Confinement is commonplace in Malaysia and many other Asian countries. However the details can differ and vary within cultures and beliefs. But one thing is common: It is believed to help the recovery of new mums physically, mentally and emotionally after childbirth. In china it is known as zuo yue zi, which translates directly ‘to sit in a month’. Japanese know it as “Sango no hidachi” and Koreans as “Samchilil”, which means “thirty-one”. In India the confinement of 30-40 days is called jaappa, and in Latin countries it is called la cuarentena, derived from the English word, quarantine.
But how important is it and is it necessary at all in this day and age?
Having given birth in both Malaysia and the UK I can personally vouch for the benefits of confinement. I went through confinement three times but with fewer restrictions than the traditional ways. But just how strict should one be with the 30 day ritual? For mothers living abroad, help from family and friends may be limited. Being confined in your home doing nothing is hardly an option and is even more difficult for families with other children in the house. Or if you can afford it the services of a confinement lady are available for a fee.
Confinement ladies, also known as a pui yuet are usually older experienced ladies with superior knowledge of postnatal practices. Their duties are to help new mothers with the big transition at home, mainly caring for them and the newborn. They will meticulously prepare and cook healthy meals for the new mother, assist with baby’s daily routine from feeding, bathing and bedtime and even help with minor house chores. Before considering hiring a confinement lady, discuss the option with your partner, be prepared to live with a stranger for a whole month and adapt to the changes they bring into your homes. Another option available widely now are confinement centres. They have become increasingly popular recently, with some centres offering not only traditional support but also some modern perks such as postnatal yoga, massages, extensive breastfeeding support, parenting classes and a Netflix subscription! You can now opt to recuperate in full luxury but do expect a handsome price tag for these services.
Confinement can be seen as old fashioned and unlike our older generation, these traditional practices are being observed less with modern parents preferring a less restricted method of confinement.
So how essential is confining oneself to recovery?
“Thou shalt not leave the house in 30 days.
Thou shalt not wash your hair until confinement is complete.
Thou shalt not eat this types of fruits, vegetables, meats etc.”
These confinement taboos can be overwhelming but they are still practiced across the world as some mothers still choose to uphold the virtues of confinement and follow it religiously.
I have to admit during my 1st confinement with baby number one, I tried my absolute best to obey confinement rules as much as I could but come the second week, I didn’t feel the need to. I felt pretty great considering I just delivered 3kg of fresh human! I ended up going about my normal routines and chores. I found that with a normal birth our body perks up a little faster compared to deliveries with complications, such as in my case, an emergency cesarean with my second child. Even after 5 weeks of confinement, I was still suffering excruciating pain. I refused to move unless I had to, the slightest movement or cough was at times unbearable. Even with the great support and help I was getting from my family my body was healing a lot slower than I expected. How was this possible I thought? some of my other mommy friends’ were up and running after 3 weeks of surgery! I was stressing myself silly, but eventually I did get better and I did get back up on my feet and functioned like normal, as normal as a zombie can be that is. So therefore It is crucial for us moms to listen to our own body, because we will all recover at different phase, so the one plan fits all is not the best way to think.
The belief is that after giving birth mother and child will be at their weakest, fragile and susceptible to ‘cold air’ and other illnesses.
It goes without saying that a well balanced meal should be the 1st rule on any confinement system. Providing the body with nutritious food, helps replenish the nutrients lost during the delivery phase. A healthy nourishing confinement meal will differ from one person to another. This is where culture and superstitions collide with facts. I know for one that my idea of a wholesome confinement meal will be looked upon as ‘unhealthy’ to another. Although my ingredients are fairly common in general, mainly consisting of ginger, herbal soups, rice wine cooked with organic ‘ayam kampung’ and white fish, preferably steamed or stewed in soups, I did not restrict myself from eating any types of fruits or vegetables. I went about my normal diet with extra attention to consuming more greens, herbal soups, supplements, and cutting out sugar and processed food, basically clean eating for the 30 days. Consumption of Jamu Jamu and herbal products were also great source of nutrients helping to speed up recovery.
Of all the taboos about confinement, I honestly hated not being able to wash my hair.
Whoever thought it was a good idea to have greasy awful smelling hair for 30 days straight is bonkers. It feels more like a punishment than anything else. Here is what I learnt from my grandma, sharing stories from her younger years. The river was at that time the main source of water for cleaning, cooking and transport and people in the village would’ve had to travel the distance on a daily basis to get water. The forbidding of washing hair and to staying confined indoors was to protect the fragile ‘weakened body’ of new mothers. Being outdoors would mean you were exposed to the many viruses and germs in the air and washing and leaving your hair wet to dry naturally was then believed to welcome ‘cold air’ which will eventually disrupt the body from it’s recuperation. So with my understanding of this history, during my own confinement, I took the liberty of washing my hair as I wished but always made sure to dry it thoroughly! I have yet to come clean about this to my own mother.
We are quite fortunate now as there are so many resources available to help with postpartum recovery. information is at the tip of your fingers. Absorb all the helpful information and decide which method works best for you and your family.
Written by Laura Andrew-Graham, Mother of Three, Photographer and Screen Writer