Confinement Practices Among Asians

The joys (and annoyances) of pregnancy

What a blessing it is to be pregnant! The joy of having a life grow inside you, listening to the heartbeat for the first time, feeling the baby kick and flutter in your tummy.. those are just incredible things only a mother can experience. And let’s not forget this:

Fun.

Let’s not forget those gassy nights, when your husband looks at you and wonders what the hell turned you into… him.

What about the ache in your back that never really goes away?

Said every pregnant mother [Source: Line Severinsen]
How about feeling like you just got hit by a truck, over and over again? (Or is that just me?)

At the end of your pregnancy, you start fantasizing delivery, because who can carry on like this for so long? What more does this baby want from you (A lot more, in fact)? Can we just start with ejection already?

Let’s not forget the waiting… [Source: Cathy Thorne]
Once you enter the postpartum stage, what happens?

If you’re western, you are out and about 3 days postnatal, and back to your routine within 7 days. Or if you’re a minister in France, after 5 days. Power.

BUT if you happen to be Asian (and have very insistent mothers), you go through something called confinement.

Confinement? Say what?

Glad you asked.

It’s something that Asian mothers go through, postpartum. Right after ejection, confinement period starts and it lasts for about a month for the Chinese and longer if you’re Malay or Indian. It’s a traditional practice, carried on from ages ago – as early as the year 960 for the Chinese. It consists of practices that aim to help a new mom recover from the hardship of pregnancy and pushing a giant watermelon out of her privates.

For not all of us can look like Kate after delivery [Source: @stamfordmommy]

Chinese Confinement Practices

For Chinese mothers, basically what happens during confinement period consist of these really fun stuff – stated in point form because why not:

  • Mum and baby aren’t to leave the house. Imagine an ebola breakout, and these 2 have been exposed. That’s more or less what it’s like. Dare to venture out to a supermarket to get something you absolutely need? Aunties will be scolding you for leaving the house. “How dare you! And what are you wearing? Short sleeves! Aiyoh!
  • If mums are supposed to rest and not do any form of work, how then, does anything get done in the house? Glad you asked. You have 3 options: get help from mum/in law, hire a confinement lady, or stay at a confinement centre.
  • Asians believe that the weakness of the body postpartum, has to be protected from ‘cold elements’. These elements enter your body when you get in contact with cold water/air. You’ll read more about cold and hot below when we get to the topic of food.
  • In accordance to that belief, one of the main restrictions (certainly the most talked about) for new mothers would be ‘no hair washing’ – for an entire month, mind you – in this sweltering hot climate.

    Not for 30 days, in fact.
  • No usage of fans allowed. Pores are open, therefore air can enter. Get it, yet?
  • Air-conditioning, if used, can only be set above 26 degrees Celcius.
  • Oh, also, bathing cannot be done with whatever water that flows from your tap/shower head. Water has to be boiled, preferably with herbs.
  • All these restrictions are meant to prevent the loss of heat from your body, in order to avoid problems like rheumatism, arthritis, headaches and body pains later in life.
  • Basically, the mums/mums-in-law of mums are traditionally supposed to help with housework, cooking, caring of the baby (at night).
  • If that can’t happen, and if you have some moolah set aside, then you can also go ahead and hire a confinement nanny. These ladies are to stay in your home, cook healthy confinement meals for you, and sleep with your baby at night (so that you can rest). Godsend. Hired, but still.
  • Confinement nannies cost about RM4000 per month, more if they come highly recommended. They’re also supposed to receive an ang pao of between RM200-500 at the end of the month.
  • Confinement nannies would also handle your laundry, sleep with the baby, and bring your baby to you at night for feeds.
  • (I get the need to rest. I really do. Giant watermelon, remember? But I have difficulty having someone other than me sleep with my baby, my life, my heart, my everything. I just can’t do it. But that’s just me. Moving on…)
  • Confinement centres! These are a pretty recent thing, in the history of confinement, I suppose. So there are these places, set up for new mums and their babies to stay at. Some allow dads to stay in, too, but spots are limited.
    Not too shabby… [Source: Amazing Confinement]
  • Confinement centres basically offer a nursery for the baby, special confinement meals for the mum, and offer all the care that a confinement lady would. These are available in bigger towns/cities. So far I’ve only heard of Chinese confinement centres. I suppose mums which require halal food, would find it difficult to find a centre that would cater to them.
  • Confinement centres charge about RM6000 for twin-sharing, and RM8000 for a single room. Yes, it’s a business worth venturing into.

Malay Confinement Practices

I have less knowledge when it comes to Malay and Indian practices, but basically it involves a lot of massaging the abdomen and re-positioning of the womb, or something. It involves using a sort of ginger paste on the tummy, and then wrapping it in a corset type outfit called a bengkung. Hot stones are also placed on the abdomen to cleanse the womb, and expel gas and reduce water retention. There are massage ladies who can be engaged to come to your home to give you a massage, so you don’t have to leave your home. Massages are done for a period of 7 days straight (or longer), as soon as possible after delivery, unless you went through a c-section. In case of c-sections, a period of recovery has to be observed before any massages can be done. It is worth noting that this practice is getting more and more popular among Chinese mothers too. Confinement period lasts for 42-44 days.

Ikat Bengkung [Source: Women Online Magazine]

Indian Confinement Practices

Indian mothers go through massages as well, similar to the Malays. Different spices and herbs might go into the making of the paste, with Indians using a lot of fenugreek and turmeric. They also bathe in warm herb infused water. This lasts for 40 days.

Confinement Food

Something I really enjoyed during my confinement period was the food. I loved it. I didn’t find it bland or too gingery. I loved the combined taste and smell that was given from the herbs, ginger and sesame oil. Probably it was also a case of being really hungry from the breastfeeding. It made me hungry all the time. I was eating double of what I normally did. I couldn’t get enough of the soups. Comfort food at its best.

Who prepares this? Well, whoever is taking care of you during your confinement period, of course!

I didn’t employ anyone or have my mother care for me after my first baby was born. What I did do was have confinement meals delivered to my home. Yes, those exist too! Back then we were living in Singapore and paid about RM1500 and this would cover 2 meals a day. Food would be delivered daily at around 11 am and 4 pm. These were wholesome, albeit lacking some salt, but healthy, and cooked fresh – exactly what you need post watermelon expulsion.

The purpose of a special diet during confinement period is to boost your strength and return your immune system back to what it was. It is also meant to boost milk production for breastfeeding mothers and the expelling of gas, promote blood circulation and strengthening of joints.

Food falling under the ‘cooling’ category like cucumber, cabbage and pineapple are a big no-no. ‘Windy’ food like onion and jackfruit are also avoided as they are believed to cause colic.

Chinese wisdom FTW [Source: Pinterest]
This is why you always smell fart when you’re around a mother who just gave birth. Heh.

Malay confinement food involves a lot of fish, from what I’ve heard. A particular fish called ikan haruan is encouraged, to promote healing. The Malays also believe in the cooling and heaty elements in food and also subscribe to avoiding ‘cooling’ food.

For the Indians, their meals would make use of garlic, shallots, ghee, fenugreek and almonds.

Summary

Confinement is a big thing here, in Malaysia. When I went for walks in the morning to expose my daughter to a bit of morning sun to reduce her jaundice levels (before my confinement period was up), I was asked to return home as soon as possible, scolded for not covering my arms and not wearing socks.

I know. I’m a rebel.

Ohh yeah…

There are some things I adopt, though, like the food. I really like the food part of confinement, and when no one was around to help other than my husband, I bathed in warm water, from my beloved water heater. I tried being disciplined with the herbs, but it didn’t last very long. Having to boil a pot of herbs, and carry them all the way to the bathroom each time was just too tedious for me.

Of course, now that I start complaining about having back pains to any Chinese aunty, they would ask me if I strictly followed all the rules of confinement, I say yes, in order to avoid a barrage of “SEE, YOUR OWN FAULT” comments. Nevermind that my 4 month old baby currently weighs 8 kgs and I’m carrying him around all the time, the back pain i’m suffering from comes from not wearing socks.

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