'A balance of losses and gains': What matters to mums after giving birth

Newborn baby boy resting in mothers arms.
Newborn baby boy resting in mothers arms. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

For most women, the first six weeks of motherhood bring an array of feelings - joy, exhaustion, grief, and love, to name just a few. But while a mix of emotions is all part of welcoming a new addition, what exactly does a positive postnatal period look like?

That's the question a team of researchers from University of Central Lancashire (UK) and the World Health Organisation set out to explore, with the aim of informing future WHO guidelines for women and newborns.

As part of the study, the team looked at research from 15 countries representing the views of more than 800 women without physical or mental health issues. While the postnatal period is the phase of a mother's life immediately following childbirth—the exact duration varies across cultures. The WHO defines the postnatal period as immediately after the baby is born up to six weeks (42 days) after birth. 

The findings, published in PLOS One, highlight what matters to women - and what support they need during such a vulnerable time of their life.

"Our study shows that support during the postnatal phase is an important factor that shapes the entire maternal experience, for both new mothers and their babies," said co-author Kenny Finlayson. "With the right support in place from community, family and healthcare professionals during this crucial period, women around the world can feel more confident and adjust to the significant changes that come with motherhood."

When they analysed previous studies of first-hand accounts of motherhood, the authors were able define a positive postnatal period as one in which:

  • women adapt to their new identity and develop confidence as a mother, with emotional and psychological support from their community, and caregivers
  • adjust to changes in their close relationships
  • navigate ordinary physical and emotional challenges
  • experience personal growth as they adjust to motherhood and parenting in their own cultural context. 

"The postnatal phase is a period of significant transition characterised by changes in self-identity, the redefinition of relationships, opportunities for personal growth, and alterations to sexual behaviour as women adjust to the 'new normal' within their own cultural context," the authors write of their findings.

The team also determined that for the transition to motherhood to be a positive experience, women need to balance both "losses and gains".

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"Losses encompass changed (often negative) body image, reduced capacity to be in control of one's time and sleep, changes to previous sexual and romantic relationships with partners, and a loss of identity as an individual with inherent value (separate from the baby)," the authors write.

"Gains include intense feelings of joy and love for their new baby, and a new sense of triumph and self-esteem in overcoming the difficulties and stresses of pregnancy, birth, and the postnatal period, as well as the discovery of a previously unanticipated capacity to persevere, to love, to be selfless, to be compassionate and, for many, to feel more complete in their new integrated identity of 'woman as mother'.

Of course, that's easier said than done - and why services for women after birth are so important too. "Effective, culturally appropriate family, community and professional support and activities can help women to overcome the exhaustion, and physical, emotional and psychological stress of the early postnatal period," the team conclude.

Adds co-author "Dr Mercedes Bonet Semenas, "Understanding what women want in the postnatal period will contribute significantly to ensuring that future WHO guidelines include both clinical and non-clinical recommendations to ensure a positive postnatal experience for both women and newborns."