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Newborn, Postpartum

Wochenbett (pronounced Vo[ch]enbed - the 'ch' as in the composer 'Bach') is a German-language word for the six to eight weeks following birth. This time frame is embedded into German culture, and special treatment of a mother in this phase was, when I first became a mother here in 1994, a given. Now in 2013, though Wochenbett is still a distinct and respected phase, it tends to be more 3 weeks than 6 weeks. Life has become faster, women are expected to re-enter the bustle of daily life earlier, not to mention be fit and strong quicker. Thank goodness I was able to experience Wochenbett at a time when all women expected to take their full 3 years' maternity leave for each child, and so felt becoming a mother was not a hurried process. My midwife explicity told me to relax in bed, get up only in my robe for the first week, rest, learn about breastfeeding, and talk with my baby. My husband had a month off, and happily did all the grocery shopping and cooking. The three of us spent those first weeks wandering from room to room, bed to garden, learning our rythym of drinking, sleeping, playing, drinking, sleeping, playing. I remember our first real trip as a family into crowded streets for a whole afternoon was when our son was one month old. What a gift that month's time was. And because we tend to repeat what we learned the first time around, our two other children harvested the benefits of Wochenbett, too.

Wochenbett around the world

"You receive help at home for the first eight days," says Karin, of new motherhood in The Netherlands. "It's called kraamzorg." Translation: in Holland, a woman comes to your home and helps out -- taking care of the baby, cleaning the house, and making food for the family -- for three to four hours each day. The primary aim is making sure that the new mother is in good health.

Elsewhere, help comes in the form of family. It's customary in Columbia for your mother or another woman in the family to pitch in during "La Dieta," a forty-day period of rest after birth. "You must not exert any effort and certainly not travel," says Ana Maria of this time frame. The idea is allowing the body to recover. Thevaki's Sri Lankan mother moved in for about three months after her twins, Meera and Meena arrived. Her mom cooked with "lots of turmeric" to promote healing and also hosted a baby shower, which traditionally doesn't happen until after the baby is born.

Across the globe, things can get tricky. In Italy the female relatives usually take over says Amy, mother of two. "The custom here is that baby should not leave the house for 40 days, no matter what, because of cold, wind, germs, etc. The mother is given constant rest and care, but is seldom left alone with peace and quiet." see article

Wochenbett officially refers to the time when a woman's body is in natural recovery from the birth. Hormones adjust, the uterus returns to its pre-pregnancy size, the perineum heals if there were any tears and swelling, breastfeeding is stabilized, and lochia - the post-partum vaginal discharge, containing blood, mucus, and placental tissue- winds down and disappears.

Postpartum depression simply does not occur in many countries. How can this be?

"PPD occurs mostly and mainly in advanced industrial societies. Why might this be? Cultures with the lowest rates of postpartum depression socially organize the postpartum period in a way that helps new mothers adjust positively and healthilyto their new roles, responsibilities, and identities as mothers. (12)Although the specific practices and rituals vary, societies with low rates of postpartum depression tend to structure the postpartum period according to the following general practices:" read more at Motherhood Cafe

The Wochenbett has many names around the world (Kindbett is an older German word - childbed in English), and varies interestingly in duration. For example, in China and Vietnam it lasts 30 days and includes a special diet. In Greece, the end of the 40-day period is signified with a trip to the church. In Judaism and Islam, sexual intercourse is expressly forbidden in the weeks while the lochia remains.


"A 1932 publication refers to lying-in as ranging from 2 weeks to 2 months. It also does not suggest getting out of bed post-birth for at least nine days and ideally for 20 days. Women received congratulatory visits from friends and family during the period. [View source]


Wochenbett used to be referred to in English as 'lying-in'. But when I read the term 'lying-in' nowadays, I picture a frail lady in ruffles waving a handkerchief at her chambermaid to bring her some tea. It doesn't seem to fit to 2011's strong, multi-tasking woman. Hmm. Yet, when we look at the high rates of postpartum depression and low percentages of women successfully breastfeeding in many information society countries, it does seem that, physically and psychologically, it would do today's mothers a world of good to be expected to remain in a quiet place, be visited daily by a professional - in Germany, this would be the Wochenbett midwife, as different from a birth midwife - who answers all questions and gives calming advice, and to be freed of normal household and work-related duties so they can get to know their babies.


Babies sleep with parents in most of the world

by Meredith Small

"In almost all cultures around the globe, babies sleep with an adult, while older children sleep with parents or other siblings. It is only in industrialized Western societies such as those in North America and some parts of Europe that sleep has become a private affair. The West, in fact, stands out from the rest of humanity in the treatment of its children during sleep. In one study of 186 nonindustrial societies, children sleep in the same bed as their parents in 46 percent of the nonindustrial cultures, and in a separate bed but in the same room in an additional 21 percent. In other words, in 67 percent of the cultures around the world, children sleep in the company of others. More significantly, in none of those 186 cultures do babies sleep in a separate place before they are at least one year old." go to peaceful parenting article

Mother Nature

from Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

"My mother, like most college-educated women in the 1940s, believed that babies came into this world with essentially blank slates waiting to be filled in. We now know that isn't the case. ... A human infant, like all apes, is born with its own agenda, preprogrammed to want to be close to whichever soft, warm creature cares for it after birth, more than likely its mother. With a repertoire of inborn 'fixed action patterns,' babies 'root' with their lips for a nipple, suck, grasp, and nestle close, traits that have been crucial for the survival of primate infants over tens of millions of years. By crying out, signaling, clasping tight, and in emotional terms, by caring desperately, baby primates do whatever it takes to feel secure." Babies' adaptation has changed relatively little over the course of hominoid evolution. The infant's powerful desire to be held close by its caretaker has changed remarkably little over the ten million years since humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas last shared a common ancestor. "The most immediate environment of evolutionary relevance for infants was the mother herself, not the physical or social world. ... Soothed by her heartbeat, nestled in the heat of her body, rocked by her movements, the infant's entire world was its mother. It was she who kept it warm fed, and safe.  Essentially the mother was the infant's niche, and for those baby apes that survived to breed, the boundaries of that niche were fairly consistent."[view source]

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer, Mother Nature, pg. 96,98


A prominent German teaching midwife said to me: "I advise midwives today to adapt their traditional support strategies. Today many women are so insecure and out of touch with themselves that in the Wochenbett they are unable to take in details such as how to best change diapers or hold the baby or calm the baby. The best thing midwives today can do, then, is to be a 'good mother' to their clients - to reassure them that they are doing a fine job, simply to keep them company. With some luck, these mothers will indeed gain trust in their new relationship to the baby and then can truly be open for learning the skills to be a mother." [view source]

Interview with Margarita Klein, midwife, family therapist, author and co-director of

Especially in the Wochenbett, when the milk supply is so dependent on a minute and subtle interaction between mother and baby, insecurity works to dampen milk-producing hormones, which leads the baby to struggle further to drink, which leads the mother to be more anxious.  The midwife is there to lend a calming hand, every day, to answer questions, to help the baby to latch on properly, to advise about diapers and poop and pee and the mother's diet, siblings, and any topics that occur with the newborn in the family.

desco la parta

A painted desco da parto (a birth tray or birth salver) was an important symbolic gift on the occasion of a successful birth in late medieval and Early Modern Florence and Siena. Because infant mortality and the danger of childbirth fever for the mother was highest during the crucial first days, a successful childbirth was lavishly celebrated. Though the trays found today in museums were commissioned by elite families, inventories show that birth trays and other special birth objects like embroidered pillows were given by families of all classes: when Lorenzo de' Medici died, the inventory shows that the desco da parto given by his father to his mother, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, at her lying-in, was hanging in his private quarters to the day of his death. [View source]

Psychological theories provide three models for understanding women’s affective functioning during the postpartum period. The first model, which for simplicity we may call the biological model, is one in which postpartum mood variation is attributed to hormonal and other physiological changes. A second approach, the psychological model, attributes women’s moods

Absence of Postpartum Depression among rural Kipsigis in Kenya

"The themes of home and parents, which predominated in the memories and dreams of the pregnant women, recall similar patterns in Western women (Sherman 1973), and it may be that the idea of being taken care of is a universal theme for women during this period of increased need and vulnerability. The striking aspect of the Kokwet women’s memories and dreams, however, was the presence of positive affect in the first postpartum interviewsof all the women. It seems that the need for succor, expressed in the pregnant women’s interviews, was answered in the early postpartum period by the culturally structured forms of support provided to the women. [View source]

during the postpartum period to their previous psychological development, including relationships with important figures, such as their mothers and husbands. According to this model, childbirth may be seen as a powerful elicitor of individual differences in maturity, sexuality, and general level of psychic health. The third model is interactive, and presents childbirth as a stressful event which, in combination with other stresses or supports, may have consequences for women’s ability to cope. [View source]

Harkness, Sara, "The Cultural Mediation of Postpartum Depression," Medical Anthropology Quarterly, vol 1, issue 2. June 1987, pp. 194-209



Cultural influences on postpartum depression

Postpartum depression occurs mostly and mainly in advanced industrial societies. Why might this be? A large factor is the lack of social rituals and practices for this vital time. "Cultures with the lowest rates of postpartum depression socially organize the postpartum period in a way that helps new mothers adjust positively and healthily to their new roles, responsibilities, and identities as mothers." For example, they recognize a distinct period in which mothers' regular duties are interrupted (ranging typically between three to eight weeks), there is a period of mandated rest for the mother (mothers can actually follow this mandate because other people are responsible for many of the mother's other tasks during this period), there is some degree of social seclusion to facilitate rest and emotional adjustment, there is social recognition of the mother's new, typically elevated status and other social practices to help channel powerful emotions that are common in this adjustment process. see more at the Motherhood Cafe


Interested in more? Here are other articles:
postpartum depression Kenya
depression bedsharing

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