The Tradition of Chinese Confinement Practice

The tradition of Chinese confinement postpartum practices can be traced back to the early Qin Dynasty (221 B.C to 206 B.C) where it was recorded in 礼记内则 (Li Ji Nei Ze): a collection of records, over 2000 years old, detailing the rules regarding a women’s seclusion after delivering. Postpartum Confinement is also known as 坐月子 (zuò yuè zi). The confinement practices were passed down verbally from one generation to the next, and the practices vary between regions.

Ginger, Sesame Oil, and Rice Wine are major staples in confinement dietary practices. As Sesame Oils are used as the base for most of the dishes and soups, many new mothers find the look of these dishes unappetising as the resulting dishes look greasier.

*Image for illustration purposes only

‘Heating’ ingredients are mainly used to prepare postpartum meals as these are considered ‘hot’ and help nourish and rebalance the mother’s body which would be in a 'cold' state due to childbirth. Ingredients that are considered ‘cooling’ should not be taken during this period.

 

The different confinement practices

Confinement practices are commonplace throughout Asia, although the cultures and beliefs differ between regions. For instance, confinement periods may last from 30 to 100 days depending on the cultural practice.

Postpartum Confinement is not only practiced by the Chinese -- in Japan it is known as “Sango no hidachi”, In Korea, it is known as “Samchilil”, and in India it is known as “Jaappa”. The common belief is that these practices would greatly benefit a new mother’s physical, mental and emotional state and wellbeing.

An article on the Ministry of Social and Family Development’s website shows a breakdown of the different postpartum dietary practices between the 3 major races in Singapore:

 

CHINESE PRACTICES

MALAY PRACTICES

INDIAN PRACTICES

Confinement Period

30 days

44 days

40 days

Dietary Requirements

  • To purge out the “wind” in the body after delivery, promote “blood circulation”, strengthen the joints and promote milk supply.
  • To avoid “cooling” foods.

 

 

Traditionally, they use a lot of ginger, wines and sesame oils in their diet. Common dishes include pigs’ trotters cooked with ginger and vinegar, fish soup, chicken cooked in sesame oil and a traditional tonic brewed from 10 herbs. Fish soup boiled with papaya is believed to be beneficial for milk production. 

 

It is also recommended that plain water consumption be avoided during this period to reduce the risk of water retention. Instead, specially prepared drinks from a mixture of herbs and preserved dates are recommended.

During confinement, a woman follows a special diet in which heating foods are encouraged and cooling foods avoided to restore the balance upset by the birth. 

 

Some Malay mothers who have just delivered often take a special drink called “jamu”. It is believed that the pores on the body are opened during labor and “jamu” has properties that can keep the body warm.

The Indians take garlic milk to prevent “wind”. Like the Chinese and Malays, “cooling” foods are avoided, especially tomatoes, cucumbers, coconut milk, and mutton. 

 

Only chicken and shark fish cooked with herbs are allowed while other seafood is not allowed. 

 

Chilli is not allowed. 

 

Plenty of garlic fried without oil is encouraged. Cooking is done with gingelly oil.

 

Oral intake of herbs or D.O.M. is encouraged to keep the body warm. 

 

There is a restriction on fluids/fruits/vegetable intake as well as cold drinks and food. 

Other Practices

The basis for such practices is to protect the new mother from future ill health, restore her strength and to protect the family from ritual pollution. 

 

The Chinese believe in staying indoors throughout the confinement period to avoid outdoor pollution. Strenuous physical activities are discouraged to prevent further “muscle-weakening”.

 

Some would hire a confinement nanny to help with the housework and caring for the baby. 

 

Other practices may include:

  • Not washing the body or hair during the month; especially avoiding contact with cold water.
  • Not going outside for the entire month (or at least avoid wind).
  • Not eating raw or “cooling” foods or foods cooked the previous day.
  • Eat chicken, especially chicken cooked in sesame oil; pork liver and kidney are also good; eat five or six meals daily and rinse the rice bowl with scalding water.
  • Avoid all wind, fans and air conditioning.
  • Avoid walking or moving about; the ideal is lying on the back in bed.
  • Do not go into another person’s home.
  • Do not get sick.
  • Do not read or cry.
  • Do not have sex.
  • Do not eat with family members.
  • Do not burn incense or visit a temple or altar.

Traditionally, childbirth is in the mother’s home attended by a bidan (Malay midwife) and the umbilical stump dusted with a mixture of spices. Fortunately, this has been replaced by hospital births that reduce complications and infection rates.

 

Both mother and child should be bathed immediately in heated water filled with herbs after birth. 

 

The mother will “keep warm” through various traditional methods. These may include sitting near to or lying above a heated source or warming the abdomen by applying a heated stone over it. 

 

During this confinement period, a female masseuse is engaged to help the mother regain her figure or at least to keep her extended tummy trim. The practice of tightly binding the tummy is called berbengkong, and is believed to help in maintaining the body shape. 

 

Sex is also strictly prohibited during the confinement period.

Indian mothers are also discouraged from leaving their homes during their confinement period.

 

Bathing is discouraged and if done, it should be performed with special herbal preparations and turmeric powder. 

 

Bathing is only allowed between 11 am and 2 pm when the temperature is at its highest. 

 

Daily body massages with oil are also encouraged. 

 

Other practices may include:

  • Not allowed to enter the prayer altar room.
  • Splashing of warm water on the abdomen during bathing to expel clots from the uterus.
  • Washing of hair is done on odd days i.e. day 3,5,7… during the first two weeks. Dry hair after washing with incense smoke.
  • Place incense smoke in between legs to dry episiotomy wound.
  • Binding of the tummy with six feet cloth
  • Sex is strictly prohibited.

Sources: The New Art and Science of Pregnancy and Childbirth, World Scientific 2008.