Finding new in the old – caring for mother and baby in the postnatal period

A brief history of postnatal care

I recently participated in a Mother Blessing, an alternative to the usual baby shower. One of the key ideas of a Mother Blessing is to shift the emphasis from “all about the baby” to a celebration of the mother or mother-to-be and the transition to parenthood. Mother Blessings are considered a relatively recent development in the world of pregnancy and parenting, but, in fact, they draw upon historical practices. The finding of new rituals in old practices seems to be increasingly common, not just in personal circles but also in maternal and child programming.

This emphasis on both mother and baby is one of the themes in a review article on historical and cross-cultural perspectives of postnatal care by a group of Nordic researchers. They demonstrate that, historically, the postnatal period was considered a time of vulnerability for both mother and baby. They argue that since the 1950s, we have lost many historical customs and rituals for caring for mothers and infants in the postnatal period and that the rituals that remain or that have replaced the old tend to focus more on the baby than the mother.

One of the most interesting findings is the striking parallels between cultures with respect to customs. Most cultures appear to have had customs and rituals related to special diet, isolation, rest, and assistance for mothers. And, interestingly, the postnatal period seems to be universally defined as 40 days. Parallels with the modern 6 week postnatal check-up?

Example of postpartum customs in different cultures related to rest and isolation (Eberhard-Gran et al, 2010, p. 461)
  Exemption from work
The Muslim World Help with housework
Latin America Unclean (cannot do housework)
Japan Goes home to mother to be looked after
Nigeria Can only eat, sleep and look after baby
Nordic agrarian society Unclean (cannot do housework); bed rest


The authors point out how medical institutional systems have largely replaced family, community, and religious systems for providing care to mothers in the postnatal period. However, they also noted that public systems of care are steadily decreasing the amount of care they provide to mothers and that this parallels the shrinking of extended family systems. Systems continue to provide supports for the baby but less and less emphasis is given to practical assistance and opportunities for rest for mothers.


Eberhard-Gran, M., Garthus-Niegel, S., Garthus-Niegel, K., and Eskild, A. (2010). Postnatal care: a cross-cultural and historical perspective. Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 13: 459-466.

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