This postpartum closing ritual is a part of traditional midwifery all over the world that is still practised by some midwives and doulas. In Southern America, it is known as “cerrada postparto” (postpartum closing) and in Morocco as Al-Shedd (to close). In English, it is often known as the Postpartum Closing Ceremony or Closing the Bones.
The intention of this old practice is to bring back warmth into the mother’s body, specifically the womb, after having opened up for giving birth. The ritual has many stages and they all have a high emphasis on re-introducing warmth into the body and sealing it so that coldness (sickness, infection or death) may not enter.
Traditionally, mothers are told to not walk on cold floors, cover their heads, chests and backs to protect themselves as well as instructed to only consume food and drink that is warming in nature.
In Morocco, there is a saying that a new mother’s grave is open for 40 days after the birth because she is seen to be very vulnerable in the weeks immediately after giving birth. In some cultures, it is traditional for the new mother and child to sequester themselves for these first weeks and to be cared for and attended by relatives and close friends.
There are several stages to this postpartum tradition that roughly fall into these categories; welcoming, honouring, nourishing, nurturing, closing and celebrating the new mother.
Many techniques and practices would be used several months prior to the birth in preparation, as well as during the birth and for the first 40 days postpartum. On the 41st day after childbirth, the mother’s “return” to her everyday life would typically be celebrated with a full closing ceremony.
The Postpartum Closing Ceremony is a sacred, ancient and traditional ritual, which is performed with the use of traditional birthing cloths – yes, the kind that we’ve been using to haul our kids around since forever.
The closing ceremony involves the new mother being lovingly washed, rubbed, massaged, steamed and scrubbed. Her body is wrapped from head to toe in one giant swaddle. Your body feels squeezed, hugged and held and any woman who has experienced it will tell you how good it feels.
This sacred ceremony heals the new mother and helps to close the phase of pregnancy and birth. It is a physical, emotional and spiritual experience that is combined with other nurturing, nourishing and celebratory rituals.
How this traditional postpartum healing ritual made me feel loved and cared for
At the beginning of my pregnancy, I had bought a genuine Ecuadorian rebozo shawl to use during birth and to carry the baby in afterwards. That it was a tool for a massage technique too was simply fascinating to me, having a background in bodywork and sports massage. I delved into learning how to use it as the traditional midwives do.
I found stories about women who had been treated by parteras (traditional South American midwives) when they were having trouble conceiving, while they were pregnant, while they were giving birth, and when they were postpartum, as well as in other times of change and transition in their lives. I watched hours of instructional videos in obscure corners of the web and listened to interviews where parteras discussed their craft.
I practised doing rebozo massage and techniques and experimented with different ways of wrapping to achieve that state of liminality that is so pivotal in the closing ceremony.
My husband was my (very willing) guinea pig through all of this exploration and reported feeling very restored afterwards. This isn’t unexpected, considering that in Morocco this type of bodywork was traditionally used on men during wartime. After a rigorous day, they would need to be ‘closed’ in order to heal and recover before going back to the fighting again.
I wish I could have had it done sooner
I had my first full closing done at around six months after birth. I wish I could have had it done the traditional way — once just hours after the birth and then several times during the fourth trimester.
Of course with a caesarean, the direct massage on the lower abdomen would have been impossible, but gentle sifting and wrapping would have helped me to a more centred state of mind. Oh, well, hindsight is 20/20.
I vividly remember feeling incredibly open and energetically “leaky” after the birth – as if the shape that usually held me together was missing and I was just continually spilling out of myself.
It felt like I didn’t have that usual filter between my thoughts and my mouth, so whenever I spoke I essentially just poured out everything that was in me over whoever was present.
I internally groaned at myself as I frequently listened to the stream of words coming out of my mouth. Shrinking in horror I’d wish for it to stop only to realise that my mouth was still moving and I was still talking…
I remember saying things that I later regretted and wishing that I had someone watching over me until I was myself again.
If I had known about traditional midwifery practices, I would have insisted on having it done right after birth. I think it would have helped me feel like myself faster and lessened the intensity of my confusion.
Closing the bones is healing for women at any stage in life
If you’re going to have a baby or have had one already (recently or ages ago) I cannot recommend closing the bones enough. It may be particularly powerful following birth, because of the state of openness you naturally are in, but it will be a profound experience no matter when you decide to do it.
My birthing experience was traumatic – from the stargazer breach to the postpartum infection and drug sensitivity. I encourage anyone who has had a challenging birth or unexpected turns in their birth journey to find someone to do this for you.
Although anyone can be taught how to do the rebozo massage and closing ceremony – female family members and friends would traditionally have performed it – finding a midwife, doula or other practitioners familiar with the ritual will make a huge difference when you want to experience the whole ceremony. There is nothing like being held and treated by deft, experienced hands.
What makes closing the bones so powerful?
Most cultures around the world have an innate understanding of the vulnerability of a new mother after birth; her need to be cared for and nurtured in order to recover from the pregnancy and childbirth.
In many cultures, the postpartum period is seen as a precarious time rendering the new mother vulnerable to illness. Traditional practices are observed to aid her in recovery and to foster good health in the years to come.
Many traditions include special nourishing foods, a period of confinement, as well as bodywork techniques ranging from massage to binding the stomach with a cloth called belly binding. The purpose of these traditions is to help the new mother regain her energy and strength.
Advances in medicine affect how we see postpartum care
In modern cultures low maternal and infant mortality rates attest to the great strides that we have achieved in health during pregnancy and in childbirth.
However, birthing has become increasingly medicalised, and pregnancy and birth have become conceptualised as pathological processes that require intensive monitoring by a physician or nurse.
The use of medical interventions in childbirth continues to increase. These procedures, such as electronic monitoring of the baby, standardised episiotomies and elective caesareans, reinforce the mother’s role as a patient and can reduce her sense of control over her body.
Men aren’t the only ones feeling out of place at the birth of their own children. This is seen in the slowly growing rates of home births and increased use of doulas at hospital births.
For all our advancements and improvements to the medical side of labour, we have all but ignored the postpartum period. The technology-centred postpartum practices in Western societies don’t usually extend beyond the first few days after birth.
The focus also quickly shifts to the health of the child — especially when there are no postpartum complications with the mother. Even when the mother does experience complications she is quickly deemed to be fine again as soon as the purely physical issues have been dealt with.
As great as it is that we can find a lot of help and support for physical issues, we — as humans — are more than the sum of our bodily ailments. It is beneficial for any woman to actively seek healing for more than just her body.
The rebozo and manta shawls are regulars in the toolkits of traditional South American parteras. The shawls are very versatile; they are used in treatments to aid conception, during pregnancy and birth as well as in postpartum care.
The closing ceremony is a ritual to celebrate changes
The ceremony of closing the bones can be one of the ways to heal after birth — not just the body, but the mind and heart as well. The ceremony can be done months, years or even decades after childbirth. Whenever you do decide to have your bones closed it is sure to be a profound experience.
The treatment can also be used to mark times of transition in a woman’s life, whether or not she has given birth. The first period, marriage, divorce, the beginning and end of a relationship, moving away from home for the first time, transitioning between jobs, when trying to conceive or when you find out you’re pregnant, around menopause — these are just a few examples; your imagination is the limit!
The physical benefits of closing the bones
During pregnancy, the hips expand and become wider to accommodate passing the baby through the birth canal. This gradual process of softening, loosening and widening is not instantly reversed after birth.
Many traditional midwives who practice closing the bones believe that this process is an essential part of postnatal care. Without closing the bones they believe women will suffer from pelvic instability that causes hip issues and energetic leaking. Stimulating and aiding the pelvic area to return to normal after pregnancy and birth can help prevent serious issues with the hips in later years, such as dislocations, replacements, instabilities, walking with a frame etc.
Traditionally the massage that supports closing the bones is given within hours of the birth itself and then another 5–6 times during the first 40 days postpartum. The massage stimulates blood flow which helps to clean, renew, move fluids and hormones, stimulates the immune system and helps tone tissues and muscles. It may also help with milk supply and lochia.
On a physical level, the sifting of the hips with the rebozo shawl and the subsequent massage of the lower abdomen help to loosen the lower vertebrae and release tension. This technique also stimulates the shrinking of the uterus, helps in mobilising the pubic bone and encourages the uterus and bladder back into their correct positions after birth.
The hips support the weight of the spine and the head and are seen as a seat of unresolved emotions and trauma. Traditional parteras, in particular, believe that the closing of the bones helps to release and clear the adrenaline crystals that can accumulate in and around the womb. When the pregnancy or birth has been traumatic, special care is taken to shake the crystals loose afterwards.
The closing of the bones ceremony
The full ceremony to close the bones begins with a warm cup of tea to restore the mother’s energy and balance and to give her an internal “steam bath”.
While the tea is drunk, the mother is given room to talk. The conversation naturally turns to the pregnancy, the birth journey, motherhood and anything related to having a baby when it’s done soon after birth.
However, the mother is free to talk about anything that she wants; everyone else is there to listen and hold the space for her.
The massage itself is performed first with a traditional shawl, known as manta and rebozo in South American practice. The hips are rocked and articulated after which a complex abdominal and pelvic girdle massage is performed with warming oils.
In an extended version of the treatment, the mother is given a full-body massage — both with the shawl and by hand — and this is after she has had a warm water bath or steam bath in a sweat lodge, sauna or hammam.
To finish the treatment her whole body is wrapped and the mother left to rest and relax for a time in this cocoon-like state. Sometimes the treatment is ended with belly binding.
The shawl massage technique is very effective while still gentle. By using the shawl the midwife is able to treat, not only the muscles that she can directly access but deeper muscles, bones, ligaments, joints as well as internal organs that aren’t accessible by a hand massage.
Being held and rocked is deeply relaxing and feels safe on a cellular level. As a baby we are rocked in the womb as our mother walks, after birth we are rocked to sleep in the arms of those who love us, in adulthood and old age we love to be rocked in hammocks and rocking chairs. The rocking connects us to a very primal feeling of being loved and cared for.
The emotional and spiritual benefits of closing the bones
Beyond the physical aspect of the closing the bones ceremony there is a spiritual side that is very powerful. The ceremony provides a safe space for the mother to feel nurtured and cared for. A place where she can fully let go; someone else is taking care of the baby and she has nowhere to be but ‘here’.
It allows her to release emotions associated with her pregnancy, birth and motherhood. Unresolved emotional tension and trauma can be resolved as her energy is drawn back into her creative centre; the womb.
Traditionally the ritual in itself is seen as a calling of the spirit back to the body. The mother is considered to have walked the threshold between two worlds, while carrying another life within her, and opening herself up as a portal for that life to be born into this world.
Throughout pregnancy and birth, the focus is on opening up, expanding and sharing your energy and your body. After birth women can easily feel raw and vulnerable. The intense openness of the birthing experience may leave some women feeling empty and “leaking”.
Closing the bones provides a new mother with support in closing herself physically, emotionally and energetically. The closing of the bones ceremony leaves you feeling put back together, sealed, nurtured, safe and cared for.
The practice of closing the bones aids in the transformation that you have begun, helps you embrace new aspects of yourself and supports you advancing into a new stage of womanhood — whether that means you are now a mother of one, a mother of five or not a mother at all.
Closing the bones and the loss of a child
Closing the bones can be especially powerful for women and mothers who are dealing with loss: losing a baby, miscarriage, stillbirth and abortion, or other kinds of loss. Even if the loss was a sibling and not your own, closing the bones can be helpful in embracing your emotions in a safe and supportive environment.
That someone is holding the space for you, looking after your kids and making sure that you don’t have to worry about anything, is an incredibly powerful thing. That you are rocked and watched over allows your body to recall early memories and sensations of what it felt like to be lovingly cared for as a child. If you lack that experience, closing the bones can help fill that gap.
As the rocking and massage help with relaxing and letting go, they also provide you with an opportunity to discover things you didn’t even realise you were holding on to. This state of deep relaxation allows for things to surface that you have suppressed or long forgotten. The ceremony provides support for your grief without dismissing how you feel as invalid.
Closing the bones is a very intimate and profound experience
The ceremony itself is a beautiful and powerful thing, overflowing with love and care, and is a wonderful way to start your relationship with your new baby, transition into your new role and celebrate your journey so far. Just like I think most couples would benefit from having a doula at the birth, most women would benefit from having their bones closed.
Closing the bones is focused solely on the mother and everyone participating is there to hold the space for her. Closing the bones is typically done among women but you should bring anyone you want to have there with you.
As I said before, closing the bones can be done at any time in life, with or without birth, to balance, heal and support women through transitions in life. It can be a great support to women who are suffering from anxiety, shock, trauma, who feel overwhelmed or out of balance.
In our modern lives with hectic work and life schedules, medicalised birthing processes and an obsession with electronic entertainment, we could all do with slowing down and acknowledging — and even celebrating — the transitions in our lives.
Closing the bones is a deeply nurturing and relaxing bodywork tradition that gave me a sumptuous restorative and loving feeling that I think every woman should experience at least once in her life.