When I became pregnant, here was a unique opportunity to use herbs during pregnancy, and employ my skills to strengthen, heal, and nourish not only myself but also my newborn child.
By Karin Kliewer
When I first became pregnant, I was elated! My journey to motherhood had begun. Our daughter arrived exactly one week before her due date, at home, into the waiting arms of her father. Labor had gone quickly, and I gave birth naturally without any medications or other interventions. Watching my newborn baby wiggle her way up my bare belly to instinctively start nursing at my breast, I knew firsthand what a miracle birthing and mothering truly is.
I attributed my smooth pregnancy and speedy labor to several factors. About a year earlier, I had reduced my busy work schedule down to part-time, which allowed more time to care for myself and to reconnect with my husband. I nurtured myself with whole organic foods, regular yoga, long daily walks, plenty of rest, affirmative birthing stories, and supportive loving people. I read Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery, and La Leche League’s The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. My husband made notes from Penny Simkin’s The Birth Partner and taped them to our fridge. We discussed the benefits of water births, learned about attachment parenting and family bed sharing, purchased cloth diapers and a sling, and prepared ourselves for what we knew would be a transformative experience. I also turned to what felt familiar and comforting to me – herbs.
For the previous decade, I had been studying and practicing herbal healing. I had completed certification as a master herbalist, and apprenticed with an herb farm to learn about growing, drying, processing, and wild crafting medicinal herbs. I had many of these useful plants growing in my own garden, close at hand. Over the years, I had established a small home-based herbal business focusing on natural care for the whole family, and with the help of my sister (a practicing midwife), had developed salves, teas, and oils specific to mama and baby care. During the last trimester of my pregnancy, I finished training as a postpartum doula, and added herbal postpartum care to my repertoire. Although I had shared my herbal knowledge with countless other people, here was a unique opportunity to use these skills to strengthen, heal, and nourish not only myself but also my newborn child.
For centuries, medicinal plants, flowers, and common garden “weeds” have been used to provide gentle, effective care for women during pregnancy and postpartum, and by parents for their children. Women were often trusted keepers of herbal knowledge, working as midwives and healers in their communities. Mothers knew which healing plants could be used for their households, where and when to gather herbs, how to grow and dry them properly, and correct ways to administer them safely. I long to see a return to this common understanding of using healing plants in the home, and have tried to share this knowledge with my community by teaching workshops, sharing seedlings, and offering advice.
You don’t need to be a certified herbalist to work with medicinal plants, and an herbal kitchen need not have complicated tools – measuring cups, a crock-pot or double boiler, a few stainless steel pots, mixing spoons, glass mason jars, and a good kitchen scale will do. However, you do need basic understanding of how to properly identify plants, when to harvest and which parts of the plant are usable, how to dry and store them, the correct dosage for your remedies, and which plants are safe during pregnancy and postpartum, or for infants and children.
Properly Identifying Plants
If possible, grow the herbs yourself using organic methods. If you don’t have the space to grow them, buy your plants from reputable organic sources in minimally processed or bulk form. If you are wild-harvesting herbs, take an easy-to-follow plant field guidebook like Newcombes or Peterson’s so you are sure to properly identify the plants. Even better is to start out wild harvesting by accompanying someone who is knowledgeable so you can learn side by side. To not over-harvest, it is advised to pick no more than one-quarter or one-third of a plant. Do not pick in an area that is near a roadway, or which may be chemically sprayed or otherwise contaminated with noxious fumes.
When to Harvest
Herbs should be harvested when they are at their peak, so having basic understanding about their growing cycle is helpful. Knowing whether to use the leaves, flowers, berries, roots, or even bark is also important. Leaves and blossoms are best harvested just before noon, when the volatile oils have reached them and the morning dew has dried, but before they start to wilt from the afternoon heat. Only choose healthy plants, and be careful never to cut the main root when digging herbal roots.
Drying and Storing Herbs
Herbs can generally be used fresh for making all manner of herbal products. For long-term storage, they should be dried, either by air-drying or with a food dehydrator. To air dry, hang bunches of herbs in a well-ventilated, cool room out of direct sunlight. They are ready when they are crisply dried, but still retain a rich color (not brown). Hanging flowering herbs, like lavender or chamomile, covered with a brown paper bag punched with air holes, helps to catch the blossoms that may fall off as they dry. If any herbs develop mold, they were not dried with enough air circulation and should not be used. Herbs that are fully dry can be stored in glass jars in a closed cupboard, or in brown paper bags. If kept properly, they will last for a year or more.
Determining Dosage of Herbal Remedies
Just because something is natural does not mean it is always safe to use, or right for every situation. Though many herbs are gentle, dosage – to be effective yet safe – is important. For example, red raspberry leaf, though generally considered a wonderful herb to use during pregnancy, for toning the uterus in preparation for childbirth and providing a rich source of calcium and minerals, may be advised in moderation if you have a history of short labor. Books such as The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual, by James Green, give excellent detailed description on making remedies and assessing proper dosage.
It is always wise to consult with your midwife or qualified health practitioner if you are considering taking herbal remedies during pregnancy. There are many wonderful tonic herbs that can aid everything from morning sickness, to increasing milk supply, to combating postpartum blues. However, there is also a lengthy list of plants that should be used with caution or avoided during pregnancy. For example, strong labor-inducing herbs, like black or blue cohosh, should not be used until the final stage of pregnancy and again under consultation with your midwife.
When making products like salves or massage oils for your infant/child, always use the best quality, organic and purest ingredients you can afford (e.g. pure olive, sweet almond oil, apricot oil, cocoa butter, pure beeswax). Use only pure essential oils (or even no essential oils), as fragrance oils are synthetic and may cause allergic reactions when used on sensitive skin.
Advantages of Using Herbs
Having knowledge of a handful of simple herbal remedies during pregnancy, postpartum and for baby care can be an empowering experience for mothers and other caregivers. Here are six reasons why:
1) Connecting with your new baby: Preparing gentle healing products in advance of your baby’s birth, such as diaper rash salves or baby massage oils, can be a special way to connect with your baby while she/he is still in utero. While preparing these gentle remedies, talk with your unborn child explaining how you will welcome, nurture, and care for her/him.
2) Feeling prepared for labor, postpartum and baby care: Herbal products can be prepared in advance for use during labor and birth. Talk with your partner and midwife, and write your ideas into your birth plan so that your wishes for using healing herbs are not forgotten when the time comes. For example, herbal spritzers made with uplifting pure essential oils like sweet orange or grapefruit can help to generate positive energy in the birthing room and restart stalled labor. Herbal sitz bath blends for healing stitches or sore bottoms can be made by mixing comfrey, yarrow, calendula, and lavender. Preparing these various herbal products can be a way for you to discuss your needs and desires about medical interventions and infant care with your partner and midwife, and feel more prepared to take control of your labor, birth, and post-partum care.
3) Stretching your dollar: There are so many mama and baby products available for sale these days that it’s sometimes hard to know where to start. However, good quality organic herbal products that are effective are not cheap and, depending where they are from, may come with additional costs for shipping or packaging. If you are a mother on a tight budget, yet want the best organic care for your children, preparing your own herbal remedies (just like growing your own food) can save substantial money. Follow simple recipes, in books such as The Family Herbal by Rosemary Gladstar, Natural Pregnancy by Aviva Jill Romm, or Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year by Susun S. Weed, which offer clear step-by-step instruction and use familiar herbs you may already be growing in your own garden.
For example, lavender, calendula, chamomile, fennel, catnip, lemon balm, peppermint, and yarrow are excellent multi-purpose healing plants for mom and/or baby that are easy to start with. Packaging for your homemade herbal products does not need to be fancy or expensive – use recycled glass jars for salves, paper lunch bags to store loose-leaf herb blends, or repurposed amber bottles that are often available from naturopathic clinics. Store your products in a cool, dry, dark location (such as a cupboard) and they will last for many years.
4) Involving older siblings: Creating your own herbal products at home offers the perfect opportunity for an older sibling to get involved. There are plenty of tasks that children of all ages can help with: harvesting herbs from the garden; tying them into bunches to dry; measuring, weighing, and stirring in other ingredients; or designing special homemade labels for the bottles. While working side by side, you can talk with your older child about his/her feelings toward the new baby and allow an early bond to form with the new baby through this handmade herbal gift.
5) Building confidence as a new parent: We all want the best for our children and when we make our own herbal healing remedies and know how to administer them, we can feel prepared to quickly take charge when care is needed for minor ailments and illnesses. During the process of researching recipes and creating herbal products, you will learn when and how to use herbs effectively. With your herbal medicine cabinet well stocked with items like calendula salve for diaper rashes, arnica for bumps and bruises, fennel tea for colic, massage oils for cradle cap, sage cough syrup for sore throats, and herbal baths to ease congestion, you will know that your family is getting the best care possible. And by using herbs in a day-to-day practice, you will be passing on this valuable knowledge to your children.
6) Sharing knowledge with others: When learning about using healing herbs during pregnancy, remember that you really only need to know a few plants well – many herbs are versatile and have multiple uses. Build a relationship with these plants by using them in your daily routines, and tending them in your own garden. Try out the following easy recipes for a diaper salve, sleep tea, and herbal sitz bath, and start building your collection of simple effective herbal remedies. As you become more confident in working with herbs, you will find plenty of opportunity to share your skills and pass the empowering knowledge of herbal healing on to other households.
Using herbs during pregnancy is a simple, natural way to use natural remedies in your and your child’s lives.
Karin Kliewer is an herbalist and postpartum doula who operates a small natural soap and herbal business called Homestead Herbals. She lives with her husband Greg and daughter Maya at Little City Farm, an urban homestead and eco Bed & Breakfast in Kitchener, Ontario. Visit her at www.littlecityfarm.ca and www.homesteadherbal.etsy.com. This article was published in Natural Life Magazine.