Postpartum Vaginal Steaming – What’s It All About?
One of the most common reasons and times to vaginal steam is after childbirth, aka postpartum. Having recently gone through my first childbirth, I decided to write about the ins and outs of postpartum steaming. As I started diving deeper, I realized there are tons of questions floating around on this topic and a lot to unpack.
what even is postpartum?
The plain definition of the word just means “after childbirth,” and if you get more specific, it refers to a “period of time” after birth. But what period of time is it referring to? The typical number referred to is three to six weeks–meaning you’re postpartum from the time you birth your child up until about six weeks later. But does that really cover it?
We recently ran a Facebook ad for our steam seat that mentions the 3-6 week number in the description, and we got a comment that really stuck with me. Somebody just responded by saying “a lifetime.” It’s true, anyone who has had a baby will tell you that your body (and your life!) changes… forever. I really think of postpartum more as meaning “after the first baby and for the rest of my life….” That feels like the most accurate way to describe it.
But that’s just my opinion. Wikipedia tells us the postpartum period can be divided up into three stages:
- The acute phase, six to twelve hours after childbirth
- The subacute phase, which lasts two to six weeks
- The delayed phase, which can last up to six months
Ok great, so we’re up to six months now. But right after this in the same article, it says “In the subacute postpartum period, 87% to 94% of women report at least one health problem. Long-term health problems (persisting after the delayed postpartum period) are reported by 31% of women.” So almost one third of all women are still experiencing some kind of post-childbirth issue even after the final “official” phase has ended. How is that not still considered postpartum? It’s still “after childbirth,” isn’t it? If you ask me, there should be a fourth phase, and we could call it the long term phase, which means six months and beyond. It’s also worth noting that every woman and every birth is different, and the various phases of postpartum-hood will therefore also be different for every mother. As I write this, I myself am still very much experiencing lots of changes in my vagina at seven months post birth.
So for the purpose of this blog, let’s be clear: When I say “postpartum,” I mean any time after childbirth up to six months and beyond, and that it varies from woman to woman.
Postpartum STEAMING HISTORY
Did you know that vaginal steaming after childbirth is likely the oldest reason for the practice on record? Traditionally, this would involve squatting over a boiling pot of water with herbs in it–or perhaps even more often, lying down on a bed of plants underneath which hot water would produce steam.
In an extensive study conducted for the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in the early 2000s, researchers examined the traditional herbal vaginal steaming practice known as Bakera in Indonesia. In Bakera, vaginal steaming is used by women to “to feel fresh, clean, and at ease” after childbirth. With the caveats of general safety precautions and some specific contraindications, the study concluded the practice is an “effective and safe method for recuperation after childbirth.” Modern advocates of postpartum steams believe that steaming helps to cleanse leftover material (also known as lochia) from the uterus after the childbirth and bring warmth into the uterus and pelvic floor.
When do you start?
So, how long should you wait after childbirth to start steaming? And how often after that should you continue to steam? The short answer is: it totally depends! You might feel up to steaming as soon as one day after your birth… but it definitely doesn’t have to be that soon, and chances are you might want to wait a bit longer before anything goes near your crotch again. I know I did!
Historically, when exactly the vaginal steam was applied post-childbirth varies from culture to culture. Recommendations range anywhere from one hour to nine days after childbirth, and some cultures even deliver babies in a “steam house” structure designated for vaginal steaming. In the bakera practice in Indonesia, for example, steaming regimens typically begin within 3-14 days after childbirth, continuing for many weeks, anywhere from twice per month up to twice per day. But what does this mean for you?
An important question to consider is: Did you have any sort of injury to your vaginal area during birth? Perineal tearing, for example, is extremely common during vaginal birth. If you had tearing, you probably also had a doctor or midwife stitch it up afterward. This happened to me. While I had an absolutely incredible birth experience with my daughter that I would not trade for the world, I did have some first degree perineal tearing that required a few stitches. If this is the case, you might want to wait before you steam! My stitches were dissolvable, and my midwife advised me not to introduce excessive heat or moisture, as these could interfere with the stitches’ integrity. Remember that steaming with any sort of an open wound is a generally big NO. Having sutures does close up the wounds you get from tearing, but those come with their own kind of tenderness. We’ve heard reports of women steaming with sutures in, but would officially advise against it and really warn anyone considering doing so to proceed with caution and definitely consult your midwife or doctor first. Your stitches need time to heal and you don’t want to disrupt that.
And if you’re at all like me, you’ll feel this to be true too. As much as I love vaginal steaming, I knew right away that my body was not yet ready for practices that encouraged more softening and opening, as steaming does. I personally waited until my stitches dissolved before doing my first postpartum steam. For me this was approximately four weeks after the birth! Yes, you read that right, I waited a full month after childbirth to do my first postpartum vaginal steam. So the bottom line is, there is no need to rush into it. Be cautious if you have any sort of wounding and listen to what your body tells you.
So now you may have a better idea of how to gauge when to start steaming … but maybe the more important question is:
When should you stop?
As I write this, I am seven months postpartum and I feel my steaming practice is becoming even more beneficial as I move into my “long term” postpartum phase. The thing is, like the 31%+ women mentioned above, I’m not feeling totally back to my normal self yet (will I ever really?) even though I’m technically past the six month “delayed phase” threshold. I mean… I still haven’t had a period–did you know that it’s very typical to not menstruate as long as you are breastfeeding?
And speaking of breastfeeding, whose breasts are these anymore, anyway? Half the time, they certainly don’t feel like mine, as my little girl has taken them over! As I wrote a few months back in my four months postpartum blog, reclaiming my body, “for the sake of my family, my work, and most importantly, mySELF” is a process, and that process continues on. Every magical moment that I get the honor of delivering nourishment to my beautiful baby girl is truly a miracle… but being completely subsumed in the mother-food-supply role can be super overwhelming.
Enter vaginal steaming: the postpartum gift that keeps on giving. Every time I partake in the ritual is an opportunity to recenter, do something simple for myself, and be reminded of all that I have to be grateful for. It smells amazing and it feels even better.
I sit. I breathe. I relax. I open. I visualize a holy halo of warm light forming in the center of my womb and emanating a golden warmth outward. The aroma of calendula, rose, mugwort, and yarrow is entrancing and soothing. I picture in my mind’s eye and feel in my body a magical loop of this fragrant steam wafting, on one end, up through the air, into my nose and mouth as I breathe in, then down into my lungs and body, and on the other end gently rising to meet my root chakra. It warms, it comforts. It mothers me. I release the tension that builds up in those daily moments of stress–trying to figure out what my baby needs, simultaneously managing my work as an architect, figuring out steam seat delivery logistics, and being so caught up in my web of thoughts that I’m unable to communicate clearly with my husband….
Here, while I’m steaming, it all drops away. And each time I steam, I remember how important it is to give myself this time. Motherhood doesn’t stop. And as a mother, I am learning, you never stop giving of yourself. My baby comes first, and she is my number one priority. But I need replenishment too… and this is the best way I have found to give that gift to myself. The more moments I commit to tuning in with my body through this practice, the more grounded and whole I feel.
Yes, I think I’ll continue steaming, right up until the next time I get pregnant again. And then after I give birth again… and then as my next cycle returns… and then up through menopause and beyond….. As long as it feels this centering, and as long as the need for self-care is there, why stop?