What Is Postpartum?

Quick word association game. I say postnatal, you say...

Let me guess, depression.

The word postnatal or postpartum comes from latin origins meaning literally after birth.


In a western medical sense postpartum refers to the six weeks after your baby is born, because this is about how long it takes for your uterus to contract down to it's normal size, and stop bleeding (called lochia).

Traditionally around the world postpartum refers to about 40 days 'lying in' after your baby is born. This is observed culturally in Guatemala, Korea, Lebanon... even in Victorian times in England women expected to observe a period on 'confinement' after giving birth. In China this time is called 'doing the month', in Greece it is referred to as 'fortifying' and in India some people use the word 'japa' which means a spiritual time spent reciting a mantra of devotion. How lovely is that?

All of these cultures and many more emphasise warmth, purification, nourishing food and rest. Massage, heat treatments, oil treatments, special soups and ritualised bathing are commonly a part of these cultural postpartum practises too. Mothers are excused from housework and socialising during this time.

But our understanding and expectations of women after childbirth are vastly different here is the West. In Australia birth is seen as a largely medical event, with women being discharged from hospital between 4 hours and 4 days after a normal birth. Gifts are given to the newborn and celebrations like baby showers and christenings are centred on the baby too. And women are expected to carry on without missing a beat.

However traditional cultures acknowledge birth as part of a holistic social, emotional and physical system. The birth of a mother is a time of deep initiation in a woman's life. She will experience more physical, social and psychological transformation during this transition than perhaps at any other time in her life.

I often wonder about the effects of this lying in period on bonding, establishing breastfeeding and emotional healing after birth. If we supported this sacred time I'm sure our mothers would be stepping forth with greater confidence in their new roles, and our whole community would benefit.

The word postpartum or postnatal holds little meaning or value in our culture, so is it any wonder it is so strongly associated with depression?