The Herbal Education of Midwives
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 123, Autumn 2017.
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Educating midwives has been my practice and my pleasure for the past 40 years. I began teaching midwives via sponsored national workshops in the seventies, which led to my book Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year. (Still in print, 30 years later.)
For thousands of years, around the world, it has been considered vitally important that midwives be competent in the use of herbs—not just in labor and delivery, but for pre- and postpartum care as well. Herbs are people’s medicine, just as midwifery is women’s medicine. To fully support their clients’ health throughout gestation, birth and nursing, midwives need to know about herbs. Not a lot; in fact, what most midwives need to know can be learned in a few hours.
Herbs are the green blessings that grow out our back doors. Herbs are “women’s business,” not big business, not green drugs. What you learn about herbs today will be valid forever. What I taught about herbs 40 years ago, I am still teaching today. The plants don’t change their tunes from century to century or place to place. Herbal knowledge is eternal knowledge.
Wise use of herbs is especially important during pregnancy and lactation. Using herbs instead of drugs to allay problems protects both mom and fetus from harm. Even more importantly, the abundant nutrition available from select herbs—like stinging nettle, oatstraw, comfrey leaf and red clover blossoms—has a much more profound influence on maternal health than any supplement and can make the difference between an easy birth and a complicated one.
Herbal medicine is simple, safe and effective at all times in a woman’s life, including childbearing. Herbal medicine is also complicated and contradictory. Here are the things a midwife most needs to know about herbal medicine:
Although many remedies carry a warning against use by pregnant or lactating women, the vast majority of herbs are far safer to use during gestation and lactation than any drug.
The safest herbal remedies are water-based. Teas and nourishing herbal infusions promote abundant health and can be used freely. They are easy to make from dried herb which may be bought or harvested.
Herbs in capsules, like drugs, can have severe side-effects and, thus, I avoid them entirely.
Herbal tinctures or extracts are useful to solve specific problems and rarely have unwanted side effects unless used too lavishly or for too long. They are easy to make and widely available for sale.
Herbal honeys and vinegars add extra nutrition and are safe to use in any quantity. They are easy and fun to make, but generally not for sale.
Learning to use a few herbs well is far better than learning how to use many herbs.
And here they are: Those few herbs, the 14 herbs that I believe will do the most for you, your moms and your babes.
Nourishing herbal infusions provide abundant amounts of all vitamins and minerals, as well as lots of plant protein, to feed mom, fetus, babe and milk supply. They are appropriate before, during and after the birth.
Nettle infusion provides plentiful amounts of nutrients, including vitamin K, and helps prevent gestational dia-betes.
Comfrey leaf infusion is also exceptionally rich in nutrients. Regular use builds strong, flexible tissues that are less likely to tear during birth or be abraded during nursing.
Oatstraw infusion provides high-level nutrition to the nervous system, the bones, the heart and the blood vessels.
Red clover blossoms (avoid using the leaves) supply protein and plant sterols, which the body can use to moderate and organize hormones.
To make a nourishing herbal infusion, simply weigh out one ounce of dried herb and put it in a quart canning jar. (Or use two ounces in a half-gallon canning jar.) Fill the jar to the top with boiling water, lid tightly and steep for 4–10 hours. Strain and refrigerate the liquid. The usual amount used is 1–3 quarts daily.
Herbal teas do not supply much nutrition, but they are useful at-home adjuncts to mom’s good health, especially if they replace soda pop, coffee and tea in the daily diet. Honey is an excellent addition to any herbal tea but should never be given to a child under a year old.
Raspberry leaf tea, renowned for toning the uterus, is safe any time during gestation, from beginning to end, as its constituents are quite dilute in tea form.
Ginger tea, especially that made by boiling fresh ginger (powder will do in a pinch), warms the entire belly.
Lemon balm, like most mints, calms the spirit and relieves pain in the gut and the uterus.
To make an herbal tea, put a teaspoon of fresh or dried herb in a teacup, or a tablespoon in a teapot. Add boiling water. Steep 3–5 minutes. Strain. Add honey, lemon or milk to taste. Sip. Enjoy as many times a day as desired.
Herbal infused oils and ointments are safe for use by pregnant and lactating women. Essential oils, and oint-ments and other products made with essential oils, are not safe for anyone.
Plantain oil is a new mother’s ally. It may have a funky smell, but there is nothing better to relieve diaper rash, chapped nipples, itchy places, baby scratches and the assorted insults of infancy.
St. John’s/Joan’s wort oil is a sunny helper. I, and many of my students, rely on it as our primary sunscreen. A small amount rubbed into any sore, knotted muscle, especially in the back, brings instant relief from pain.
To make an herbal-infused oil, pick plants on a sunny, dry day. Cut fine and pack moderately tightly into a jar. Add pure olive oil or warmed coconut oil (or oil of your choice) to completely cover the plant material. Lid tightly and place in a bowl or saucer to catch the inevitable drips. Place label on the top of the jar. You can also buy ready-made oils and ointments, but beware of those with essential oils.
Herbal tinctures, or extracts, are ready-to-use herbal remedies. They are more drug-like and do not supply nutrients. While some tinctures can be taken daily, most are used only as needed. They are easy to take along to births, and keep some at the prenatal clinic and well-baby clinic.
Motherwort tincture (of the fresh plant in flower) is every woman’s friend. Even small doses relieve uterine cramps swiftly. Motherwort strengthens the heart, figuratively and literally. Dropperful doses dependably lower blood pressure and bring a deep, peaceful calm to the mind and spirit.
Shepherd’s purse tincture (of the fresh plant in flower) is a “must-have” in the birth kit. A dropperful under the tongue stops postpartum hemorrhage in seconds. And it is safe to use concurrently with drugs if desired.
Blue cohosh root tincture contains oxytocin-like compounds that are quite useful, by the dropperful, during slow or stalled labors. Dropperful doses of cotton root tincture do so also because it contains the same compounds.
Echinacea root tincture is a powerful antibacterial herb that helps the immune system deal with infections. A dose of 2–4 dropperfuls, taken as often as every two hours, will bring down fevers quickly and counter mastitis, infections in healing tears and even uterine infections.
St. John’s/Joan’s wort tincture helps prevent (and treat) postpartum depression. As added benefits, dropperful doses, taken 3–6 times a day, reduce and eliminate muscle pain and counter many viruses, especially those in the herpes family.
Yarrow flower tincture (of the fresh flowering tops of the white-blossomed, wild yarrow) is such a reliable contact disinfectant that I rarely use anything else. I keep mine in a spray bottle, ready to spray on wounds, where it eliminates pain, stops bleeding, improves healing time and kills almost all bacteria. A little mixed in water is a great hand wash and antibacterial rinse. Yarrow can be taken internally as well as externally, especially to counter bladder infections, breast infections and uterine infections.
To make an herbal tincture, harvest plants on a sunny, dry day, in early afternoon. Chop finely and moderately fill a jar with them. Pour 100-proof vodka up to the top of the jar, lid tightly, label well. Six weeks later, the vodka has become a tincture and is ready to use. You can also buy ready-made tinctures.
Green blessings are everywhere around us. The Earth provides for us. We are held in the lap of the Great Mother of All.