All around the world, there is a custom of binding the hips and/or the belly for the first few weeks after birth.
It makes sense when you think about the changes the body undergoes. During pregnancy, the body adapts to accommodate the growing baby: the pelvis tilts and widens, the spine curvature increases, the abdomen stretches to accommodate the growing uterus, which in turn also pushes all the internal abdominal organs up. During the birth the pelvis opens. Then after the birth all of this has to happen in reverse. In particular, as the uterus shrinks back to its pre-pregnancy size, and the abdominal organs descend back into place.
New mothers are also open physically, emotionally and spiritually, and therefore the wrapping is part of the nurturing support to bring them back to their centre. On a simple physical level wrapping provides support to unstable joints and muscles. It also provides comfort and warmth. On an emotional level it brings us back to our bodies and provides a sense of being contained. On a spiritual level it feels containing and helps us come back to ourselves.
An example which illustrates this beautifully is the story of Rowena Hazell who gave birth to triplets vaginally. She found that she couldn’t breathe properly after the birth: ” As I tried to get back out of the pool, I had a weird sensation of not being able to breathe, as if all my body was suddenly too heavy. That was odd. On the postnatal ward I couldn’t sit up or stand for more than five minutes without finding breathing difficult. I was having to be wheeled across to NICU in a wheelchair because I couldn’t walk far. The midwives didn’t know why, didn’t take it seriously, and looked at me quite oddly when I said I needed to use a wheelchair. One of the other mums I met had brought a corset in, because she said that she had had severe diastasis recti before. This is when the stomach muscles have separated so much that for a while after birth they simply don’t hold your organs properly in the right place. The mum described it to me as your diaphragm not holding everything in, so it falls out of the bottom of your tummy. This was exactly what it felt like was happening to me! The midwives on the ward didn’t seem to have heard of this, but they did send a physio to see me. The physio made a corset out of a double layer of their largest Tubigrip, and immediately I could breathe, sit up, and walk again with ease”. (you can read her birth story here)
Postnatal binding used to be part of Western culture too. Whilst doing the research for my book, Why postnatal recovery matters, I found a UK midwifery book from the beginning of the 20th century (An introduction to midwifery”, Donald, 1915) which says: “The binder should consist of a piece of stout calico, or other strong material, about 18 inches wide and 4 feet long. When applied, the lower border should reach a hand’s breadth below the widest part of the hips and should be drawn tightly and fastened securely with a safety pin or long straight pin, so that it may not work up above the hips. The middle part of the binder must be made sufficiently tight to give a sense of support, but the upper border should be rather lose as to not interfere with the patient’s respiration. The binder is used merely to give external support to the loose abdominal wall.”
In the western world we abandoned the practice of binding, it fell out of fashion somehow. Sadly this means that it is now seen as an old wife’s tale. Midwife Siobhan Taylor tells me that when she gave birth in the 1980s, her grandmother told her to wrap her belly, but that everyone else dismissed it as old fashioned and unnecessary. I fell prey to this belief myself, before I discovered the stories and research that showed me how compelling this practice is.
In the book Le mois d’or, medical doctor and yoga teacher Bernadette de Gasquet explains the importance of closing the pelvis, and quotes the dissertation of a French midwife who chose to study the subject. I obtained a copy the dissertation, and as far as I’m aware this is the only scientific study of postpartum binding that exists. The author, Juliette Danis, used a simple binding around the pelvis, applied the day after the birth for an hour. She used a set of written and visual questionnaires to evaluate its effect on pain in the pelvic area on a group of 160 women (80 receiving the wrapping and 80 controls). 64% of women described an improvement in their pelvic and perineal pain after the treatment. 79 out of 80 of the women who received the binding said they would recommend it. The author concludes that the care given to the women after the birth using massages or wrapping has a positive effect both physically and psychically, and that it symbolically helps to redraw the contours of the body. She concludes her dissertation saying that midwives should suggest the wearing of pelvic belts for 21 days after birth as recommended by traditional societies.
I have also found evidence of the usage of pelvic belt in ancient Greece, via French ancient Greece historian Odile Tresch.
I see postpartum wrapping as a source of comfort, support and warmth. Done in accordance with the mother’s comfort and preferences, it can feel very good indeed.
This matches my experience of giving closing the bones massages to new mothers: the binding provides much needed nurturing and relaxation. The purpose of the binding is one of wellbeing and nurturing rather than to help new mothers look slimmer. The focus is on healing and comfort. It is part of a process which put the new mother at the centre of receiving loving support, and of postpartum attention to be focused on the new mother and her well-being, rather than on the baby. I talk about it at length in my book Why Postnatal Recovery Matters. Postpartum wrapping is a source of comfort, support and warmth. Done right, in accordance with the mother’s preferences, it can feel very good indeed.
How do you wrap?
I want to demystify the process and show you that it is simple and something that doesn’t require expert knowledge, and that you can do yourself. I also want to show you why it isn’t a one size fits all process, and that there isn’t a kind of binding that is better than the others. For example, one kind of binding that seems to be especially popular is an Indonesian type of binding called Bengkung belly binding. Bengkung is sometimes perceived as ‘the’ binding to aspire for. However, as I have done in my book, I want to encourage people to move away from the idea that one type of binding is ‘right’, or better than the others. Choosing a method of binding is like choosing a pair of jeans: you cannot be prescriptive about what fits one person, and you may have to try before you buy. It needs to fit with your lifestyle, and it needs to feel good and comfortable for you as a unique person with a unique body and needs.
I used to believe that soft fabric was best, until I realised that it didn’t suit everybody. I supported a new mother of twins who was already used to carrying her first child in a woven wrap, therefore already experienced in manipulating fabric. She asked me to show her how to wrap her belly post birth using a rebozo. However, regardless how much we tried, she just couldn’t get it tight enough by herself. She loved one of my velcro wraps, however, so she ordered one.
We need to remember that many traditional binding methods are usually done by someone else for you. Since few of us have the luxury to have someone come wrap us every day at home after birth, it makes sense that we learn techniques we can use on our own.
What can you use?
There is a plethora of tools to use-from simple pieces of cloth, scarves, rebozos, pashmina, babywearing wraps (both stretchy and woven ones) and more. There are also many different velcro belts and girdles, and other simple tools to use, like supportive underwear and clothing.
I am going to list a collection of types of wrapping that I have tried. You cannot go wrong if you start with what appeals to you more and try that first. You can wrap your abdomen or hips by using a scarf (such as a rebozo, a pashmina, of any scarf you happen to have that does the job). You wrap the fabric around you and either twisting and tucking the fabric, or twisting and knotting it, depending on how much tension you prefer, how long your scarf is, and what feels good. I show one way of doing it in the video below.
With a long enough cloth, you can wrap your belly, twist at the back, then wrap your hips and tie a knot at the front, wrapping your hips as well as your belly. If you’d like to wrap with a Mexican rebozo, I have some in my online shop. You can also use a babywearing wrap to wrap your belly and hips after the birth.
I have had Womb belts specially woven for me by a rebozo supplier, based on the design of the traditional Colombian Chumbe belt that my friend Laura Leongomez introduced me to. It feels incredibly supportive and my postpartum clients love it too. You can see me demoing it in the video below. and Laura and I did a long video about pelvis wrapping where we talk about this belt. which you can watch here.
With a very long, narrow cloth (about 15cm wide and 7 m long), you can do the Bengkung style binding, which goes from the hips to the ribs. Here is a video tutorial for it. If you like the idea of the Indonesian belly binding but not the process of wrapping a long cloth around you, there are Dutch postpartum girdles, called sluitlakens, some of which look uncannily like the Indonesian binding. Australian brand Unina has created a Velcro wrap (pictured on the left) which reproduces the effect of the Benkung binding, and which is very easy to use and adjust, and is very pretty.
If you prefer something a bit more structured, there are many velcro belts and girdles. From what I have experienced, you really get what you pay for: cheap ones are often made of scratchy and/or uncomfortable material. Also a good postpartum belt won’t be too tight at the top, supporting the lower abdomen and pelvis without adding pressure to the pelvic floor. The easiest and comfiest belts also have a double velcro system that allows you to tighten the belt/girdle effortlessly (an important point when one has weak core muscles).
There are two brands I really like and recommend for pelvic and or pelvic/abdominal support: For pelvic support only : The sacroiliac pelvic belt from Belly Bands, or the Serola sacroiliac belt. For both pelvic and abdominal support : the pregnancy and caesarean 3 in 1 belly band from Belly Band, which can be used for pregnancy support, postpartum support, and post caesarean too. This is a truly amazing product which has been designed especially with mothers in mind. It is extremely comfy and easy to use, and its standard size fits from a size 6 to 16 (they have smaller and bigger sizes too).
You can see me demonstrate this velcro belt as well as rebozo wrapping in the video below
Talking about caesarean, I was surprised about the post caesarean binding myself, as I didn’t know it was a thing. When my friend Kate had her baby by caesarean in Bangkok, they bound her abdomen the next day. She says she healed much better than when she had her next child in Norway, were there was no binding. I found a published paper which shows that binding post caesarean reduces pain. The Belly Band caesarean wrap has a video explaining how you can use it in a hospital setting.
There are a couple of gentle support options available to you if you’d rather not use a scarf or a wrap: You could use a belly band like a Haramaki. A Haramaki is a Japanese belly warmer. It’s like a boob tube for your waist. Or you could buy a belly band such as the ones that some people use during pregnancy. H&M sells a pack of three.
You could try high waisted postpartum support underwear, and there are also some brands that offer postpartum support shorts or leggings. Just make sure you don’t use something too tight to avoid putting pressure on your pelvic floor. If you used maternity leggings, they might still work to provide some gentle support after the birth too. H&M has a pair which costs under £10.
How to choose the right way to wrap/bind for you?
If you can, try before you buy. With online items, you can try and return items if needed. Only you can tell whether it is comfortable and right for you, so it’s worth trying a couple of options to see which you find easiest to use and most comfy. Some women prefer using a soft piece of cloth, and some women get on better with a velcro belt.
How long to wear it for?
Use it like a treatment ie not 24/7, see how it makes you feel, and probably not any longer than for the first 4 to 6 weeks postpartum.
PS: I have been working with wraps, rebozos, shawls and scarves for several years now and I see them as something that has a lot of use beyond the childbearing years. When it comes to wrapping for example, I now see my period as a mini postpartum time with similar needs, and I find that wrapping my hips or my abdomen or both during this time is extremely comforting. Try it and tell me what you think.
If you feel drawn to learning more, my book Why postnatal recovery matters has a chapter on postpartum bodywork. I have an online course dedicated to The Art and Science of Postpartum wrapping. I also offer a rebozo online course , a closing the bones rebozo massage online course. I also sell handmade Mexican rebozos and womb belts in my online shop.