Postpartum Traditions from Around the World: Latin America
The postpartum period, aka the fourth trimester, is a critically important transitional time that should focus exclusively on bonding with your baby, healing your body, and adjusting to parenthood. Unfortunately in the United States, the postpartum period is often rushed through or ignored entirely; birthing people are often expected to “bounce back” and adjust to taking care of a baby with little acknowledgment of the life-changing event they’ve just experienced. In many instances, the norm is to return to full-time work within 6-8 weeks after the baby is born. America’s systemic lack of maternity and paternity leave has contributed to this cultural phenomenon, much to the detriment of new families.
Because there’s so much we can learn from other cultures about postpartum care, we wanted to spend some time talking about different traditions from around the world to better understand the significance of this time for mothers and babies. We hope that by shedding light on these traditions, we will come to appreciate how special the fourth trimester is and honor it in American culture as much as it’s honored elsewhere around the world.
We will begin in Latin America, where there is a long-held tradition for the postpartum period they call la cuarentena. The custom holds that for forty days following the birth of a child, the birthing person and baby do not leave the house and instead spend that time bonding and healing. Partners are not allowed to sleep in the same room so as not to disturb the mother-baby bonding (or have sex) and the mother’s needs are provided for by other family members. She doesn’t leave to go shopping or do any chores, and windows are kept closed to prevent “bad airs” from entering the house. Special meals are prepared for the birthing person, for example, a bland diet consisting of oatmeal, soups, and chicken. Herbal remedies are also dispensed for healing.
This time that the mother and baby spend together is dedicated to bonding, learning how to nurse, and healing from birth. It’s common for Mexican mothers to wear a faja (a foundational garment similar to a girdle) after they give birth to help them return to their previous pre-pregnancy shape. The same principles apply as they would to belly binding, where the compression can help the abdominal muscles knit back together more quickly. The Rebozo scarf is also used for babywearing which helps to soothe baby and keep them close to that familiar heartbeat.
This tradition harkens back to a time when mothers didn’t have a job outside the home and their exclusive occupation was raising the kids. We recognize that the practicalities of being catered to by family for six weeks are probably not realistic in today’s modern culture. We may not live close to family, but even if we do, they’re probably busy with their own lives and commitments and unable to dedicate that much time taking care of us and our baby. It’s also an outdated notion that the partner is shut out from bonding and expected to only fulfill the role of breadwinner vs. an engaged parent who should also be taking this time to bond with their child.
Although la cuarentena may not necessarily adapt perfectly to our modern lives, there are some takeaways worth paying attention to. Allowing your body to heal by not rushing things after giving birth is something a lot of us need to work on. Slowing down and making time for rest and recuperation is a critical piece to physical and well as mental recovery. Another thing we’re not always good at or well-practiced in is accepting help from others. We’ve been raised to be independent and self-sufficient, but once you’ve had a baby it’s OK to ask for and/or accept help. Maybe la cuarentena isn’t 100% feasible many place these days, but there are parts of this tradition that could serve us well here in present-day America.