Chinese Confinement for new mums – Shaline Gnanalingham

Shaline Gnanalingam followed the Chinese tradition of having a “confinement period” after the birth of her baby Shahan by C-section.

Shaline lives in Hong Kong and  in the first 30 days of motherhood, she combined her Ready Steady Mums programme participation with traditional Chinese Confinement.

With an air of tranquility completely atypical for new mums in the UK, here is what Shaline told us about easing into motherhood during her confinement period.

Shaline: Chinese confinement Basics

Confinement is a time for new mothers to recover and heal. It lasts for 30 days during which time mother and baby are to be at home and on the 30th day, there is a celebration, called the Full Moon, sort of like a coming out party for the mother and baby where family and friends finally get to meet the baby.

Most people will hire a confinement nanny, called a Pui Yeet in Cantonese, who will look after mum and baby during these 30 days. Her role is to cook for the mother and also help care for the baby to enable mum to recover. My confinement nanny, Angela, slept in the nursery with my son and would bring him to me for night feeds and would pick him up when I was done, so I wouldn’t have to get out of bed even. This is especially great if you’ve had a c-section!

There are all sorts of rules but the basic principle is that women lose a lot of heat when they deliver and become very ‘cold’ after. To keep the balance, new mothers are restricted from anything that might make them cold – no ‘cooling’ foods like cucumber, watermelon, coconut or even water! Also you have to dress warmly – in long sleeves and long trousers and socks all the time, even in the summer. Water is seen as very cooling and therefore showers are restricted too.

Bathing

Traditionally, mothers were not allowed to bath at all in the 30 days. It was said that bathing would cause headaches and arthritis later in life. Modern confinement nannies allow some bathing but usually not for the first 7-14 days. I didn’t bathe for 12 days post delivery (gross I know!) and after that was allowed to bathe using water boiled in special herbs every 3-4 days. They really don’t like you to wash your hair as they feel the ‘cold’ and ‘wind’ enters easily through the scalp so I was only allowed to wash my hair every 7 days after the initial 12 days, using water boiled with ginger, lemongrass and onion. And I had use a hairdryer immediately to minimise the time spent with wet hair. The onion smell lingered on unfortunately, so while I was pleased my hair wasn’t greasy anymore, it smelled of onion which wasn’t too pleasant!

Food and drink

No water, even if it was boiling hot. Instead you’re asked to drink a tea made from red dates, longan (similar to lychee) and goji berry.

Meals consist of rice or noodles with pork, chicken or fish, a leafy green vegetable and soup. Food would be cooked with lots ginger, sesame oil, rice wine and other herbs. In addition to keeping the body warm, confinement food is meant to help mothers heal quicker, for example turmeric is used to help clear the bleeding, ginger is also used to reduce bloating and gas and green papaya is used to increase breastmilk production. Confinement food is inherently gluten and dairy free (except for maybe soya sauce which is easily substituted for gluten free tamari), which is great to reduce allergens to babies although I don’t think it was necessarily designed that way on purpose.

Other restrictions

Because I had a c-section, I wasn’t allowed egg for the first two weeks and was advised to avoid duck, goose, yam, mutton, crab and prawn even after the confinement month.

Confinement isn’t for everyone and there were times I was counting down the days (and especially looking forward to a shower and washing my hair!), but overall, I really appreciated having the time to just focus on bonding with my child and learning about becoming a mother. I also enjoyed the fact I was looked after in terms of meals and being able to rest more as I knew my baby was being cared for. Also, it was nice not having the pressure of having to leave the house or have visitors and being able to lounge all day in socks and comfy pyjamas. I feel it definitely helped with breastfeeding as well as baby and I learnt how to breastfeed at home without the pressures of feeding in public and we could get into a routine more easily as there were no outings to schedule.

The Ready Steady Mums exercises for brand new mums straight away came in handy since I wasn’t allowed to go out to exercise but I was able to start doing little bits at home. The stretching exercises were particularly useful after all those hours of breastfeeding and I liked that lots could be done while in bed!  It took me a while to recover from the C-section especially since I was totally unprepared for it mentally, so being able to take charge of my body slowly and safely with the Ready Steady Mums program was very empowering.

Downsides – there were times when I felt Shahan could not/would not want to be comforted by me and that was heartbreaking. These confinement nannies are so experienced and can really calm a crying baby in seconds and I think babies realise they have a choice and cry till they get passed to the nanny. The number of times I would try to comfort him for ages and he just would not stop crying, but the minute I passed him to Angela he would stop. I would get very upset and it would exacerbate the baby blues feelings but I was reassured by other friends that it was a phase and he would become attached to me soon enough, and he did. I decided to use the ‘rejection’ phase as an opportunity to rest and sleep which in the end made me calmer and probably allowed me to better comfort him later.

All in all, I enjoyed the confinement and would recommend some self imposed down time for all new mums even if you don’t follow the rules. It’s a great way to transition into motherhood and to focus on what’s important – your baby and yourself.

If you have had a different experience of motherhood where you live in the world please get in touch. We’d really like to share more stories about different cultural norms for new mums and different prenatal and postnatal care around the world.

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