Belly Binding Explained: Part One

Birth culture across the globe varies widely despite vaginal birth, last time I checked, occurring in relatively the same fashion. Circumstances may change the duration, success, or pleasantness of delivery, but when all is said and done, a baby comes out only one of two ways. Nonetheless, pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum time period is steeped in tradition and opinions, intermingled with a seemingly small dose of evidence-based, practical science. I just had a discussion with a client whose first birth occurred on the Mexican border where the nurses thought it absurd to feed your baby colostrum. What?!?

In the US, we are in a state of birth flux and shift, stemmed from our access to mass information, some valid and some not so much, some evidence-based and some anecdote-based. Within this flux, new "birthy" things are popping up every day. There used to be 2 doulas in my area 15 years ago; now, I get contacted by an interested doula-to-be almost every week. Let's face it, this area of our culture is EXPLODING! Belly binding is one of those things that is part of the explosion. I hadn't really given a second thought to belly binding until I had a client ask me about it. There is little to no actual evidence for it, and well, I am a factual person. I've said before, numbers speak to me. I'm not sure I could have started my doula journey if it hadn't been for the Cochrane Collaboration publishing very compelling statistics in favor of doulas.

That being said, I have a small obsession with eastern medicine and culture, and belly binding kept coming up as a tried and true eastern tradition that has existed as long as history itself. Perhaps there is something to a tradition that exists across cultures and has stood the test of time. As I said before, the childbearing years are steeped in tradition and opinions. There is much that remains to be tested and proven, but there are always going to be aspects of this time in women's lives that cannot be proven or explained. As I've continued in my doula journey the factual, number-loving part of me has grown to appreciate and value the very real part of the childbearing years that speaks to tradition, ceremony, and the intricacies of the human mind. 

The Anecdotal Support for Belly Binding

I have yet to find a mom who has experienced belly binding and cannot attest to many positive outcomes such as achieving pre-pregnancy weight and size faster, back support, pelvic support, and faster healing. I would argue that there is something else to the ceremony of belly binding, the closing so to speak of a birth experience. I usually can't use this aspect as a "selling" point for belly binding because many American women simply want their figure back, nothing more. Binding is certainly good for that, as well as just making you feel "put back together again". Among other benefits, mothers have stated that they have been able to achieve their pre-pregnancy size in less than a week of belly binding, have experienced a significant decrease in back pain, and were able to close a gap in their abdominal muscles. 

The tradition itself of being rubbed down with warm oil and bound tightly goes beyond a woman's physical recovery. Birth is momentous no matter if it is your 1st birth or 5th, a great experience or terrible one, planned or unexpected. It marks a transition like no other for all involved, but for the mother, the transition is written all over her: mind, spirit, and body. All three things prepare and make space for this knew little being. The abdominal muscles literally separate in order to provide a home for the growing baby. Then, in one relatively short event, a woman gives birth to someone she has grown for several months. After birth, women complain of feeling empty, loose, and out of place. Back pain ensues both from the delivery and the hours upon hours of breastfeeding. Hips ache from the relaxin and looseness of childbirth. I remember weeks after delivering my son being almost angry at the feeling that I just couldn't catch a break, that my body still did not feel like my own. Binding is a practice that tries to circumvent this feeling. The mass produced binders you can buy in one piece are usually thicker and less comfortable than a traditional eastern binder. Once more, they bypass the part of belly binding I have fallen in love with: the doting, pampering part; the part that helps a mother physically as well as mentally close the experience of birth; the part that honors the mother and upholds a feeling of ceremony and rite of passage. 

Why Do I Need a Professional?

I recently bound a mother in the presence of her own mother. As I bound her, we happily chatted about the birth, the baby, and her mother's own birth experiences. As I finished, the new grandmother commented, "It's almost like an art, isn't it?" I am not a crafty person by any stretch of the imagination, but I have to agree with her. Binding a new mother is a craft just like doulaing is a craft, a form of art. You can try to bind yourself and you may achieve some great physical outcomes, though most would benefit from a professional demonstrating the initial binding. However, my point in saying that belly binding is a craft is that when you hire a professional to bind you, you are not just purchasing a product, you are purchasing a service, not just a commodity, but an experience. 

I tell mothers that I prefer to bind within the first week postpartum, not just for physical reasons such as the malleability of muscles and joints that is present only so soon after delivery, but because the mental and spiritual benefits of binding are best achieved within that first week. We are not just sums of our physical forms. The sealing that occurs with belly binding transcends the body just as the experience of giving birth does.

My factual, right-brained self was excited to discover that mothers experience a loss of weight, increased circulation, back pain relief, better posture, abdominal muscle retraction, decreased length of postpartum bleeding, and pelvic floor support and healing. However, a large part of me has grown to treasure the experience of birth, the reverence a mother is due, the thing about it all that is felt but never explained. This same part values the experience of binding and the need in our culture to honor the transition into motherhood with ceremony. For this reason, I have become a believer in something that isn't backed by cold, hard facts...yet. I have seen numerous mothers lose inches from being bound, but I've also witnessed the part of all birth work that can never be quantified: service, care, and honor. 

Read Part Two About the Process of Binding Here 

Photo by Cassie Ringle at newlightbirthphotography.com

Photo by Cassie Ringle at newlightbirthphotography.com