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Expert Mama: Heng Ou, Author of The First Forty Days, Shares Tips for Healthy Breastfeeding

@motherbees

Happy World Breastfeeding Week! Today we have special guest Expert Mama Heng Ou, author of The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother, sharing some of her insights into this critical time for any mama and how it relates to the breastfeeding journey. This time is so beautiful but it is also a time of recovery that can be stressful and emotional. Read below for some of Heng’s insights on how to be gentle with yourself during this sensitive transition and for some of her favorite recipes to best nourish your body and support healthy breastfeeding.

During the first forty days a mama will eat special foods to help rebuild energy and support her body in producing breast milk. She will also use this precious time to honor the rite of passage that is motherhood, whether she’s a first time mama or a mother again. 

Q: Tell us about The First Forty Days. Why forty days, what happens during that time and why is it so critical for both first time and veteran mamas?

A: The first forty days is a short but deeply impactful period of time that follows the birth of a child. It’s a phase of about six weeks during which a mother recovers from pregnancy and birth, her baby slowly adjusts to the world, and together they get to know each other outside of the womb. 

There are many different ways to care for a new mother after birth, but there are some general themes that are woven throughout every culture’s postpartum protocols. We call these the 5 Insights of the First Forty Days and they are:

Retreat, warmth, support, rest and ritual

You can learn more about each insight in our book, but the general idea is for a new mother (whether it’s her first baby or her fourth!) to pull back from the busy-ness of life and remain cozily tucked indoors with her infant by her side. During this period she will eat special foods to help rebuild energy, replenish lost nutrients, and support her body in producing breast milk. She will also use this precious time to honor the rite of passage that is motherhood, whether she’s a first time mama or a mother again. 

The first forty days is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. During this time, a new mother has the chance to replenish her reserves, creating a solid foundation from which to tackle the demands of mothering. With the right postpartum care, a mother can preserve her reproductive health for future children or eventually experience an easy menopause, aging gracefully over the decades to come.

Q: Can you tell us a little about the tradition of zuo yuezi and how it is represented in the book?

A: Zuo yuezi is a very Chinese tradition that is translated as “sitting the month” or “confinement.”  It’s a health and wellness protocol that is devoted to the needs of the new mother where she retreats from the world at large with her newborn, consumes healing foods and teas usually prepared by her mother-in-law or other relatives, and stays away from cold of any kind (this can include bathing!). I experienced zuo yuezi firsthand after the birth of my daughter, Khefri. One day after returning from the birth center, my Auntie Ou, an acupuncturist in her sixties, traveled from the Bay Area to Los Angeles bearing totes full of ingredients for my postpartum meal plan: chicken feet, ginger, rice wine, bags of peanuts, seaweed, even pigs hooves.

She got busy in the kitchen only after giving me a strict list of commandments: I was to eat slowly during the first week postpartum because my digestion was weak, prioritizing soft, traditional foods like black sesame with rice powder and ginger or congee with black sugar. Absolutely no cold food or drinks were to pass my lips, because these would slow down the circulation of blood necessary for optimal healing. After one week, I could graduate to eating the postpartum soups they were creating from bone broth and fish stock—these would help support my breast milk and balance my hormones so that my mood stayed elevated. Meanwhile, I was to stay in bed—or close to it—at all times, keeping my activity levels ultralow, and clothe myself in thick woolen socks, a cozy hat, and extra blankets so that my body stayed very warm. My computer, cell phone, and all books were hidden away, so that I wasn’t tempted to distract myself when I should be sleeping. After weeks of this life in slow motion, focusing on connecting with little Khefri and healing from birth, I emerged ready to take on motherhood.

Q: How can properly nourishing our bodies help in our recovery and breastfeeding journey?

A: In Chinese tradition, food is used to heal and restore. This is especially true for new mothers who are so depleted after carrying a baby and giving birth. The foods that a woman eats during zuo yuezi are designed to be rich in iron to rebuild blood, protein to repair tissues and support hormones, fatty acids to enrich the breast milk, vitamins and antioxidants to speed tissue healing, and therapeutic herbs and spices to counter inflammation or boost milk flow, if needed. 

I don’t expect the modern woman to consume 10 eggs a day to boost the cholesterol in her breast milk to support her baby’s growing brain or to eat piles of pig’s kidneys to build her own kidney “yang” so I extracted the fundamentals from the traditions— the parts of the dishes that capture the essence of the approach—to create simple, tasty recipes that are accessible for every new mother.

Q: What are your top 3 favorite recipes for nursing mamas?

A: Oxtail Stew, Seaweed Soup and Oats, Ginger & Cinnamon Tea. CLICK HERE to try these recipes for yourself to promote healing and healthy breastfeeding!

Q: Breastfeeding is a topic that is often filled with emotion and also judgement (both towards ourselves and others). How can we as mamas navigate these feelings in a healthy way?

A: Just as every woman will have a unique pregnancy and birth experience, every new mother will have a unique relationship to breastfeeding. You may decide to breastfeed and find that it’s an easy experience, you may decide to breastfeed and find that it is challenging, or you may make the choice to bottle feed or supplement your supply with milk from another mother. I believe that the most important thing is for a woman to listen to what is right for her body and her baby. She knows best! And whatever route you choose, always remember that you are part of a global web of women united by a common postpartum experience. Every new mother (or mother again) is experiencing transition and healing on a profound level. You are not alone.

Q: In this unprecedented time many mamas are entering into their postpartum journeys without the in-person help of family or friends. What are some ways we can provide them with meaningful support from afar?

A: I feel deeply for all of the mothers that are isolated from family and friends. This is not an easy time! But as I noted in my response above, by stepping through the gateway into motherhood you are joining a global community of women who are embarking on a similar journey. You are also tapping into an ancient, primal web of female empowerment—women since the beginning of time have been navigating the same experiences that you are having right now. That said, today we are also fortunate to have technological support that allows us to stay connected even while far apart. Though a FaceTime chat is not a substitute for someone holding your baby, making time to connect with loved ones is an essential part of the first forty days. Reaching out to a trusted friend or family member (someone who can hold your feelings without judgement or unsolicited advice) will help you feel held and supported. Remember, it’s ok to say that things are hard right now!