree in Public Health who is passionate about helping growing families navigate life and achieve all of their milestones along the way. She works with women who are trying to conceive, pregnant, breastfeeding, or postpartum and children to help manage medical conditions, tackle picky eating, and establish a good family relationship with food. With an overload of nutrition information available, Kerry understands how difficult it can be to know which foods are best for you and your family. She loves being a trusted nutrition resource for growing families. Kerry practices at Milestones Pediatric & Maternal Nutrition.
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