Karen Sherwood explores the concept of new mothers ‘sitting the month’.
The mother of a newborn baby is supposed to be sleep-deprived, overwhelmed and strung-out, right? Right? Maybe in Western culture, but traditionally in Chinese culture a new mother will engage in ‘sitting the month’ or ‘zuo yue zi’ (‘cho yuet’ in Cantonese), literally resting for 28 days, confined to the house, whilst others care for her and her baby. The concept of ‘confinement’ may have old-fashioned overtones for those of us raised in the West, but the idea of confining new mums is still embraced in many Asian countries, including Hong Kong – and there’s a lot more to it than just staying indoors.
The custom of confining new mums after the birth evolved in part from practicalities – illness or injury were far more likely to occur outdoors. This ancient practice is also aimed at restoring the ‘qi’ balance (the balance of yin/cold & yang/hot energy forces) to a mother’s body following the rigours of pregnancy and birth. Historically, female family members would stay in the new mum’s house to cook restorative foods and tonics and allow her to rest. Experienced ‘pui yuets’ or ‘confinement ladies’, are an alternate option for those without available family members, or those who prefer a trained professional at the helm (or those that just don’t want their mother-in-law staying with them for a month!). Pui yuets can provide a day service, or live-in service for the month and beyond. Confinement centres are also springing up throughout Asia – where mother and baby will receive round-the-clock care, training, traditional foods, and lots of rest, for the month.
Cythina Lam is a full-time Stockbroker and mother of two sons aged eight and five. Her primary reason for hiring a live-in pui yuet for two months with both her babies was:
“To get enough rest myself, after the birth, so that I could recover in time to get back to work, and to ensure my newborns received experienced care.”
A confinement lady is expected to train new mums in babycare and to train helpers where necessary too. Staying inside the house for a full 28 days is not always practical and like many modern mums, Cynthia tweaked the advice slightly.
“I just don’t see the scientific evidence for total confinement, apart from not getting sick. I think the key is not to over-exhaust the new mom. For me, going out to run some errands and get some fresh air, whilst avoiding crowds was ok.”
Yuen Wai Chang, mother to a four-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son, hired a daytime pui yuet when her second baby was born.
“I wanted a person who was knowledgeable about the types of foods that would heal the post-partum body,”
she explains. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) teaches that the loss of blood, and the changes that occur in a woman’s body during the birth process, result in a body that is damaged and requires urgent replenishment. If left untreated, the damage caused by the birth can result in health problems later in life. Pui yuets are trained in preparing foods and herbal medicines that will assist with healing, strengthening, and rebalancing the body’s qi.
“Dried longan, red dates and goji berries are usually made into a tea for replenishing blood and nourishment; Fish maw and chicken soup for the collagen; Chicken or lean pork double-boiled with Chinese herbs for nourishing the body; Papaya and peanut soups are good for milk production, ”
Yuen Wai explains.
“Pig trotters in black vinegar is another staple, if not favourite, of confinement ladies which I quite enjoyed.”
For those without an experienced confinement cook in the home, food delivery services are another option – delivering traditionally prepared meals and tonics direct to a new mum’s door.
One of the most discussed elements of Chinese confinement is that the new mother may not wash her hair, or bathe, or even brush her teeth for the month. It was also considered important to avoid fans, cold drinks, cold foods or touching cold objects, lest more yin (cold) enter the body.
“I think a lot of these old traditions, like not washing for a month, were mainly because in the old days people did not have hot running water, hair dryers or heating at home. Hence, to avoid the fragile mother getting cold or falling sick right after birth, it was better not to wash with cold water, especially during the winter,”
Cynthia suggests. Many pui yuets will now allow their charges to wash, as long as they are careful not to get cold. Dry shampoo has proved a popular work-around too. On the plus side, its also customary for the confinement carer to bathe the new mother in hot, fresh-brewed, ginger water – which many mums report loving!
“I think the reason for the ginger water is that Chinese people believe that your pores are wide open after birth and lots of ‘humidity’ will go into your pores if you shower and wash your hair. The ginger helps to remove the humidity from your body. It is believed that too much ‘humidity’ in your body will cause arthritis when you get old,”
Cynthia says. DIY ginger bath sachets are also now available for mums without a confinement expert in the home.
The pui yuet’s role also includes assisting with feeds.
“She slept next to the baby bed in the guest room. I pumped at 11pm before I went to sleep, then she would warm the breast milk to feed the baby overnight. I woke up at six or seven next morning and pumped again. I only slept next to my baby once a week when the confinement lady was off, and that was already too tiring for me!”
“She was also helpful in teaching me how to breastfeed and how to massage blocked ducts, which was a life saver. I loved the chicken rice hot pot she made for me every day, as Chinese people believe eating rice also helps with milk production.”
Whilst most pui yuets are supportive of breastfeeding and prepare foods to improve milk supply, their primary focus is the mother’s recovery, which can lead to differences of opinion, as Yuen Wai discovered.
“Instead of waking me from my naps, my confinement lady fed my baby water if she was hungry, whilst I slept. My instructions had been very clear on this point. I believe we had very different views on breastfeeding as she advised me at one point to put my daughter on formula. We parted ways amicably, two weeks into confinement.”
Boredom is another factor mentioned by some mums in confinement discussions. It’s worth exploring your pui yuet or confinement centre (or mother-in-law’s!) views on whether books and screens are allowed, as historically it was thought important that a new mother not strain her eyes. Again, many modern mums have pushed back on this rule. Yuen Wai points out that:
“My confinement lady insisted I take afternoon naps, so I was shooed off to bed after lunch, there wasn’t much time for TV or books anyway. I was definitely bored until my parents visited.”
Boredom and loneliness can be a concern when you are housebound, particularly if your pui yuet or family members are not encouraging of visitors. There has been some research into links between strict confinement traditions and increases in post-natal depression. Though Cynthia also highlights that
“over-exhaustion can lead to depression, which maybe could be avoided for a lot of women if they got good help.”
There is research to support this view also.
So what else should you look for in your pui yuet? Both Cynthia and Yuen Wai suggest getting recommendations from friends, since confinement ladies will vary in their adherence to customs, and their skill-set, based on their experience, training and dialect group/country of origin. Cythia suggests that,
“it’s important to have an honest discussion about what she will and will not do for you and the baby, and the hours/days she will be working. My lady was not pushy and didn’t force me to eat or do things that I didn’t want. She was super experienced with handling babies, which gave me the peace of mind to rest, which is very important.”
In addition to discussing breastfeeding, Yuen Wai also recommends you discuss in detail the ingredients your pui yuet intends to use in her foods and medicines, as some can be expensive. If you are interested in a confinement centre, then do arrange a visit beforehand and be sure you are aware of their protocols and the qualifications of their staff.
Understanding the views of any family members who will be caring for you, and discussing your requirements in advance, can help to reduce tensions during the confinement period.
The idea of confinement is both ancient and evolving. Yuen Wai notes that her experience of confinement was certainly very different to that of her mother. Meal delivery services, DIY herbal sachets and confinement centres are evolving the traditions further. Giving your body (and mind!) time to heal after birth is important regardless of what traditions you follow. As with everything in parenting, you have to make choices that feel right for you. As Cynthia says, Happy Mum = Happy Family!
This article appeared in Playtimes Winter Issue 2018/19.