Over the past 40 years, Mohani Ahangama has worked with hundreds of parents. She’s seen them through pregnancy and into the first few months of their child’s life, and says that her goal is straightforward – “we’re preparing a person to be a fantastic parent for the rest of their lives.”
Mohani holds classes at the Pulse Beat: Pre and Post Birth Centre on Havelock Road of which she is the founder and the Managing Director. Her prenatal classes cover everything from stress management for expectant mothers to how to stimulate your unborn child. In her post natal classes she teaches the essentials of breast feeding, diets and baby massage, among other topics.
“These sessions have physical, emotional and psychological components as well as a spiritual aspect that is not religious,” says Mohani. Though many parents have access to literature and internet articles, Mohani says that the role of organisations such as hers remain indispensable because she makes sure her classes are relevant in a Sri Lankan context. A book might advise a mother to eat a plum a day, or avoid eating shark merlin – but one is not always available and the other known only by its local name even if it were available. “How can you read these books and believe you’re preparing yourself for a Sri Lankan birth?” asks Mohani. She adds: “Parents need to educate themselves. They have to empower themselves through knowledge on how to take care of the basics – exercise, diet, all the things that are connected to happiness and joy.”
Having just become a grandmother herself, Mohani comes across as an unflappable, compassionate person. Having trained as a midwife and health visitor in England, she chose to return to Sri Lanka to care for family. When she began her prenatal classes, she was something of a pioneer in Sri Lanka. Reflecting on her studies and her work in England, she says “we learnt how to teach mums how to look after themselves through the pregnancy and how to make their bodies most receptive to the growth of the baby and a beautiful birth and post birth.”
Today, Mohani applies the same standards to her own classes. The process begins as soon as you discover your pregnancy, which for most women is around the six week mark. Though your first visit is likely to be to a doctor, the classes at Pulse Beat are meant to be an “add on” to your regular medical consultations and each class stands alone. Mohani likes her parents to come in for their first class around the 12 week mark. This introductory class is about learning some meditation and exercises appropriate for this stage. Throughout the coming nine months, these exercises will strengthen your muscles, help your baby get into the right position for a natural birth, and later help the mother get her shape back.
Many of Mohani’s students are working mothers, so she schedules her classes and tailors her advice to suit them. Work brings with it the strain of 9 -5 days and a multitude of professional demands, but for many expectant mothers the steady pay check makes their pregnancy affordable. But stress releases chemicals into the system that can affect the development of the child and might trigger premature labour. “It’s a catch 22 situation,” says Mohani, “so it’s not a case of sitting in a cocoon avoiding stress, it’s a case of dealing with it.”
A woman is at her most vulnerable as her pregnancy advances. “She’s sharing her body, she’s sharing her emotions and she’s sharing everything about her with a human who is growing within her,” explains Mohani. Many first time mothers feel apprehensive - pregnancy is a totally unknown quantity, she says, adding that classes begin in earnest three months before the due date. This is a magical time for most expectant parents. The foetus is able to hear its mother’s heart beat and is responsive to environmental stimuli. “At 24 weeks the baby is responding to the music and even to the emotions of the mother,” says Mohani. Typically, parents attend four classes.
The first two cover everything to do with birth, including breathing and exercise, while the second two are about baby care and neonate psychology. A father’s role both during a pregnancy and after it cannot be underplayed, and Mohani encourages both parents to attend her classes. “Sometimes the husbands ask more questions than the wives,” she says.
Many mothers who choose to attend are aiming for a natural or vaginal birth, but if the regular monthly check ups reveal the presence of risk factors, a caesarean should be considered. Mohani emphasises that in her view a natural birth means that the mother should still receive all the help – including pain killers - that modern medical science can offer. Post birth, mothers need to be guided through caring for their infants. Breast feeding in particular can be a challenge and Mohani has sessions on it, as well as on baby massage and infant weaning.
She plans to add more modules, including one on play, safety and potty training, to her selection. In fact, Mohani in collaboration with Baby Mart, recently held an awareness programme. The initiative was part of her attempt to educate parents, not just in the emotional demands of parenthood but also in the necessity for proper safety measures in and around the home. Basics like stair gates, plug point guards and car seats are often neglected in Sri Lanka, but child proofing your home is essential.
But before the family gets there, they must first negotiate the tumultuous six weeks post birth. Infants might keep everyone up all night, while mothers are still riding an emotional roller coaster as their pregnancy hormones retreat.
The sheer exhaustion of caring for a newborn only exacerbates this. “Mothers need a lot of love, nurturing and support,” she says. She also cautions that while only a very small percentage of women will experience medical depression, it’s important that it be recognized. Discuss any uncharacteristic behaviour with your doctor, but make allowances for the extreme emotional state in which a mother finds herself.
She welcomes her mums back for a free post natal class, in which she helps them plan a regimen of exercises and a diet that will help them get back into shape. Mohani’s approach focuses as much on the mother as it does on the child and that is perhaps the secret of her success.
She encourages husbands to take care of their wives, saying that the wives will then have the strength to care for the child. In the end, “mothers need to be shown an immense amount of kindness,” says Mohani, blending common sense and compassion.