Inside The Billion Dollar Postpartum Wellness Industry

The words ‘New baby’ and ‘rest’ are not natural bedfellows but that may be about to change….A month of massages and nourishing broths

by Cassie Steer |
Published on

Put your feet up, get some sleep, and don’t even think about doing the laundry! For the majority of new mothers in the UK these instructions might pass as an eye-rolling attempt at satire, so far removed are they from most women’s experience of early motherhood. Yet for Asian women, the postpartum ‘golden month’ is traditionally when new mothers are waited on hand and foot and it’s a principle gaining traction in the west with The Global Wellness Institute citing ‘post-partum wellness’ as one of their top trends for 2024.

‘Mothers in the UK are applauded for doing the school run on the day they give birth which is acutely wrong,’ says Psychotherapist and author of ‘Raising A Happier Mother’ and the upcoming ‘The Uncomfortable Truth’, Anna Mathur. ‘As rates of postnatal anxiety, depression and suicide rise I believe the narrative around expectations and care are shifting. It has become glaringly obvious that mothers need more.  More is expected of mothers than ever before, yet we are less resourced in many ways than a generation or two ago.’

Although my uterus remains strictly closed for business after birthing two rambunctious boys, I feel sad that this conversation was nowhere to be seen six years ago. After the traumatic birth of my first child a dearth of mental health care and no family around made those first frenetic months anything but ‘golden’. ‘New parents can often feel there’s a care ‘desert’ once their baby is born as all attention turns to the newborn with little attention paid to new parent’s physical, mental and emotional needs,’ says Claire McCormack who penned the Global Wellness Institute’s report. Behind every adorable newborn thigh roll, there’s a mother often run-ragged both mentally and physically.

But to effect real change there needs to be a cultural shift too. Whilst enforced postpartum confinement feels a tad totalitarian (I think I would have clobbered anyone trying to rob me of my daily croissant crusade) maybe we need to be ordered - in no uncertain terms - to put down that laundry basket for the sake of our collective mental health.

‘Chinese confinement directly challenges the societal expectations imposed on Western women. At a time when mothers are exhausted and perhaps more vulnerable to boundaries being steamrolled, i.e. not having the energy to refuse an insistent relative visits the day after the birth, confinement places socially respected boundaries around the mother to protect her from doing too much too soon. This could also give the mother precious time to bond with her baby and grasp feeding or reduce movement in order to physically recover,’ says Mathur.

Literally translated as ‘sitting a moon cycle,’ Chinese postpartum confinement or ‘zuo yue zi’ is traditionally facilitated by the mother’s own mother or mother-in-law but is often undertaken by confinement nannies and doulas. They will do everything from preparing medicinal herbs and meals  - with a focus on restorative broths and dishes designed to help with milk production - to helping care for the baby, and providing daily massages and body wraps to help the mother recover physically (aka pure bliss).

Trend forecasting agencies such as The Future Laboratory are noting a boom in luxury resorts. See New York’s Boram Postnatal Retreat for proof. In Asia it’s common place for big-name hotels to provide month-long retreats that would quite frankly warrant squeezing a baby out for,  but what does post-natal wellness look like here in the UK?

For Helen Li, 42, a globe-trotting Texan who settled in the UK with her husband ten years ago before starting a family in 2018, it wasn’t quite the five star experience of her friends in Taiwan; ‘My parents are Taiwanese so the idea of confinement post-birth is just something you grow up with but the reality is much easier when you have family to help or the option of a swanky post-partum hotel.’ Li ended up cobbling together her ‘golden month’; ‘You quite literally don’t leave the house so my partner took a hit for the team and would take the baby out for a daily walk whilst I pieced together the rest by using a delivery service for the traditional food and hiring a postnatal doula who would come over daily to help out as well as doing the massages and abdominal binding.’

To many, cost is often the most prohibitive factor with Li noting that traditional Chinese confinement nannies were double the price of the postnatal doula she opted for (Bloomberg recently reported that the market value of post-natal facilities are set to hit $18.8 billion by 2029).

While we haven’t quite reached the level of the $125,000 a month Singapore retreats this side of the pond, there has been a marked shift since Li had her baby 6 years ago; ‘We've had about 30% more enquiries this year and those enquiries are booking much more quickly,’ says Clio Wood, founder of the award-winning &Breathe retreats (‘like an NCT group but with more wine’). ‘With lots of new parents having experienced the difficulties and lack of support during the pandemic they value the idea of self-care in new parenthood even more, now that they have access to it.’

It’s an uptick echoed by postnatal doula Joanna Anderson who offers a ‘Golden Gift’ package inspired by the Chinese ‘Golden Month’; ‘I have seen an increase in clients booking and enquiring about this service, particularly since Covid. I think more honest conversations are taking place about the needs of new mums and the huge benefit post-partum care can have both short and long term.  I think there is a shift happening prioritising support and care rather than just trying to survive.’

And it’s an industry set to grow according to Olivia Houghton, beauty and lead foresight analyst at The Future Laboratory; ‘In the near future, we expect to see more accessible postnatal services in the wellbeing space and hospitality venues from hotels to restaurants creating services specifically for new mothers.’

Confinement months and postnatal retreats aside, perhaps it’s also simply knowing that there is support out there if needed. Whether that’s via the flurry of postpartum mental health apps or the surge in femtech products identified by the Global Wellness Institute, or at the most basic level, feeling ‘seen’; ‘Just having someone acknowledge what you’ve been through makes a huge difference psychologically,’ says Li. ‘You’ve just created and birthed a human being and suffered this immense pain, so you do deserve to be waited on hand and foot.’

If nothing else, it's also an excellent excuse to bin off that laundry basket.

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