If one is fortunate, there are many hundreds, perhaps over a thousand months, in one’s life. Of these many months, one month in particular is so special that in China it’s called “the month.”

THE MONTH evokes a wide range of emotions among women in China. Let’s take a closer look at this fascinating collision of ancient tradition and modern creature comforts and provide 3 “Confinement Commandments” for anyone looking to get serious about this stuff.

Chinese postnatal confinement, known as 坐月子 (zuò yuè zi, “sitting the month” or “doing the month”) with its many strict traditional guidelines, prompts many real-time debates and online discussions. Mother and daughter may find themselves shouting at each other over whether the latter is right or wrong in her confinement approach. The new mother knows her newborn’s grandmother is only pressuring and cursing her out of love, because she wants the best for her, so at times there may be a wee bit of tension.

Why all the controversy?

The main problem clouding a new mother’s mind arises from the choices and alleged benefits, along with a mismatch of time frames. All benefits from right choices, or consequences from wrong choices, i.e. the promises and punishments, only apply in the distant future, in the long run, in the unforeseeable rest of one’s life. The new mom feels she’s caught between the modern realities (“I can’t shower for a month? Are you kidding me?) and possible long term implications (“Maybe I regret it later if I do get arthritis?”).

“The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.”
– Mark Twain

The first mention of Chinese postnatal confinement in China’s recorded history dates back 2000 years to the Han Dynasty. In the past two millenniums, society has abandoned countless traditions due to disconnects with or irrelevance to the so-called modern world. Yet somehow this specific one stubbornly survives.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) regards the body as a complete existence of 气 (energy) and blood. Maintaining completeness is the first priority of all health-related theories and practices. While western medicine doesn’t treat childbirth as a condition that needs to be cured or given extensive weeks of added care, Chinese medicine believes the loss of blood and dramatic transformation of a woman’s body during the birth process results in a broken body of sorts requiring immediate replenishment. Left unaddressed, this fragility welcomes a myriad of long term health problems.

Outward hassles, hidden joys

Doing the month has two dimensions – the ceremonial and the medical. Some modern women claim to hate confinement, but what’s bad about 100% family support, plenty of extra pampering, and a fully refreshed comeback after a month of recovery. Most new mothers just return what they don’t like to history and keep what they do like in their postpartum kit bag.

How popular is the topic today? A search for 坐月子 the book section of Amazon.cn displays over 200 published titles providing a bounty of advice and guidance on confinement. Dianping.com, China’s version of Yelp, lists over 100 confinement service centers in Shanghai alone, with the highest rate of RMB 300,000 (USD 50,000) for the one-month premium “mommy care” array of services.

Let’s summarize the wide variety of traditional rules into three main “confinement commandments” and connect each to the modern viewpoints of Chinese medicine and popular culture:

Commandment #1:
Avoid the slightest contact with cold things.

Basic Rationale:
The process of childbirth opens up all joints and leaves the body with “cracks”. Get coldness in your system, e.g. around head, between bones, joints, teeth, or under skin, feet, everywhere, will cause all kinds of problems – arthritis, asthma, rheumatism, chronic aches, pains, loss of hair, teeth… and the worst – deep regrets.

How far can it go? We’re talking about the entire month:

  • Do not wash yourself. Do not wash your hair. Do not wash anything.
  • Do not drink cold water. Do not brush your teeth.
  • Do not eat vegetables that grow in water or in damp earth. (You may need a biology degree to know what remaining vegetables you can actually eat.)
  • Do not stay in air-conditioned rooms. Do not let wind enter your body. Do not blow dry your hair (if you’ve already secretly washed your hair, bad girl.)
  • Do not go outside. (If you have to go outside, but why do you have to go outside?) mummy-wrap yourself from head to toe, to insulate your body from any wind or coldness.

Warnings you might hear from your mom, grandma, aunt, midwife, or anyone from the older generation:

  • “You will loose all your teeth if you dare to eat that ice cream!”
  • “Let me cook the watermelon for you, so it’s not raw and cold.”
  • “Socks! Always have your socks on! The coldness can go into your body through the bottom of your feet and can kill you for the rest of your life.”
  • “You want to turn on the A/C? Are you out of your mind? Your head, your neck, your back, your arms and legs will suffer from bad pain when you turn 40. You’ll be miserable.”
  • “It’s up to you, but you’ll regret it later!”

Advice from modern physicians:

  • Heat up the bathroom nice and warm. Take a hot bath and relax.
  • Brush your teeth so you smell clean and sweet.
  • Enjoy vegetables and fruits so your body feels energized and functions well.
  • Dress warmly if your body is recovered enough to go outdoor.

Perspective of a new mom:

“I tried that sh*t for about 1 week and completely went nuts. I jumped into the shower and my 月嫂 yuè sǎo (the lady who helps you with your yue zi) was outside of the bathroom saying, ‘please, please, you have to stop right now, otherwise you’ll get sick.’ I couldn’t care less; that shower was the most beautiful thing that heaven ever delivered to me.”
– Urban Female, late 30s

China Simplified: 坐月子, Doing The Month

Commandment #2:
Ignore mouth cravings; eat for your bodily needs.

Basic Rationale:
The body is expected immediately to be multitasker afterbirth – to heal, to produce natural food, to be the comfort base for the newly born, and to function normally and stay alive. Diet for the month should focus on – flush and cleanse out the dirty blood, help heal the wounds and supplement loss of qi and blood, and assist milk production.

How far can it go? We’re talking about the entire month:

  • Do not eat salt. It creates extra water in your organs. Besides salty milk doesn’t taste good.
  • A chicken a day keeps the body warm and warmth is gold for the month. Chicken, which isn’t a water-bound animal therefore is warm in nature, makes the best and most trusted postnatal dishes. If you are sick of rice-wined chicken, you have a long menu to pick from. How about chicken cooked in sesame oil or cooked with ginseng? Or chicken soup, breast, egg… just be creative.
  • Brown sugar, ginger, egg (from chicken), etc are favored foods because they are warm in nature.
  • Eat foods that are red or believed to be blood replenishing, such as black dates, liver, inner organs.
  • Everything has to be served hot.

Warnings you might hear from your mom, grandma, aunt, midwife and others:

  • “At least you don’t have to cook for the entire month. It’s like room service in the bed. How’s that?”
  • “You can’t stand the chicken anymore? Eat it and imagine you’re eating something else.”
  • “No coke. No salt & pepper. No sour & sweet. No Sichuan food.”
  • “Everything you eat will go directly into the milk.”
  • “As soon as you’re out of the month, you can eat whatever you want. How’s that?”
  • “We didn’t have enough to eat. And now you are complaining about having to eat too much? Be grateful.”
  • “It’s up to you, but you’ll regret it later!”

Modern physician advice:

  • Salt is fine, just stay on the light side. Also go light on oil.
  • Avoid extra-spicy or heavily flavored foods. Your mom is right.
  • Food that is abundant in iron will help replenish blood loss during childbirth, foods such as inner organs, spinach, goji, etc.
  • Don’t think too much, enjoy your meal.

New mom perspective:

“My aunt ate rice-wine chicken every day of the month and my nephew was a super serene baby. Before I thought it must be the chicken; now I think it must be the wined milk.”
– Urban Female, early 20s

Commandment #3:
Avoid fatigue and burden to your body.

Basic Rationale:
Childbirth is a huge labor. Every part of your body goes through stress, become fragile and now needs a good recovery. Any work means an over stretch on the already tired body and therefore cause stress, then aches and pains, even malfunction of the burdened body part.

How far can it go? Remember…the entire month!

  • Do not walk or move around. Let your feet rest.
  • Do not sit for too long. Let your butt rest.
  • Do not read, even you’re bored to death. Let your eyes rest.
  • Do not cry. Childbirth throws off your emotional balance due to hormone changes, but do not cry. Let your glands rest.
  • Do not watch TV. Let your eyes rest and use your imagination.
  • Working on a computer is absolutely forbidden. Let your fingers and eyes and mind rest.
  • Do not look at your cell phone. Again, eyes.
  • No sex. No, we’re not joking.

Warnings from mom, grandma, aunt, midwife and others:

  • “You’ve already watched 5 minutes of TV. Time to turn it off, or else you’ll go blind when you’re 60.”
  • “The cell phone is the worst invention! And the computer too.”
  • “Stay and lay flat in bed. Whatever you need I can bring it to you.”
  • “You’re already feeling bored? It’s only the first day of the month!”
  • “You want to cry out of boredom? Please don’t cry.”
  • “What do you mean you don’t care?”
  • (knock, knock) “You’re not having sex in there, are you?”
  • “It’s up to you, but you’ll regret it later!”

Modern physician advice:

  • Light walking and proper exercise help healing, but don’t overdo it.
  • Keeping yourself entertained by reading books or watching TV is good, but take a break every 30 minutes to relieve stress on eyes and rest well.
  • Sleep well to recover better and faster.

New mom perspective:

“I tried to include my husband in the process. We checked into a hotel together for the month and he got to relax with me. And he had to eat the same milk-producing food as me.”
– Urban Female, early 40s.

We declined to include Commandment #4: Avoid being seen by others” because that seemed far too superhuman for anyone we know.

 

The cure for all problems

Many Chinese believe that a second childbirth – with a properly executed confinement – will cure all the problems and “misbehaviors” from a previous childbirth. So if you messed up earlier, here’s your chance to correct it!

If you’re excited about visiting a new mom among your family, friends or colleagues, don’t feel bad if your goodwill is rejected. It’s only because the new mom is hibernating in the special cave of afterbirth. Send her a card, a bouquet or a little gift. Just make sure they are not too cold for her hands, nose or mouth.

Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • B
    Bai says:

    I’m trying to cite this information. Can I get the author’s name?

  • V
    Victoria Yakovleva 維奇 says:

    I personally dislike it when anything is taken to an extreme and it certainly is with this tradition. It CANNOT be possible for every woman’s body to have the same health and energy levels, to be bound by the SAME practices, even after childbirth. So I shall never buy it – there is no way whatsoever to prove the benefits of “zuo yue zi”, so all that counts in such cases is anecdotal evidence. So, according to my evidence, there are hundreds of women who never even heard about this practice and turned out fine even 40 (oh god, how much longer can one live 😀 ) years later. At least, if you look at all these non-Asian women of older generations, especially those who lived in the countryside, many of them were in excellent health, having given birth to numerous children (my grandmother included).
    It’s certainly great to be able to get support of whatever kind after childbirth and not, for example, be burdened with any housework, but to follow ALL of these crazy practices….I don’t see how it can help me, really. As a new mum, I’d wish things to be done MY way, just because…! 😉 No mother/in-laws telling how and what I should do, when my body is telling me otherwise.

    • L
      Li Wei says:

      You make an excellent point that personal health (and diet and exercise regimen and mental health and…) are not one-size-fits-all practices. Some people are traditionalists and feel more comfortable keeping with multi-generational norms, while others prefer modern science plus greater freedom of mobility to fit their active lifestyles. Good thing nobody is forcing you to take a month off work/motherhood/studies/life to relax in a pampered resort against your will. Thanks for commenting and let us know how it goes!

      • V
        Victoria Yakovleva 維奇 says:

        As I said earlier, I’m all in for being pampered, but on MY, not someone else’s terms! 😉

  • N
    Norain says:

    I love love love all the healthy food that comes with chinese confinement. They do have baths but not with water alone. There are herbs to be slowboiled and used to wash the body quickly. I found modern day versions of these herbs, just mix with water. Even bought them out of curiousity.

    My 2nd pregnancy, I had food catered to be delivered daily to me, Chinese style except for a few days when the chef would send me western or malay meals e.g. salad and aglio olio with grilled salmon and lactation cookies (i know, real cool). But i could only afford half a month of that diet (i paid more than $500 just for food alone). Alongside that, I had the longan and red date tea daily and bought chicken essence to be consumed every few days. The only thing I didnt get was proper rest because my mum had the typical ‘get up and do it girl’ mentality. We are not Chinese so my family naturally doesnt see why a postpartum mum needs to be pampered too much for so long. So I had to settle some chores and my older girl. I really envy my Chinese friends who got the proper confinement. They have got excellent family support too.

    However, in my culture, the postnatal massage and tummy wrap/binders plus herbs are highly sought after. Even the local chinese ladies go through the massage routine on top of their confinement. It’s like we ‘borrow’ each other’s best practices here in Singapore. Usually postnatal massage lasts for 5-10 days according to your affordability. A week’s package is about SGD$300. But Gaawd..the head to toe massage is to die for. Imagine 1.5h of daily massage on your own bed. The best part of the massage is the ‘tucking’ of the uterus and surrounding area back into its original place after giving birth. It is slightly painful and ticklish at the same time but after that, you feel so much better when you put the binder on (that’s where the Belly Bandit and tummy binders comes in).

    Best part is, a lot of expatriates mummies in Singapore from US, UK and elsewhere get to go thru confinement easily here as the services are widely available. My massage lady told me her Mexican client actually booked daily postnatal massage for a month. Lucky lady!

    Love all these confinement practices! This is a great article by the way. Cheers!

    • L
      Li Wei says:

      Glad you enjoyed the article! You brought up many fascinating points but what really caught my eye was the lactation cookies. I’ve never heard of those before. It’s very interesting to look at the different postpartum practices across cultures but at the end of the day, I think we can all agree that all mothers should receive a good pampering every now and then 🙂

  • M
    Matthias B Schönborn says:

    Somebody on Twitter mentioned the tradition has to do with bound feet causing all sorts of problems. Know anything about it?

    • L
      Li Wei says:

      We are so happy that you give serious thoughts to our post. Although it would be interesting if the tradition of confinement actually derived from or had anything to do with foot binding, we believe confinement happened earlier than foot binding.

      The earliest documentation of confinement appeared in the Book of Rites created in the West Han Dynastiy as a collection of texts on social rituals. It was listed as a significant ceremonial ritual for a girl to grow into a mother.

      The traditional of foot binding was believed to take its form in the Song Dynasty, or as early as it can be in the Tang Dynasty, hundreds of years later than the West Han.

      Keep sending us your thoughts and ideas.

  • K
    Kathy Cheng says:

    Cannot believe that Mark Twain actually said that. He must have heard about THE MONTH!

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