After my son was born, I remember standing in my creme de la creme Asian pear wrapper underwear, elated that the baby was finally out. I was just glad to have the roughest nine months over. Little did I know, I was really just standing at the beginning of a long and arduous recovery period.
Enter the postpartum period, sometimes known as the Fourth Trimester—or as the Koreans say, Saam-chil-il.
Saam-chil-il is honored and guarded as a sacred time of recovery for the mom. The direct translation is “three-seven-days”—21 days of concentrated focus on the well-being of the mom for the sake of the baby. The Korean culture, like many East-Asian countries, really emphasizes the importance of healing after childbirth. Every little detail, including the temperature of the room, is considered during this time. In Korea, women put both their time and resources into enlisting the highest quality of mom care. It’s normal there for both mom and baby to book a relaxing stay at a state of the art facility with around-the-clock care.
While I didn’t have the same type of access here in the US, I instead put to test the sacred secrets of postpartum recovery. Spoiler alert—these were game-changers in my recovery. These tried and true secrets can guide you through a smoother recovery period too:
1. Mugwort Soaks and Steam Baths
When the days blended into nights, the only thing that kept me sane was the 10-minute soaks on my toilet. We placed a sitz bath filled with warm water and Mugwort herbs over the seat. I also had a matching pink foot basin for my swollen legs. I’d sit in my birthday suit and sweat it out with a towel covering my body. I would savor each minute as the heat relaxed my body and restored my soul. These short intervals each day would help me re-caliber myself while tackling those tough, sleepless days.
The first benefit is definitely the relaxation of the sitz bath. But the real benefit is in the herbs. The steam and bath help boost circulation down under and naturally, draw out lochia—the bloody discharge you get after childbirth. Simply put, the steam and soaks help rejuvenate the uterus and vagina. While this leans towards a holistic recovery approach, doctors and professionals do not discount the effectiveness of this method.
Personally, I found that the warm water soothed the soreness in that area after delivery. In fact, I can’t think of a better excuse to have 10 minutes alone besides for the sake of your vaginal health.
2. Blood-Circulating Massages
If you’ve hired help and/or have willing hands (grandparents and partners are great for this), massages with heated towels can help to increase blood circulation and decrease swelling after birth. Since the first few days—who are we kidding, weeks and months—are focused on our babies, by default, our bodies get accustomed to reduced mobility. We can expect sore and tight muscles. By placing warmed towels (or heated pads) on the areas of stress, we can help ease and loosen those tense muscles.
My “Sanhojori” (a professional Korean mom-care specialist) began with applied gentle pressure in circular motions on my stomach and pelvis. This massage technique, aimed to soothe the uterus and aid in tissue stimulation, reduces the soreness and brings relief to the mother. Then, she moved to other affected areas such as my inflamed limbs and aching back from all of those hours hunched over breastfeeding.
According to the American Pregnancy Association, the body can expect about a 50 percent increase in fluid volume after childbirth and massages are crucial to facilitate the drainage process. With everything swollen, including the stomach, legs, and feet, these daily massages, slowly but surely, reduce swelling.
Like the sitz baths, I looked forward to the short but pressure-relieving massages. Any mood-boosting treatments are a definite must and a win in my book. Another added bonus? It helps with the first few dreaded bowel movements.
3. Seaweed Soup
The minute my hamburger-and-milkshake-craving baby was born, my crazy appetite went away. I actually craved something healthy. This, of course, was ideal for the recovery period—to return to a healthy diet that would nourish my healing body, but also help with milk production. My daily menu was rooted in a foundation of seaweed soup. This infamous Korean soup incorporates garlic, meat/seafood (not always necessary) and soaked green seaweed.
The seaweed is known to be nutritious in general, but in particular during the postpartum period. The warm broth is full of fiber, iron, calcium, and iodine. Basically, it’s an all-in-one to survive the first few weeks of postpartum life. There’s fiber for easier bowel movements, iron to support energy and blood health, calcium for your bones, and iodine for baby’s brain development.
And the real MVP is the hydrating aspect of the seaweed. The soaked seaweed hydrates the body along with the broth, giving you a double-dose of nourishment and fluid. And for nursing moms, extra hydration means more milk.
4. Keep the Temperature Warm
I complained incessantly when I gave birth in the heart of summer—July 15th—and still, no one allowed me to put on the air conditioning.
Koreans believe that the cold air chills the joints and separated ligaments from childbirth, which disrupts the healing process. Call it a weird science, but the emphasis here is on warming the inflicted areas to promote inner healing. Instead, I was told to try wearing clothes that cover my body and embrace the sweat that came along with it. Not only will you naturally lose the excess fluid and swelling faster, but your skin will also begin to glow as well.
The same goes for what enters your body—nothing drastic in temperature to “shock” your system. So, anything cold is ideally avoided during the first 21 days. Since the whole body was affected by pregnancy and birth, the consumption of cold foods and beverages is thought to delay the healing process. My house did feel like a sauna at times, but I found the benefits like the glow and losing the extra water retention to outweigh the heat.
5. Stay Indoors
Another traditional Korean postpartum practice is to remain indoors for the duration of the recovery. Before you write this one off, consider that his postpartum period can be an isolated time when the only people around the baby and you are there to help.
This reduces the likelihood of germs and exposure to anything that might delay your healing process. Not to mention, there are great benefits for your mental health to relax in the comfort of your home. For some, this may bring on cabin fever and seem unbearable, but the goal is to keep possible infections and strenuous activities at bay.
Or just take this as an excuse to keep overzealous visitors away, at least until the tail end of your recovery.
6. Treat Your Body Like the Temple It Is
This is the most important secret within the whole methodology behind the Korean postpartum period. The objective and focus of this time are centered around complete healing for the mother. When you thrive, so does your baby. That’s a concept everyone should agree on.
Your body, mental health, and mood are all part of the healing process. It doesn’t mean you’ll have to book a ticket to Korea, hire mom-care, or shelve out thousands for all kinds of treatments—it simply starts from listening and treating your body well.
Whether that means following all the rules, or just a few, the idea is to best support your individual needs. Did I still Dermoplast the whole arena of my underpants? You bet. Did I enjoy a cold fresh-pressed juice by the breezy Hudson river on a hot summer day? Oh, yes. Because those things made me feel good.
Your postpartum recovery is a journey. It’s also the strangest dichotomy of pain and joy; our bodies are wounded but our hearts and spirits are overflowing with love. And really, the last thing on your mind is taking care of you. But if we can make this time just a tad bit easier and healthier on ourselves, why not?
My postpartum recovery was fairly joyous and smooth, and I give due credit to these secrets. Now that the secrets are out, here’s your reasoning to invest in your own postpartum recovery.