Recovery from Birth
Pregnancy is a time to look after yourself, focus on your needs through optimum nutrition and rest, and take life a little more gently. This need does not change once your baby is born – and the three months after the birth are known as the fourth trimester for this very reason.
If you are breastfeeding, a healthy diet is needed to support your milk supply and growing baby. If you choose not to breastfeed, or if it hasn't been possible, then diet is still just as important to support recovery from birth and sleep disruption. A good diet helps the restoration of hormonal balance after pregnancy and replenishes nutrient stores that have been diminished.
Traditional cultures would nourish and feed the new mother for a minimum of the first two weeks after the birth. They would do this by cooking and nurturing the mother and baby, feeding them nutritious foods, such as bone broths, and foods high in fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamin A and E (good examples are avocado and sweet potato) needed for healing. The proteins, electrolytes and collagen found in bone broths support repair and healing and also provide a source of nutrients, such as choline, to support the production of breast milk.
Other foods that can help to rebuild strength after birth are those that are rich sources of minerals, such as iron and calcium – good sources are green leafy vegetables, oats, millet and pulses. Spices, such as ginger and turmeric, support the immune system after birth and reduce inflammation from the birthing process and healing of scar tissue. Almonds and sesame seeds are high in minerals and are a well-digested form of protein.
Many women find that there is a change to their bowel habits after birth and may experience constipation. The foods mentioned above provide fibre to help prevent this but you may also want to consider the benefits of taking a probiotic supplement too.
Here are just some of the ways to support your recovery post-birth.
In the last trimester your baby accumulates most of the iron that’s needed, drawing on your iron stores in preparation for the oxygenated world he will be born into. If you have been eating a nourishing diet (see my Your Pregnancy Nutrition Guide: What to eat when you are pregnant) and supporting this with a good-quality Pregnancy supplement you will find your iron levels remain good (unless you were iron-deficient prior to pregnancy but unaware of this). However, the birth process can cause a loss of blood and a need to replenish your stores. Be mindful of eating plenty of iron-rich foods daily, such as wilted spinach, red meat and lentils, as well as good sources of vitamin C, which increases the absorption of iron and wound-healing after the birth.
Your body’s ability to use iron is also influenced by your levels of healthy bacteria so eating foods that support this or taking a month’s course of probiotics can help. This requirement increases if you had any medication or medical intervention during the birthing process such as an epidural, antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medication or an anaesthetic.
Vitamin E has been shown to support wound healing and is also used to promote hormonal balance. In these early weeks you will experience considerable hormonal changes and eating vitamin E-rich foods can help you regain balance. Foods rich in vitamin E include sunflower seeds, wheatgerm and avocado. You can also apply vitamin E oil to closed wounds to help reduce scarring. Rose oil has similar properties and is a wonderful oil for healing and emotional support – you can add this to a bath or burn it in an aromatherapy oil burner.
Zinc is needed for the immune system and healing after birth. It also supports the production and therefore the moderation of hormones, which will be very changeable over the next few weeks. It can also have an effect on symptoms of postnatal depression. Build plenty of zinc-rich foods, such as nuts, lamb and whole grains, into your diet.
Drinking plenty of fluids is important. If you are not breastfeeding, you will need to drink around six glasses of water a day, although this can also be in the form of herbal teas (caffeinated tea and coffee doesn't count as these are diuretics). If you are breastfeeding, you will need more than this – be led by your thirst levels. It is common to get a bit ‘sweaty’ after childbirth for the first six weeks or so, particularly at night. This is perfectly natural as it’s the body's way of restoring balance again, but do make sure you are replenishing any lost magnesium or water by keeping up your fluids and intake of green leafy vegetables and seeds and consider taking a natural Magnesium supplement.
Following the dietary principles in my Your Pregnancy Nutrition Guide will support your energy during this time and your immune system's ability to repair well. Eating slowly and well can be tricky so eat while your baby is asleep, regardless of whether or not they are conventional mealtimes. Eating well is more important than having a tidy house.
Keep it simple – it is at this stage you will reap of the benefits of stocking up your postnatal store cupboard and any pre-made frozen dishes that friends or family can provide. If you give birth during the wintery, damper months, avoid eating lots of cold foods and treat yourself to warming stews and soups. Warming, slow-cooked foods can be very nourishing for the gut and immune system, as well as providing a little bit of comfort. Eating in this way has also been shown to be supportive for your emotional and mental wellbeing post-birth.