Friday, June 11, 2010

Care package for the new nursing mom.

I was born into an American Sikh ashram where women routinely waited on new mothers for a period of 40 days after the birth, a duty they referred to as sevadar. After my mother gave birth to my sister and I, she was assisted by the other women in her community, and she in turned performed this duty for new mothers in her ashram. My mother believes (and this idea is shared by Ina May Gaskin and others who have lived in communal arrangements) that this strong social support greatly reduced the incidence of postpartum depression in the ashram.

When Joseph was born, my mother flew out the next day, and fell right into this "postpartum doula" role for me. She cooked and cleaned, made sure I always had a full glass of water or iced fennel tea at my side, ran interference with the endless stream of visitors, cooed over little Joseph, and generally just did whatever needed to be done while I recuperated from the birth and adjusted to my new role as mama. What I found most helpful was not that my mother "helped" with Joseph - it was that she took care of me, so that I could care for and bond with my baby. Words can't describe how much I appreciated her help during those days!

My Mom is coming down again to visit baby Helen, but unfortunately her visit is not scheduled for ten days yet, so she will not be my sister's postpartum doula in the very first week as she was for me (instead, she will be around to help during the traditionally fussy period that usually begins around two weeks, which I'm sure will also be very helpful!).

So basically, I better step up to the plate! When I get off work today, I plan to visit my sister and her brand new baby. Taking a page from my mother's book, I hope to provide a little gentle, quiet, background help with cooking, cleaning, and attending to my sister, rather than simply add another "visitor" to the steady stream of visitors that always accompanies the arrival of a new baby! This is the kind of support that a new mom needs most. Like my mother, I don't believe that new moms need help with their babies - rather, I believe that they need help with their day-to-day tasks, so that they can take care of the baby.

With this in mind, here are some items for a care package for the new nursing mother:
  1. Breastfeeding ergonomics. Before Helen was born, I gave my sister some basic breastfeeding supplies that I found helpful for comfortable nursing. Specifically, I gave her a My Brest Friend nursing pillow, that was handed down to me by my friend Janet, and the Medela Nursing Stool. I offered our glider, but my sister worried that she didn't have enough space. None of these items is strictly necessary - you can use a regular chair and bed pillow for nursing, and put your feet up on whatever is handy. However, considering that new mothers can expect to spend the first month of their baby's life nursing for 45 minute long stretches every two to three hours, day and night, I strongly believe that it's worth spending a little money for some items that will make that more comfortable and less of a strain on your neck and back! I have a feeling that my sister will "make room" for the glider, too.
  2. Nipple treatments. I also gave my sister a baggy with a selection of nipple treatments for her hospital bag (it's unlikely she will need any of these during her hospital stay, but they don't take up much room): Some Lansinoh pure lanolin ointment for general conditioning, some poly-sporin ointment for sore or cracked nipples, and clotraminazole in case of thrush (heaven forbid!). Finally, I gave her a package of Medela Hydrogel Pads. These are simply heaven for sore nipples, which are unfortunately, especially common in fair-skinned Irish lasses like ourselves! Of course, olive-skinned and darker-skinned mothers often have no problems in this regard, and don't need any treatments - lucky ladies!
  3. Mama's Milky Tea. I know that when I first started nursing, I was insanely thirsty, all the time. I would get especially parched right after Joe latched on and my milk let down, which is an exceedingly inconvenient time to get up and get yourself a glass of water (although I have gotten pretty good at walking around with a baby attached to my breast, this is an acquired skill). One of the most useful services you can do for a new nursing mother is to make sure that they have a full glass of water at their elbow at all times. My mother recommends drinking fennel seed tea when you are starting out breastfeeding, to ensure a good milk supply and reduce gassiness and colic in your baby. Fennel tea is made by boiling one heaping tablespoon of fennel seeds per quart of water, for 20 minutes or so on the stove. If milk supply is an issue, you can add a pinch of fenugreek seeds to the fennel. Drink by the quart. Fennel tea can be served warm or iced, with milk and honey as desired, and I'll be making up a GIANT batch of it for my sister tonight.
  4. Moby Wrap or Sling. Joseph loved snoozing in the Moby as a newborn. It was so snug, I almost felt like I was pregnant again! A wrap or sling can help a new mother get up and putter around the house a bit while satisfying her newborn baby's insatiable desire for close contact. Lifesaver.
  5. Foods for milk production. Breastfeeding mothers need lots of calories! Whole grains and starchy foods are especially good for establishing a strong milk supply. When my mother was staying with us after Joe was born, she made me: Whole wheat bread (from scratch, duh), sweet and creamy tapioca pudding, potato soup, lots of hot seven-grain cereal, oven-roasted chicken thighs, lentils, and mung beans and rice. And that is just what I remember - there was a steady stream of delicious food coming from my kitchen. I don't know if tapioca pudding really increases milk supply as my mother claims, but (a) I will never refuse tapioca pudding; and (b) I actually suffered from oversupply with Joseph, so it's possible it worked all too well!
  6. And last but not least, BEER! The occasional beer is good for your milk supply (and sanity)! I ask (quoting Hank from King of the Hill): Is there anything beer can't do? A hoppy beer or a pint of Guinness is traditional.
Of course, this is just a start. Any other suggestions for supporting new nursing mothers?


    1. The one thing I wished that someone had warned me just how much time I would be spending nursing, and essentially sitting in 1 spot. Hours, upon hours, staring at big messy piles of stuff. So, I always tell people to figure out where they will spend a lot of time nursing and make sure you either like the view...or that it at least doesn't make you nuts to stare at!

    2. Ahhh...thanks for the praise. And thanks for taking care of your sister.

      Modern women do WAY too much too soon. It takes time for the womb to go back to normal size. Carrying laundrey baskets, running errands, being on your feet too much, stressing - not good.

      I also feel that sensory overload experiences, like going to the grocery store, are hard on newborns. Too many lights, and noise and people for that first week of life.


    3. How about some magazines or whatever she likes that doesn't take much mental energy to read, for those moments you crave entertainment but are too exhausted to deal with a novel. And chilled cabbage leaves for engorgement.

    4. This is an EXCELLENT manual for supporting a breastfeeding mom. What about your recommended text, A Nursing Mother's Companion, for if she has any questions? (Although, actually, she has you, and you're even better!) Perhaps magazines. And little tiny snacks to go next to the nursing station. Just in case, god forbid!, someone is not on hand to bring food and she gets those crazy INTENSE hunger pangs. I used to joke that I was eating like a football player, except that it wasn't a joke and I am still doing it!

    5. Meg - Good point! Although I would also recommend that moms learn to breastfeed ANYWHERE as soon as possible, and make that a priority, to avoid dying of boredom! I recommend going to places with beer, personally.

      Mom - I didn't explain the reasoning behind the sevadar, and I'm glad you did.

      Lisa and Melissa - What, you mean not everyone reads memoirs about scary mothers when they are breastfeeding??

      Light reading, schmight schmeading. Hee hee.

      Oh, and M., you are so right about the NMC! I gave that to my sis as well, of course. :-)

      Thanks for your comments everyone!

    6. as usual, inder, i feel like i just learned so darn much from this and must bookmark it for later reference (for others or, very later, for self). please keep your blog running until there are more babies in my life, i feel like it will be infinitely useful.

    7. Hi! I found your blog via Anne. I enjoyed reading this post. As for breastfeeding essentials, I think that breast pads are a must. The wool pads are better than the cotton ones because they wick away moisture and don't feel soggy and wet. Also, a piece of jewelry to wear on one wrist or finger is nice. The breastfeeding mom can move the ring to the other side every time she nurses so she can remember which side to do. Andcuz jewelry is nice. Great blog!

    8. Nancy - Welcome! That's a great idea about the rings. I used a rubber band which I moved from wrist to wrist, but that's way less glamorous! I would also just squeeze the boobies like ripe fruit, to determine which seemed, ahem, milkier, which worked pretty well!

      I have never tried the wool breast pads, but I bet they are AWESOME. We use wool diaper covers, and love them. See here -

      Considering the small fortune I spent on disposable pads, I think the cost of some wool pads is probably well worth it.

    9. Wow - I think that description of community is so beautiful. We are so isolated these days that its no wonder families have a hard time adjusting.

      I will definitely consider some of those care package ideas next time I know someone expecting. It would feel like a more worthwhile gift than more babys'r'us crap.

    10. I found your post via a friend on facebook and was so glad. Well said! I so appreciated your voice and words on this. Everything birth related still feels so incredibly important to me these days.
      I always share my favorite links each Saturday on my blog. So today I shared this post on my blog:
      Thank you again! And give the Bay Area a big hug from me. I miss it so!

    11. This is so great.

      Ditto what Meg said -- I was unprepared for how long I'd be sitting in one spot. Best advice is def. to set up a "nursing station" with all the crap you want within arm's reach. Including the remote. I know some people think BFing while watching Tv is 'bad,' but seriously, watching the Real Housewives of New York while nursing those first few weeks helped, and it's one of the reasons while months later I'm still nursing. So wrong, so right...

    12. Jenna & RosieGirlDreams - Welcome! Thanks for the praise and the shout-out, RosieGirl! I appreciate it. I totally agree that most of us are too isolated these days. So many moms have to do everything on their own even in the early weeks postpartum. There must be some way to get that community without joining a commune, right? I'm working on it.

      Emily - Come to think of it, I did spend a LOT of time watching bad television and nursing. In addition to reading memoirs about scary mothers and nursing!

    13. I really enjoyed your post! I would love to have had a close community of helpful women!
      The beer comment isn't totally correct, which I just learned recently myself from Dr Thomas Hale's website. Alcohol can inhibit supply and let down. The idea that it helps comes from stressed mothers who drank a beer and experienced a letdown, but that was simply from relaxation. I'm not sure how much is too much, but I agree with you that the occasional beer is good for mom's sanity!
      Lastly, you made a great point that new mothers really need help with chores- I was irked that everyone always wanted to "give me a break" from the baby, when I had waited 9 months just to meet them!


    I love comments! I do my very best to respond to comments, by email or here, although I am often running late. I also try to follow and comment on my regular readers' blogs. So please let me know you were here!