Author: Dr. Maryam Mahanian, DTCM, RAc
Audio Broadcast of the article is available below:
According to Chinese medicine, these are some of the steps new mothers can take to ensure they have the best diet for postpartum recovery.
During pregnancy, the health of the mother is emphasized as it directly affects the growth and development of the fetus. In Traditional Chinese medicine, the health of the mother is also highly emphasized in the postpartum time.
The care that the new mother receives during this time sets the stage for her health far into the future.
In China, most women know how important it is to look after oneself after childbirth. It is instilled in them at a young age and passed down from generation to generation. In Chinese culture, women focus on resting and doing nothing other than feeding the baby for one month after childbirth.
What is the postpartum time?
In Chinese medicine, the postpartum period of time is the first four months after delivery with the first month being the most important time to take special care of the mother. It is said that it is not until after four months that the body can be fully recovered. Pregnancy and childbirth is very depleting to a woman’s body, particularly depleting the woman of her blood, Qi (energy) and vital resources.
Breast milk is formed from the same substrate as blood; therefore, breastfeeding can be viewed as comparable to a constant loss of blood. It is vital to replenish and sustain the mother’s Qi and blood in order for her to have adequate levels of breast milk. A woman’s constitutional strength, her age, the state of her health before conception and how well she takes care of herself during pregnancy are all factors in postpartum recovery.
There is a long documented history in traditional Chinese medicine of women taking dietary remedies to encourage lactation and to promote their recovery from childbirth (or from a miscarriage and/or excessive bleeding). Specific foods are seen to be especially valuable which will be discussed here.
Signs of Deficiency
Some signs of deficiency of Qi and blood are fatigue, pale complexion, weakness of the limbs, dizziness, poor appetite, anxiety, insomnia, poor memory, loose stools, pale tongue and weak pulse. One of the more serious signs of postpartum Qi and blood deficiency is postpartum depression.
Digestion tends to be weak after delivery and there is a great demand for highly nutritious food at this time in order to replenish blood and form breast milk. Warm, nourishing and easy to digest foods are recommended. Soups are a great choice.
Heal & Support your Digestion
According to Chinese medicine, when our digestion is strong, we will feel energetic and clear-headed, we will worry less, we will feel less lethargic, we will have stronger immune systems and more stamina. We will be less prone to a build up of stagnant sluggish fluids (called dampness in Chinese medicine) in the body. This dampness can cause yeast overgrowth which can manifest as yeast infections or thrush in mother and her baby.
Some tips to support digestion
- Eat cooked foods – stay away from cold & raw foods
- Drink warm tea’s frequently throughout the day
- Don’t drink ice cold beverages, especially not with meals – cold beverages will put out the digestive fire
- Make sure whole grains are well-cooked and easy to digest
- Drink a small teacup of warm water, broth, or tea following your meal
- Use warm spices like ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, nutmeg, black or white pepper, cardamom, orange peel, and fennel
- Eat small meals and snacks every 2-3 hours so as not to overwhelm your digestion
- Consider taking a high quality probiotic
As already stated, pregnancy, labour and breastfeeding is very depleting to the new mother’s Qi (vital energy) and blood. Here are some foods to include in your daily diet that will replenish the Qi and blood and revitalize the new mother.
Foods that Nourish Qi (energy)
Oats, rice, potato, sweet potato, pumpkin, mushroom (button and shitake), yam, date, grape, Kidney beans, tofu, beef, chicken, tuna, egg, jasmine tea and spices such as; basil, cinnamon, clove, dill, fennel, fenugreek, ginger, nutmeg, rosemary, thyme.
Foods that Build Blood
Corn, sweet rice, beetroot, all dark leafy greens, mushroom, apricot, avocado, date, kidney bean, sesame seeds, chicken, mussels, egg and soya milk as well as the obvious iron rich foods such as red meat and spinach.
Examples of Nourishing Foods
- Oat porridge with dates
- Roast sweet potatoes, pumpkin and yams with rosemary
- Chicken stir fry with shiitake mushrooms & rice
- Shepherd’s pie with beef mince, mushrooms, carrots & mashed potato as a topping
- Peanut Satay sauce with chicken or red meat on rice
- Potato & egg salad
- Tuna fish pie made with hard boiled eggs served with mashed potatoes & peas
- Any red meat dish.
- Mussel Chowder with calamari
- Stir fried Tofu, eggplant & mushrooms with sesame seeds on rice
- Homemade muesli with honey & dates
- Rice porridges with Soya milk, apricots and almonds
- Dark leafy green salads with avocado and grated beetroot
- Warm chicken salad with artichoke & grapes
- Chicken mushroom casserole served with rice
- Scrambled Eggs with parsley
- Chicken, avocado & watercress sandwiches
Cooking methods are important
Slowly or lightly cooked foods are seen as more nourishing and easier on the digestive system because by slightly cooking the foods, the beginning of the digestive process has already begun. This is the reason why soups (especially chicken soup), are considered so nourishing in those initial postnatal weeks.
A medicinal porridge made from rice or barley. It is seen as a powerful therapeutic food for strengthening digestion, boasting energy and aiding in the recovery from illness.
- A basic congee can be made from using one cup of grain to 6- 9 cups of liquid – this can be water, vegetable/chicken stock or milk. The amount of liquid you use will determine the thickness of the porridge, which can be thick like oat porridge or watery like a soup, depending on your preference.
- To prepare congee, simply rinse the rice thoroughly and place with the liquid in a slow cooker (crockpot) overnight on low heat. Or simmer in a heavy pot on a low heat for 4-6 hrs, stirring frequently. If the ingredients are placed in the slow cooker overnight and left on a low setting the next day, this dish provides you with a nourishing snack that can be eaten throughout the day.
To this basic recipe any combination of the following can be added to suit your individual tastes – fresh or dried fruits (such as apricots, red or black dates), spices (such as vanilla, cinnamon, cardamom, fresh ginger), meats (such as chicken pieces or pork bones) vegetables (such as mushrooms) and liquids (water, stock, or for sweet congees cow’s milk, (soya, rice or nut milks can also be used).
- Use sweet glutinous rice cooked with apricots or black dates and a little cinnamon for a sweet warming Qi and Blood tonifying congee.
- Add fresh Shiitake mushrooms cooked with a little garlic to a plain cooked rice congee, topping with freshly chopped spring onion for a warming savoury Qi and Blood building congee.
- Grind 25 grams of black sesame seeds, add to the uncooked rice and cook as a normal congee to enhance the blood building properties of any congee.
- Cook slices of chicken and ginger in a rice congee replacing the water with chicken stock and topping with spring onion for a variation on chicken soup.
Bone broth is an excellent nourishing food for postpartum mothers. It is so rich in collagen and gelatin, protein & minerals. It benefits the gut lining which will in turn strongly benefit the immune system. It also benefits brain function.
How to make Bone Broth
1 organic chicken carcass trimmed of excess fat
A few stocks of celery in large chunks or left whole
1 or 2 carrots roughly chopped
1 onion quartered with or without the peel
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar (to help break down the bones and extract the precious nutrients)
parsley (if you have it on hand)
Crock Pot Method
Place all ingredients in a crock pot and fill with enough water to cover the bones.
Place on low setting and let cook for 10 hours or more.
Strain out all the ingredients with a fine mesh sieve, saving just the broth and discarding bones and vegetables.
Store in mason jars, leaving an inch or two at the top for expansion and freeze.
Stove Top method
Place all ingredients in a pot on the stove, fill and cover with water.
Bring to a boil, and then turn down to simmer for at least 10 hours.
Other considerations to promote breast milk
- drink plenty of water
- dark leafy greens
- sweet potato and yam
- fennel and fennel seed
- pig trotters in soup
- coconut meat
A little treat to lift the spirits
A nice treat for new moms is to make a tea with ¼ cup of rose petals and a handful of fresh mint with coconut water in a large pitcher. It can be taken hot or cooled. This is very hydrating and gently moves the “liver Qi” to lift the spirits.
Rest & Recovery Time
The concept of adequate rest to ensure women completely recovered from childbirth is an important part of traditional Chinese medicine. It’ll take women at least a month (30-40 days actually) to fully recover from childbirth. This is an idea not necessarily commonly known in Western society. Usually partners or relatives will endeavour to be around to help out after the birth for a week (two weeks if the women are really lucky), then, for most women its back to “normal”. It may be an appealing idea that “super mums” will be fit and ready for action within a week or two following birth, but this is not the reality for most women. While most will certainly cope, several months later it is often hard to shake off the tiredness and exhaustion.
While 30 days (or even 100 days in some of the Chinese texts) of recovery time may initially sound a little excessive, it is in reality a reasonable time period if it is considered that this is needed to compensate for not only the birth but also the total experience of being pregnant for nine months. This is not a time for absolute bed rest but rather a time where physical rest is taken at every opportunity (sleep when the baby sleeps), exercise is appropriate (not an exhausting attempt to get back into shape), and attention is placed on a nourishing diet, as outlined above so that there is an emphasis on building blood and Qi energy.
Ideally acupuncture treatment is given once per week in the postpartum time to promote stamina and an efficient recovery. Acupuncture can also be useful at this time to balance emotions, aid perineal healing and help with any breastfeeding issues.
Chinese Herbal Medicine
There is a very common (& absolutely fantastic) Chinese herbal formula called ‘Sheng Hua Tang’ taken one week postpartum which is invaluable in helping recovery from childbirth. It promotes uterine involution (the process by which the uterus returns to its pre-pregnancy size and condition), it helps discharge of lochia, warms the uterus, dispels pain, and generates blood.
This formula is a powder mixed into hot water to make a tea or can also be added to bone broth or nourishing soups. Ask of this from your qualified doctor of Chinese medicine.
I recommend new moms to try to receive (and accept) a lot of support from family and/or friends. We were never meant to do this alone – it truly takes a village! Try to also get in touch with other friends who have recently had babies to help you feel understood. Adequate support can make all the difference to the emotional health of new mothers.
Make a list of things that make you feel relaxed, nourished and happy and try to incorporate them into your life as much as you can.
Prioritize your own health and take care of yourself at this crucial time. This will save you from having chronic health issues in the future and will also make you a better mommy.
Wishing you the very best in your road to recovery in this most precious time in your life.