I grew up in a family with Chinese roots, westernized by years of living in the United States. Growing up, whenever anyone in the family would give birth, it was expected that the extended family would go to help out, and the new mother would go into a self-imposed isolation to rest. This practice, called “confinement”, is a method of postpartum care given to mothers in the month after the birth of a new baby.
Rooted in traditional Chinese medicine, confinement is practised by millions of women in China, and many other countries worldwide. As new mothers are prone to certain ailments, it is believed that they must be given special care to ensure a full recovery.
During confinement, women are advised to follow certain rules, such as not showering, eating only warming foods, and staying indoors. Women should not eat raw fruits or vegetables, foods with too much salt, or drink overly flavorful beverages such as coffee. Although seemingly superstitious, these rules are aimed at restoring balance to the new mother’s body after childbirth, by eliminating toxins, reducing fatigue, and balancing the blood.
Visitors are not allowed to come until about 2 weeks after birth, to allow the new mom to settle in, and to allow the baby to build up immunity. This period is often ended with a celebration, to welcome visitors and present the new baby.
The confinement diet plays an important role in this custom. The aim of the special diet is to boost the mother’s body, replenish energy stores, and warm the body. Herbs are plentiful in this diet, as are soups. According to Chinese medicine, “cooling” foods such as cold drinks, cucumber, and pineapple should be avoided, as well as “windy” foods such as onions and jackfruit.
Specific ingredients are used in the preparation of special nutritious soups to aid the healing process and prevent future health issues. Foods that heat the body and reduce chill are often used, as well as those that encourage milk production. Common ingredients include:
- Ginger: used to warm the body and improve digestion
- Chinese Angelica Root: used as a uterine and blood tonic
- Codonopsis Pilosula Root: used to nourish the blood and to improve uterine function.
- Longan: used to aid relaxation and as a sleep aid
- Red dates: used to nourish the blood, and to sweeten soups
- Pepper: used to warm the body and to drive out the extra “wind”
- Sesame oil: used for heat, and as an energy booster.
- Wolfberries: used to tonify the blood, and improve fatigue
- Fish: used to nourish the body and boost milk supply
At first glance, all these rules sound like a drag, and entirely old-fashioned to many who grew up with western medicine. In my case, I scoffed at the staying in bed rule, and vowed that I would not be one of “those women” who just lounged around the house and didn’t step outside. However, when the time to have my own baby rolled around, I came to see this age-old tradition in a new light. Let me explain.
Instead of facing pressure to go back to work a month, and even weeks after giving birth, as many American mothers do, Chinese mothers are showered with 100% support of relatives who take care of all of the routine aspects of welcoming a baby. They are allowed to bond with their baby without having to worry about meals being ready, diapers being dirty, and the ever-growing pile of laundry. Sounds pretty good now, right?
Confinement practices serve to bring the family together during the often hectic first few weeks after birth. When my dad came to help out, he stayed for 6 weeks and just cooked, helped out around the house, and made himself useful. Although I was initially wary that he might prevent me from showering, having support like that was priceless, and luckily, he did not interfere much in the baby-rearing decisions. He did occasionally raise an eyebrow when I decided to go for a run 2 weeks after birth, but in general it was very agreeable. The fish soups, though, I can do without for another lifetime.
Whether all the practices of confinement are right for you, or just a few, I learned from my own experience with it that you can take what suits you and leave the rest. I did not adhere to most of the rules, but I did find that having my dad there was a great comfort in a time when everything else was so volatile. Raising a baby is much easier as a village than in isolation, and that is what confinement is ultimately about.