When I was 22, my sister-in-law became pregnant. She was relatively close to me and I ended up taking her to many appointments and had the opportunity to observe her pregnancy as it progressed. I learned so many things from her which prepared me for my own pregnancy a few years later. Everything from cravings, to learning that exercise is very important, then child birth and breastfeeding. It was a great time. I was very interested and took mental notes on everything. I loved it all until the baby was born. The elders in our family pretty much forbade her from leaving the house, or really doing anything significant for 40 days postpartum. I didn't get it. Being a bit rebelious by nature I challenged it every day. I felt like she was being controlled by the elders and didn't have any choice of her own. Later, I did some research and was surprised by what I found.
This practice of a woman not leaving her home and having everything done for her is not only an Indian tradition. Many cultures follow the 40 day rule. Some say the woman is prone to evilness, some say her body is healing, some say the baby has a weak immune system so being indoors for the first 40 days is imperative to allow the baby to build a healthy immune system. In the Indian culture, women are kept indoors and it is suggested they stay in bed for most of the time. There are certain days that they are permitted to take a bath (i think its about 3-4 times within the first 40 days). They are also kept on a very light, easily digested diet. Women aren't allowed to walk around too much, and a midwife comes twice a day and massages the new mom as well from head to toe. Loud music, or reading, or watching tv is also limited, as the woman's body is very sensitive.
To some, this may seem a little crazy, and to others, it may seem like an awesome vacation. I think I am somewhere in between. Though I love my freedom, I do wish there was someone who would have come to massage me every day. I could never do the whole limited bathing thing, especially with all the bleeding during the early days, and lying in bed for 40 days seems incredibly boring. However, in each situation, each of these 'limitations' are highly practical if you think about it. After many years of my own research into the 40 days postpartum, here's my understanding of each of the limitations. The following information is entirely antecdotal, however the answers I received were all consistent.
The Shock After Birth
Giving birth is a huge deal. Your body is put through stress which is unimaginable until you actually push a baby out. And even after, most mothers are amazed and left thinking, "did I REALLY just do that???" The first 40 days after the baby is born, your body is adjusting and reshaping itself. Uterus is shrinking, lots of bleeding for some women, the jaw which was clenched so tightly after birth is trying to relax itself along with the back and neck muscles. Someone even suggested that your body uses so much energy to push a baby out, that it takes 40 days to regain that energy again. There are also mentions of it taking 40 days to regenerate cells in your body. Resting has other benefits. It forces you to spend time with your baby, cuddling, putting all of your attention into caring for your baby, including feeding.
Resting and drinking plenty of fluids will aide in healthy milk production as well. The diet for me for the first few days was lots of oatmeal, toast and milk (LOTS of boiled milk, sometimes with a spoon ful of clarified butter (ghee) in it. My aunt told me it is good for milk production and is a good fat for the baby which he will receive via breastmilk. I also had something called khichree which is a porridge type dish made with rice and lentils, cooked until almost mushy and seasoned with only a little salt and pepper, and sometimes a little celery seed which is known as a detoxificant. I was never given anything spicy and most of the time my food was quite bland. Now when I think back to it, although bland, it felt very nourishing. And it was good for my baby too! I found if I ate sour or spicy foods, my son would have more gas or tummy aches, or was 'colicky', but the days my diet was light, he seemed to be fine. There is also the whole immune system factor. Being in a public place will increase chances of not only the baby catching a virus, but the mother could catch something and then pass it on to her baby.
After being introduced to this whole 40 days of confinement when I was 22, I have since been able to see the reasons why certain precautions are taken in a different way. Although difficult, all of it makes sense to me now. Whether I have the patience for it all is another story.