What Other Cultures Can Teach Us About Postpartum Rituals

Many cultures around the world observe postpartum rituals that nurture new parents during the postpartum period. Learn how these practices could make a difference in the U.S.

Imagine having a baby and immediately surrendering to a massage, soaking in an herbal bath, and spending a month in a state of rest.

For many new parents, this sounds like a dream, but for Evelynn Escobar, it was her reality after she gave birth in May. Escobar, who identifies as Black and Indigenous Latinx, observed the Latin American cultural practice of la cuarentena or "quarantine"—a sequestered 40-day postpartum period in which new parents focus on healing and bonding with their baby.

"I did not lift a finger for the entire 40 days," says 30-year-old Escobar.

That meant not even descending the stairs of her three-story Los Angeles townhouse where she gave birth to baby Isla. During her cuarentena, Escobar relied on her husband, delivery services, and extended community for care while she recovered. The cultural practice of rest and recovery allowed her to seamlessly transition from pregnancy to parenthood.

"It gave me the preparation that I needed to sort of come out and feel confident about my new role as a mother because once I did come out, I was like, 'OK, I'm ready,'" says Escobar.

Read on to learn about the critical postpartum period, cultural rituals to honor recovery and rest, and how the U.S. stacks up to other countries in celebrating new parenthood.

An image of a mother and her newborn baby.
Getty Images.

The Importance of the Postpartum Period

The weeks after birth, often called the fourth trimester, is a critical time for new parents that sets the stage for long-term health and well-being, according to a study on optimizing postpartum care. But in the United States, the care of those who recently gave birth isn't prioritized. Instead, it often looks like a singular visit to an OB-GYN or midwife at six weeks postpartum.

However, in 2018, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) redesigned postpartum care as an ongoing process rather than a single visit. They recommend that people have contact with their health care provider beginning three weeks postpartum and continuing through 12 weeks. These visits should assess the following:

  • Mood and emotional health
  • Infant care and feeding
  • Birth control
  • Sleep concerns and fatigue
  • Physical recovery
  • Ongoing health concerns

Aside from health recommendations, the U.S.'s lack of parental leave policies combined with an individualist versus collectivist mindset makes postpartum support virtually nonexistent. In contrast, many cultures around the world observe postpartum rituals that allow new parents to be "mothered" for longer periods, according to a 2007 study.

This lack of a structural system for postpartum care in the U.S. encourages some new parents like Escobar to lean into cultural practices to transition from pregnancy to parenthood. It may not always be a walk in the park (spoiler: some traditions mean no air conditioning or short-sleeve shirts even during the hottest month), but for some people, these rituals offer necessary rest, healing, and community support.

Evelynn Escobar gave birth to Isla in May 2021.
Evelynn Escobar gave birth to Isla in May 2021. Courtesy of Evelynn Escobar

Postpartum Cultural Rituals

In Latin American and Asian cultures, postpartum rituals support new parents via rest, family and community support, and child care. "Some cultures really fundamentally believe in this long-term detriment to one's health if they don't get the support during the transition of having a baby," says Cindy Lee-Dennis, Ph.D., professor at the University of Toronto's Lawrence Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing and the Faculty of Medicine.

So, what are some examples of these cultural practices, and what can we learn from them? China, Latin America, and Korea offer some beautiful examples of rituals to honor and support new parents.

The Chinese tradition of "sitting the month"

In China, it's called zuo yue zi or "sitting the month." The practice dates back over 2,000 years and is based on the belief that a new gestational parent's path to recovery starts with rest and dietary and lifestyle restrictions.

Because the Chinese government invests in the care of new families, the sitting month is now a multi-billion dollar market with all-inclusive postpartum hotels, according to Heng Ou, author of the 2016 book The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother (Harry N. Abrams).

Ou, who is Chinese American, practiced tenets of the sitting month after the birth of her first child in 2003. Traditions require:

  • Staying indoors
  • Bundling up with warm clothes
  • Avoiding cold food and drinks to restore the heat that escaped the body with the birth

Ou's aunt became her de facto confinement ambassador by moving in and filling her freezer with broths and food. "It's a really beautiful time to hold the mom and nurture her and keep her warm so she could heal and replenish herself from the inside out," says Ou.

The mom of three only practiced sitting the month for her first child. Her subsequent postpartum experiences differed starkly. She returned to work—with a newborn strapped in a carrier—just days after birth. As a result, Ou said she felt disconnected from her body.

Inspired by her postpartum experiences, Ou founded MotherBees in 2010, a company that delivers bone broth and porridges to new parents. She believes that taking care of parents is really taking care of society as a whole.

Latin American cuarentena

The Latin American practice of cuarentena is a 40-day postpartum ritual that centers on recovering and bonding with a new baby at home. This practice includes avoiding certain activities, including:

  • Housework
  • Exercise
  • Sex
  • Rapid movements

In addition, the recovering parent lies under warm blankets, binds their waist to help organs return to their pre-birth position, and takes herbal baths.

Korean Saam-chil-il

In Korean culture, the 21-day postpartum care period is called Saam-chil-il.

Before the birth of her first son, Kelly Lee hired a professional Korean care specialist to perform blood-circulating massages, take care of household chores, and cook her seaweed soup. For Lee, 29, of Bergen County, New Jersey, the extra support helped her recover from a difficult pregnancy.

"I don't think my body would have recovered as quickly," says Lee, who is Korean American.

Many say the postpartum rituals open a space for new parents to prioritize self-care. Without them, new parents put the baby's needs first, says Ou. So, what's left over for them? Scraps. These cultural practices center the birthing parent. After all, healthy babies start with healthy parents.

How To Receive Postpartum Care

Realistically, we can't expect to adopt all these cultural rituals into the American social fabric. Sorry, there are no plans to build postpartum hotels in a zip code near you yet. But there are some ways to support new parents with existing resources.

Professional postpartum support resources

Many communities have postpartum professionals that can help new parents after they have a baby. Postpartum doulas are trained professionals that help people adjust to new parenthood. According to Childbirth and Postpartum Professional Association (CAPPA), postpartum doulas offer:

  • Support for physical and emotional healing
  • Information and options about parenting
  • Care that honors a family's culture and values
  • Childcare while a parent naps or showers
  • Education on newborn care
  • Household organization
  • Assistance with newborn feeding

Postpartum doulas are different than nannies or housekeepers. Instead, their role is centered around supporting and mentoring new parents as they adjust to their new role.

Also, Postpartum Support International is an organization that connects people to information and resources for people in the postpartum period. They offer a helpline, a provider directory, connection to local support, online support groups, and peer mentors.

Relationship-based support

While traditional rituals can be an essential cultural rite of passage, Dr. Lee-Dennis points out that even without them, most new parents have an embedded support network in their partners. Of course, a partner can look different for every family, but the goal is to have another person who can provide support.

"Everyone always says it takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to raise mothers," says Escobar.

During Escobar's cuarentena, her husband Franco Andrade, 31, was also able to take time off work to be there for his family. "Once the baby was born, for sure Evelynn did nothing, and we did our absolute best for her to do nothing, and I knew that meant I had to do everything," says Andrade, who calls himself blessed for the ability to take five months off work.

That's a luxury in a country that ranks last in UNICEF's report on family-friendly policies, including paid family leave.

The Bottom Line

It's not easy to practice these postpartum rituals, says Ou. There are groceries to buy, toddlers to hug, and jobs to keep. The extra support may not be financially accessible for many families, but the philosophy of cultural postpartum rituals is free—it's about slowing down.

"I think that it's got to happen in increments. It could be like a couple of minutes a day. Any moment that you could hang on to," says Ou. New parents can make mindful transitions in those small moments and connect with their mind and body. Those mindful minutes can add to days and months and lead to healthier new parents.

As Ou puts it, "Don't we want to have a better society of moms and babies because isn't that all going to benefit us in the future?"

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