Confinement: A month at home

When I think about the word confinement I think about restriction or an old-fashioned idea of childbirth, so when I first heard confinement in the context of traditional Chinese medicine here in Malaysia, I was cautiously intrigued, if that’s possible. My colleague was having a baby and the discussion around the office was about traditional Chinese practices regarding the health and well-being of mother and child from conception to the first month of the baby’s life.

Initially it was all too much for my western ideology, but the more I listened and the more questions I asked the more I began to get a sense of why some Malaysian women still adhere to confinement practices. And, even though I still do not fully subscribe to the notion of confinement, I do like the idea that there is a month devoted to caring for both the mother and the baby.

What is confinement?

Confinement or zuò yuè zi is the first month after the birth of your baby. According to traditional Chinese medicine practitioner’s, childbirth renders a woman’s body ‘broken’. ‘Cracks’ appear during childbirth which allow the cold to filter into joints, under the skin and throughout the whole body, making the confinement month essential for healing the mother. The whole month is geared towards warming and repairing the mother’s body.

So, how? 

There is a lot of information on the internet about confinement practices, all pretty much saying the same thing: stay warm and indoors; don’t leave the house; stay away from water and drafts; and avoid eating cooling or spicy food by sticking to a diet of ‘healty foods’. No sex, no TV, no visitors, no reading and absolutely no crying – apparently you need to rest every organ and gland in your body. However, you are allowed to lie flat and rest, rest, rest. The traditional practitioners believe that otherwise you will have problems later in life with arthritis, rheumatism and migraine headaches.

I spoke to a Malaysian friend who has had four children, and with each, a month of confinement. She believes that confinement is essential to repair the woman’s body, and although she does not adhere strictly to the ‘do’s and don’ts’ of confinement, she recommends for the new mother to be able to rest and spend time with her new baby. On each occasion of her confinement she opted for a confinement lady or yuè săo. This is the person who is employed solely to take care of the mother and the baby. The confinement lady does not do household duties, but will do mother and baby’s washing and tidying. She will cook for the mother and baby, and depending on your arrangement, may well cook for the rest of the family.

Would a confinement lady work for me?

In Malaysia it is easy to get good, reliable help in the house, and if you already have a good live in helper who has had previous experience with babies, the idea of a confinement lady may be somewhat redundant. But for first time or even second time mums away from their usual support networks the confinement lady may just well be the ticket. Breastfeeding and a baby that doesn’t settle easily can sometimes be a challenge and an extra pair of maternal hands may make the transition into motherhood all that much smoother.

confinementPhoto: Becs Viveash

For many who do not subscribe to traditional Chinese medicine and tradition, the idea of not washing your hair, brushing your teeth or being allowed to cool down in the tropics, whilst having to eat a restricted diet, may seem unfathomable, but confinement does not have to follow the strict letter of practice if you find a person who is willing to adapt the customs.

A Malaysian friend flew her confinement lady to Belgium, where she was living at the time. She followed the western practices of bathing and leaving the house, but was grateful for an extra pair of maternal hands while her family were so far away.

According to the Babycenter, both Malay and Indian women take on the confinement period and adapt it to their own traditions and beliefs. One thing they encourage is to make it work for you: “it is all about helping the new mum relax and regain her energy.’

If you do want to consider a confinement lady make sure that you do your research and think about these points:

  • Understand fully what confinement is and the reasons why it is practiced.
  • If you are still comfortable, start researching for a good confinement lady who you can communicate with. One important piece of advice I was given by my Malaysian friend was try to find a confinement lady who is recommended by someone who has similar views on confinement as you.
  • Before employing anyone, discuss how strict you are with confinement practices.
  • Only you will know if you can manage another woman in your house issuing instructions – instructions that she will whole-heartedly believe to be the best for you and your baby – and instructions which maybe quite foreign to your own belief system and views. Remember that motherhood is not a ‘one size fits all’ ideology.

A lovely ending to confinement is the full moon party. This is where mother and baby are welcomed out of the house for the first time. A celebration of life and health, usually attended by family and (luckily for me) on occasions, friends. We gathered together and, in true Malaysian tradition, celebrated with traditional confinement food, full moon treats and gifts for the mother and baby.

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