By Steph Zabel
Herbalist, Ethnobotanist & Educator
I have been meaning to write this article for a very long time… for a year, in fact! Ever since going through the powerful thresholds of pregnancy and birth I’ve wanted to share a few of the lovely herbs that I worked with to help me feel more comfortable, nourished and balanced during such a transformational time. Now that we are coming up to the 1st birthday of my beautiful daughter I feel it is time to finally put down in words some of the supports that worked for me personally.
Because the first trimester can be a delicate time I don’t recommend using many herbs, especially herbs that you’ve never had before. Stick to gentle, nutritive, food-grade plants.
Morning sickness and fatigue tend to be the main issues that most women deal with. My own morning sickness wasn’t too severe, but it was uncomfortable from time to time (and it wasn’t always in the morning). Making sure that I had plenty of good food in my body — and not going for long periods of time without eating — helped immensely. Also, getting enough protein and fat was important so that my blood sugar levels stayed stable.
Herb-wise I used gentle chamomile, peppermint and/or ginger teas to help with the queasy-ness. Ginger chews are also nice if you can’t make tea and need something right away.
Interestingly enough, the most helpful herb for me during this time of nausea was milk thistle, even though it is not particularly well known for this use. It is, however, famous for its wonderful supportive and gentle detoxifying action on the liver. Since the liver has extra work to do during pregnancy because of all the extra hormones in the body it makes sense that this plant would have a beneficial action. I used the ground up seeds and sprinkled them on my food — about 1 tablespoon or so per day, or as needed. I felt that this was an indispensable herb for me in this phase.
I also drank some rosehip tea from time to time as well as nettles, both of which are gentle herbs akin to food. The supplements I took during this trimester — and throughout my pregnancy — included magnesium, fermented cod liver oil and probiotics.
At this point in my pregnancy I felt more comfortable using a wider range of herbs. I sipped on overnight-steeped nettle tea quite frequently, as well as oat straw, lemon balm, rose, hawthorn and chamomile teas. I also began taking raspberry leaf on a frequent basis.
Raspberry leaf is a beloved ally for the childbearing years. You may read some sources that say it is safe to use throughout pregnancy, and you may read some that say it should only be used in the 2nd trimester and beyond. I am in the latter group because I found that when I drank a cup of raspberry leaf in my first trimester it made me feel a little crampy, which of course you want to avoid. So I held off on the RL until I was well into my second trimester. I upped my intake of it in the third trimester — a few cups per week — and tried to drink even more of it in my last final weeks.
You can read more about raspberry leaf and all of its wonderful benefits here. Briefly I’ll say that it is known as a partus preparator, meaning it prepares the uterus for labor. The tea contains an alkaloid called fragrine that helps to strengthen the muscle of the uterus and is thought to promote a quicker, easier labor.
Toward the end of my pregnancy I increased the amount of raspberry leaf I was consuming and tried to drink a quart of the tea every 2-3 days. At this point I also compiled my herbal birth and postpartum kit, which included herbs that I wanted to have on hand during labor and for recovery. Here’s what I included… (Read on to see what I actually ended up using…)
HERBAL BIRTH & RECOVERY KIT:
Raspberry Leaf tea and/or ice cubes: to aid in strengthening contractions
Labor Aid: a beverage that supplies electrolytes and improves hydration during labor (my blend included water with apple cider vinegar, lemon, liquid magnesium, sea salt, maple syrup and flower essences)
Chamomile, Motherwort and Passionflower tinctures: for tension and anxiety (for both the mother and father-to-be)
Yarrow tincture: for excess bleeding postpartum
Crampbark tincture: for afterpains and cramping postpartum
Homeopathic Arnica 30C: to reduce soreness, swelling and pain postpartum
Fennel seed & Fenugreek seed: to increase milk production
Calendula, St. John's Wort & Lavender oil: to massage onto a sore back, or painful areas
Herbal Sitz Bath blend (including comfrey, calendula, rose and lavender): for hip baths and to speed the healing of sore or torn tissues
Mugwort & Rose infused body oil: mugwort is traditionally known as an herb of protection for laboring mothers and is helpful in transitions
SCENTS / AROMATHERAPY:
Mugwort smudge: the traditional herb of childbirth; stimulating and pain-relieving
Palo Santo bark: a grounding, sweet, and relaxing scent
Essential Oils of Lavender, Clary Sage and Chamomile: to relax and relieve tension
Rose Water: to spritz throughout the room for its calming properties
"Centered Birth" essence (from Green Hope Farm): to take throughout labor in beverages or put into bath water
Five Flower Formula: akin to Rescue Remedy; useful during intense times and good to have on hand for the laboring mother or stressed father!
WHAT I REALLY USED:
Honestly, I think I was a little over-prepared with this kit and ended up not using a lot of these items. Mostly that was because my labor came on so fast and furious and I quickly went to that place where you can’t speak or think straight.
The total time of my labor — including early labor and active labor through to the birth — was just 8.5 hours, which is quite fast for a first-time mom. Perhaps all the raspberry leaf tea I had been drinking helped to speed things along, but it’s hard to know for certain since I have nothing to compare it to.
A lot of the herbs in my kit would have been helpful if I had a really long, drawn out labor and needed more of a physical or mental boost.
What I ended up relying on during labor was the Labor Aid drink (which tasted so good!), raspberry leaf tea, and the flower essences (which I included in my beverages and also put in the bath at one point).
Soon after giving birth I also drank a bunch of raspberry leaf tea with a couple dropperfuls of yarrow tincture to help with the postpartum bleeding. It really seemed to do the trick. I also took the homeopathic Arnica 30C for about 2 weeks afterwards to help with the intense soreness my body experienced. I used herbal sitz baths to help heal tender tissues, and took fenugreek seeds from time to time to support milk production. Finally, I had a bottle of motherwort tincture near me at all times and took a few drops when I was feeling a bit overwhelmed or emotional in those first delicate weeks of new motherhood.
And that’s it!
If you are looking to create your own herbal birth kit choose the herbs and plants that you already love and know well. And keep it simple. In the throes of labor you want to keep one or two comforting items — whether it’s a tea, scent or flower essence — close by and not worry about various bottles to sort through.
I hope this is helpful for some mama’s-to-be out there. These beautiful herbs are here to help and support us— call upon them when you need help!
Steph Zabel, MSc, is an herbalist and botanical educator who helps urban dwellers connect with the plant world. She teaches seasonally-oriented herbal classes that focus on local plants, herbal medicine-making techniques, and plant identification. She is also the creator of Herbstalk, Boston’s community herbal conference. Learn more about her work at: www.flowerfolkherbs.com and www.herbstalk.org.
This blog series — Herbs and Botanicals — is for general health information only. This Web site is not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of any health condition or problem. Users of this Web site should not rely on information provided on this Web site for their own health problems. Any questions regarding your own health should be addressed to your own physician or other healthcare provider.