Traditional confinement practices believe your body is considered 'out of balance' as you enter a 'cold stage' due to the loss of blood and energy from the birth. The confinement period focuses on re-energising your body with the 'warmth' that has been lost.
Chinese, Malay and Indian communities all have their respective confinement practices. The common thread amongst the races is to help you and your body recover from the intensities of childbirth.
Traditionally, your mother or mother-in-law will take care of you during the confinement period. Many Chinese mothers however, hire a confinement nanny, a pui yuet (Cantonese for 'companion for a month') who will see to your needs as well as your baby's.
How long for?
For the Chinese, the confinement period lasts for a whole month from your baby's birth day. For the Malays, this period lasts 44 days while.
For Indians, the period varies between 30-40 days. Traditionally, the number of confinement days depends on which region in India your family originated from. A Ceylonese mother for example, will observe a 40-day confinement.
Some mothers may choose to extend their confinement period in certain situations to receive more help and care. For example, you might not have family living close by, or you are taking longer than expected to recover from a caesarean section.
For all races, the confinement period is a time for you to rest and avoid any physical work. During this time, sex is not allowed as you are not considered fully healed.
Bear in mind, you are expected to stay indoors during the entire confinement period. If you intend to follow this rule, do expect to experience a degree of cabin fever!
Practices and restrictions
There are many observations that you will be asked to follow, sometimes religiously! Some of these practices can be rather restrictive, especially for a modern mum.
Chinese confinement restrictions include:
• Strictly no washing of hair for the entire confinement period. Some mothers get around this rule by using dry shampoo instead during this time
• Avoiding exposure to cold elements such as cold water. Low temperatures from an air-conditioner or fan must be avoided too
• Bathing only with specially prepared warm water that is infused with herbs.
These prohibitions help ensure that your body is not made any 'cooler' and you retain as much heat as possible. It is believed this will help avoid health problems later in life such as rheumatism, arthritis, headaches and body pains.
Some Malay practices:
• Hiring a traditional Malay masseurs (bidan) to massage the abdomen and bind the tummy with a long cloth (bengkung)
• Using hot stones on the abdomen to cleanse the womb (menaikkan rahim).
The Malays believe the massage and binding, together with the hot stones help your uterus to shrink faster and expel 'wind' or any impurities from your womb. This is also supposed to help you regain your pre-pregnancy figure sooner.
For Indians, observations include:
• Bathing only with herbal water
• Daily massage with special oil blends, such as mustard seed oil.
Indians believe the daily massages will help you relax and get into shape sooner.
You will be put on a special diet during the confinement period. The aim of the diet is to boost your immunity and strength so you will be able to care for your newborn. Interestingly, all races believe in the 'warming' versus 'cooling' food groups, though each race may have slight variations to what is tolerated.
You will be required to eat a variety of meals that will 'warm' the body up. These include ginger and a traditional tonic brewed with herbs. Eating meals prepared with such ingredients are believed to promote better blood circulation and strengthening of the joints. The Chinese also believe that fish soups can help booster low milk supply.
'Cooling' foods such as cold drinks, cucumber, cabbage and pineapple should be avoided. Also, 'windy' foods such as onions and jackfruit are off limits as they are believed to cause colic in your baby.
To take the hassle of cooking these confinement dishes, which can be labourious to prepare, some companies now offer catering services for Chinese confinement foods.
You will be encouraged to eat fresh fish, avoiding dried and salted fishes. It is believed fresh fish, such as snakehead fish (ikan haruan) will promote healing internally. Certain fishes, such as mackerel (ikan kembong) and other seafood like shellfish, prawns and cockles must be avoided as they can cause allergies and itchiness.
Similar to the Chinese, the Malays believe 'cooling' elements found in foods like cucumber, young coconut, water spinach (kangkung) and sugarcane should be avoided. 'Cooling' foods supposedly cause rheumatism, arthritis and weak joints in a mother's body.
Certain gourd vegetables such as lauki and tori are believed to increase milk supply. Betle leaves are reported to help with lactation as well.
The nanny will cook special foods for you, bath your baby and do your baby's laundry. She will also take over the night feeds so you can rest. Breastfeeding mothers will normally express milk so the nanny can carry out the night feeds.
The catch to all this rest? You will have to adhere to a list dos and don'ts and follow a strict diet - some of which can be rather restrictive!