Doing the Month – Culture Behind the door of Chinese Postnatal Confinement
Chinese postnatal confinement, known as 坐月(zuò yuè, “sitting the month”), with its many strict traditional rules prompts many debates and online discussions. New mothers are often experience conflicts between the cultural traditions of their parents and the western ideas. On occasion, this can even lead to tension between pregnant women and their mothers or even mothers-in-law.
Dr Donald Angstetra, a leading Gold Coast Obstetrician of Chinese descent has extensive first-hand experience helping parents though this clash of cultures and norms. “An appreciation and understanding of the different approaches and ideas is invaluable in helping both the women and their care providers through this very special and important time in their families’ life” Dr Angstetra said. “Learning about our past and the rationale for practices can help us to plan better for this time and smooth the transition to motherhood.”
The culture of Chinese postnatal confinement dates back 2000 years to the Han Dynasty. In the past two centuries, westernised women with Asian descent have abandoned these traditions due to disbelief as they are irrelevant to the so-called modern world. Yet somehow, this specific traditional belief stubbornly survives.
Zuo yue – ‘Sitting the month’
Chinese believe that confinement includes a strict post-natal period whereby mother and baby are “quarantined” at home for a month. It is practised in various Asian cultures across mainland China, Taiwan and South-East Asia. It helps new mothers recover from the rigorous pregnancy and child birth. It is believed that women who do not have a good recovery often suffer postnatal issues like severe fatigue, lower back pain, insomnia, and hair loss. These symptoms can often last for months or even years after the pregnancy.
Help during Confinement
Traditionally, a women’s mother or mother in law will take care of her during the confinement period, some women even return to their childhood home. Other new mothers will hire a confinement nanny (pui yuet), who will help them and their baby during this period. It is also common that husband and wife are separated for the month.
Confinement taboos and restrictions
While some women consider confinement practices to be old fashioned and opt to not follow the more restrictive practices, many others do welcome the enforced rest built into this tradition.
Chinese confinement restrictions include:
Chinese confinement diet. These include ginger and a traditional tonic brewed with herbs. They are believed to promote better blood circulation and strengthen the joints.
No washing your hair for the entire confinement period. Avoiding exposure to “cool” elements such as cold water or air-conditioner. Chinese believes that women who have just given birth are more susceptible to cold air, so it’s not uncommon for mothers to refrain even from washing themselves.
Bathing only in specially prepared warm water that is infused with herbs.
Mothers are not meant to leave the home or show off their baby until after their one-month confinement period. Visitors are not welcome.
The clash of two cultures is most pronounced over this confinement practice, and can lead to a turbulent transition in life for new mothers. In deciding upon your approach to this period in your life, Dr Angstetra explains that “Those who grew up in families with strong Chinese heritage sometimes suddenly realise that the information about confinement they were given growing up was unclear, and often confusing. You should do some research yourself, think about what you would like, and whatever your options, do what is comfortable and makes sense to you”.