Pregnancy is a long process. Even though baby is out of the womb, the experience is not quite over yet. This is what today’s experts call the “fourth trimester”, a crucial adjustment period for both baby and mother. The baby learns to adapt and survive in the new world while mummy continues to find her new “normal” lifestyle after this big life-changing event. Although a lot of attention is naturally given to a newborn baby, many modern mothers today are unaware that they themselves have a whole lot to recover from the rigours of labour and birth. It is not an easy task, especially when a newborn depends a whole lot on the mother for feeding, comfort and care.
Traditional postpartum confinement practices aim to help mothers focus on their health after giving birth. According to traditional Chinese beliefs, a woman’s body is at its weakest immediately after childbirth. Therefore, a confinement period of strict rest and diet for at least one month will ensure healthy recovery after 10 months of pregnancy, in which her body was used to nourish the baby. I used to question the validity of this tradition. However, now that I have had time to contemplate the various information as well as having given birth to a baby myself, I realize it truly is important to take good care of my health and body now so that I will be at less risk for various ageing ailments in the future. It is true that the post-partum confinement practices are not designed for comfort and convenience but rather than dismissing it completely, I thought to myself, “Why not just follow it with precaution? After all, it doesn’t hurt me in anyway. It just may prove to be a little bothersome, that’s all.” I don’t know if it’s an age thing or what, but I find that the older I get, the more health-conscious I become. In my opinion, good health is the most treasured wealth in life. Besides, if I can build strength and health back into my body, I am at a better chance of having a healthy second pregnancy. Looking further into the future, I could be at less risk of ailments such as headaches and rheumatism, which many Chinese believe it is caused by excessive “wind in the bones/body” — more popularly known as “Fong Sap” in Cantonese (风湿). I just want to be like my mother and mother-in-law, healthy and fit even in their senior age! Of course, there were some things I believed in, and some I questioned. So below is an account of what I experienced and learned in post-partum care. What was yours like? Feel free to comment below!
P.S. Sorry this post has no pictures … everyone was just too busy either caring for me or the baby!
There are many cultures, which still practice post-partum confinement diets and taboos in today’s modern society. The traditional post-partum confinement practice of the ethnic Chinese is popularly known as “Zuo Ye Zi” (坐月子) in Mandarin. “Zuo Ye Zi” literally means “sitting out a month”, which relates to having the mother rest at home for one full month (30 days). The mother avoids going out of the house during this period, and focuses a lot on rest and eating healthy and nutritious home-cook diet.
Many Malaysian Chinese mothers practice post-partum confinement longer than 30 days, although it is usually on the diet side of things. Traditionally, it is the mother or mother-in-law who takes care of the new mom during the confinement period. In Malaysia, it is possible to hire “confinement ladies” (陪月) for a fee to help the family in taking care of the new mother. As far as its origin goes, it can be probably be traced back to northern China where new mothers practice bundling up in the cold winter season and staying indoors to avoid causing imbalance to the body’s hot/cold internal system, which is the basis of traditional Chinese health practices. It is believed, even till today, that a woman’s body is “cold” after giving birth. This belief is strongly related to the heavy discharge of blood during delivery and the risk of “wind” entering the body as the uterus contracts. Eating a “hot/warm” diet, and avoiding activities which are “cooling” to the body such as hair-washing, showering, or being exposed to windy elements will help warm and balance the body back to its healthy state. More specifically, the “warming” of the body helps discharge “wind” from the body, remove stale blood (lochia discharge) and strengthens the health of the uterus. The term “cold” and “hot” does not always refer to the food’s physical temperature. The Chinese believe each food has a different “energy” in its own nature, and when directly translated from Mandarin into English, the terms “hot/warm” and “cold” are used to describe these foods. For example, my mother had always said vegetables such as water spinach or Chinese spinach (kangkung in Malay) are “cold” in nature. In general, vegetables which have a hollow center tend to be “cold” in nature, i.e. gourds such as bitter gourd, pumpkin, etc. Fruits such as watermelon and coconut are very cooling to the internal body. As far as food temperature goes, common sense is to avoid cold, especially icy drinks. Even salads are to be avoided as it is believed that cold and raw vegetables add to the “cooling” of the body. A quick stir-fry of the vegetables with a few slices of ginger “warms” the dish up, which is contrary to popular modern belief that heating vegetables will destroy its nutrients.
In traditional Chinese post-partum confinement diet, there are three very important “warm” ingredients: ginger, sesame oil, an rice wine. Yes, Chinese post-partum diet involves a lot of ginger … and alcohol. However, the incorporation of alcohol in the diet is not for the mother to consume it directly. It is always stewed and double-boiled with other ingredients such as chicken or fish, and so at the end of the day the alcohol content would have been evaporated from the dish. The right kind of alcohol is used, such as rice wine or Hennessy, which provides heat to the body and promotes blood circulation. Ginger is a “wind-removing” ingredient, used in Chinese diets since ancient times. It also helps improve appetite and “warms” up the stomach. Even before I was pregnant, my mother would boil ginger in water and let us drink it if we had gastric pains in our stomach. Other herbal ingredients which are commonly used for nourishment are red dates and wolfberries. It is also common practice for new mothers not to drink plain water from the tap or filter. Water that has been boiled is preferred, since boiling water removes the “wind” element. Even better is water that has been boiled with red dates.
Unfortunately, I have no recipes to share. My mother-in-law was the one who took care of my meals during the confinement period. I’m thankful and grateful for her dedication in cooking me healthy yet appetizing meals for me. I do remember I was not allowed to eat any vegetables during the first two weeks. It was all meat, nourishing soups and rice. Vegetables, even cooked, during this period was considered to be “cold” to the recovering body. My mother-in-law mentioned that there is a significance in the first ginger dish that is cooked. Apparently, the ginger that is used, represents symbolically if the baby will have enough courage (in Cantonese, being courageous is 大膽 “da dan”). So a big piece of ginger will be used to cooked the dish. The cooked ginger is then dried and kept as a symbol to represent that the baby will grow to be very courageous. To our dismay, the maid was unaware of this and so she threw away the leftover ginger in the pot. My mother-in-law was furious! So, apparently my daughter is not as courageous as can be. I don’t know how true this practice/superstition is. I believe my daughter’s personality is her own, and through time she will learn to be courageous herself. It is not dependent on a piece of ginger from my meal.
When it comes to taking a shower, it is also the same concept – no showering or bathing with usual tap water. The water has to be boiled with ginger at least. Sometimes, it is boiled with herbs. As for the hair-showering … I don’t know how women in the past can survive 30 days without washing their hair. In my logical sense, it is so unhygienic. The other part of it tells me it will be so uncomfortable. I can’t even stand one day without washing my hair, especially in hot and humid Malaysian weather. While the tradition practices not body and hair-showering for one month, many mothers today believe it is not a good practice since it is unhygienic, especially when most mothers continue to breastfeed their newborns. I mean, we would still be discharging blood like our usual monthly menstrual cycle. Oh my god, I can’t imagine not washing myself for a month. Ugh, and can you imagine … what our husbands will have to deal with?! A smelly, dirty woman in bed with him …. Therefore, I say no to the whole not showering and hair-washing for 30 days. My mother and mother-in-law do not support this traditional practice too. They themselves did not follow it, haha! In fact, they came up with a clever solution, and I’m perfectly happy with it. I was advised to first sponge-bath my body with the ginger-boiled water, and to do this quickly … no singing and day-dreaming while bathing. This is to keep the body warm as often as possible. Once I’m done cleaning my body, I’ll dry myself and get dressed. Then, I will return to the bathroom to wash my hair over a basin or sink using the ginger-boiled water. Once I’m done washing my hair, I have to immediately dry it with a towel and use a hair-dryer to completely dry my hair. If these steps are done correctly everyday, one can maintain a clean body as well as reduce “wind” from entering the body (“fong sap”).
I remember feeling really warm throughout the 30 days of confinement. I was not allowed to have any kind of “wind” blow at me. I had to wear a sweater. So no ceiling fans. Air-conditioned room is fine as long as the draft was not blowing directly at me and baby. No going outside of the house to avoid having the wind blow at me. At some point, I felt it was really ridiculous. No wonder we are susceptible to post-partum depression – can’t we just take a breath of fresh air? Take a break from all of these protocols? Apparently, no. That’s why it is labeled as confinement. I still remember my mother reprimanding me for opening the main door for the masseuse. Well, no one was around so naturally I had to do it! I was scolded for being reckless, and should have just ask the lady to wait while I go get someone to open the door for her …
Ah yes, you must be wondering what the masseuse is for. In Malaysia, women who have given birth use the services of a traditional post-partum masseuse called, “urut”, to massage the body, specifically focusing on the belly and uterus area. The intent is to remove “wind” again by using a special herbal massage oil, which is ginger based, and hot stones. After the massage, a long cloth called “bengkung” is tightly wrap around the belly. The bengkung needs to be worn for at least 8 hours, the longer the better. This ties in very well with the whole no-showering ordeal. This traditional technique, passed down by generations from the Malaysian local (Malays), is believed to help return the uterus to its original size quicker, which in turns promotes slimming of the mother’s body as well. For mother’s who gave birth naturally, they can start to treatment immediately. For mother’s who gave birth through C-section, they have to wait at least 10 days before they can start the treatment. However, the longer you wait to start the treatment, the less effective it will be.
I was also not allowed to watch too much TV. I was told that by doing so my eyesight will deteriorate faster. I don’t see how this is any different than my regular lifestyle of watching the screen before I gave birth. There was also this weird superstition that if you cried too much, you will go blind. Seriously, this was way too far-fetched. I had to cry. I cried when I couldn’t give my daughter enough breastmilk. I cried when I couldn’t comprehend all this rules. I cried feeling so insignificant and ignorant about caring for a baby. Men, if you’re reading this, the only advice you should take away from this is … just listen to your wife. Listen to her feelings, hug her, tell her it’s okay and she’s doing great. If she’s being crabby, try to really hear her out. Get her to talk, and try your best to support her as much as you can so she doesn’t sink into depression. To be honest, the most pressure and stress came from the adults telling me what I should and should not do. It wasn’t from the baby. My baby just needed milk and sleep. It is because everyone wants the best for the baby and me, differing opinions just spill without a filter. It can get seriously overwhelming from the new mother. Post-partum depression is horrible. I had thoughts of just throwing my baby out the window because I’ve had enough of the cries. Because I didn’t know what to do. I felt very defensive with what everyone was suggesting to do, because I felt I was useless for not knowing. Luckily they were just thoughts, and I just had to leave the room for awhile and let the baby cry, to recompose my thoughts and remind myself it’s not the baby’s fault. It’s not my fault.
I was also advised to just lie down and sleep all the time. True, sleeping whenever baby sleeps is important, especially when it comes to breastfeeding as the baby wakes up very frequently at night to feed. But you know, there’s only so much sleep you can give your body in 24 hours. Apparently, sitting or standing too much will hurt my back, and I will have lower back problems later on in life. Initially, I listened and obeyed. After a week, I realized this is all too ridiculous. Shouldn’t I be exercising (lightly) to strengthen my body? How is lying down and not doing anything any good for my muscles?? Yoga is good for my body, why can’t I do that? I believe back problems are associated with poor lifting posture when carrying baby. As the baby grows, carrying becomes more challenging. That’s where the back problems come in. Not from lack of lying down during confinement! I’d like to think the previous generation were not as educated and informed, and they just followed whatever that was passed down to them. So, please first-time mummies – listen to your heart and don’t just blindly believe everything. There are some things which make sense, but not all. Trust your instincts and go with it.
I proved my aunts wrong about baby-wearing. I carried Emma in a ring sling when she was 2 months old. As she got older, I purchased the Manduka. It was a good investment. Being a frequent traveller, the baby carrier was a huge convenience. My aunts came up to me and said, “Noooo, you cannot carry your baby like that. She’s too young, it will deform her legs. They will walk funny in the future, with their legs far apart from one another!” Huge nonsense. Baby-wearing when done correctly is so beneficial. My little Emma is walking and running fine with no issues.
And that’s pretty much it – lack of sleep, hormones flaring, baby crying … at times I felt like I was a cow, just constantly feeding my child at my breasts. But it’s all worth it. Watching her grow in the first 3 weeks … it all happens so fast that you wish you could stay just a moment longer cherishing those feelings again. Once the confinement period is over, now comes the official celebration of the arrival of the baby – Baby’s Full Moon Celebration.