Dr Ong Aihui Clara
Obstetrician & Gynaecologist
For Chinese mothers, the month after giving birth is a crucial time for growth and recovery. In fact, there’s an old Chinese adage that goes: "Eat well, sleep well, nothing is better than sitting the month well." During this period, commonly known as confinement, mothers and their babies are advised to stay indoors for 30 – 40 days.
For generations, Chinese mothers have followed traditional confinement practices that are deeply rooted in traditional Chinese medicine. They are often very restricting and rigorous, and some mothers find it difficult to adhere to them.
Read on to learn whether these common practices are myth or based on fact.
Myth: Mums aren’t allowed to drink plain water, but they can drink alcohol! Drinking alcoholic drinks like rice wine and eating dishes cooked with alcohol is believed to boost blood circulation and warm up the body.
Fact: While alcohol can affect blood circulation, it is not essential to the recovery of mums who have just given birth. In fact, mums should avoid alcohol intake especially if they’re breastfeeding. Large amounts of alcohol can be very harmful to a breastfeeding baby and could impair growth and development.
Myth: One of the goals of confinement is to restore a woman’s "energy" or qi. Since childbirth drains a woman of qi, it’s important for her to consume specific herbal soups and dishes to boost energy and blood flow. This also includes consuming a lot of ginger, which is believed to promote healing and boost milk production in lactating mums.
Fact: There is no problem with mothers consuming ginger. In fact, confinement foods that contain ginger has several purported health benefits, including reducing muscle pain and soreness. However, it’s generally best to practise caution when taking in herbal supplements. Most studies attempting to prove the efficacy of Chinese herbal supplements provide no firm conclusions. More importantly, some Chinese herbal products have been found to contain toxic compounds, heavy metals and pesticides. A healthy diet consisting of nutritious confinement food will help your recovery more than overconsuming Chinese herbal medicine.
Myth: During confinement, mothers are restricted to a diet of meat, liver, and herbs. These are believed to be essential to heating the body because they’re excellent sources of protein and iron.
Fact: While consuming meat, liver, and herbs isn’t a problem, mothers should not be restricted to these 3 foods. In fact, half of a recovering mother’s diet should consist of fruits and vegetables to help her restore important nutrients. The other half should include whole grains like brown rice and whole-grain bread. Overall, following the food pyramid is still the way to go.
In addition, there are some foods that you should avoid, such as raw food, caffeine and alcohol.
Myth: Drinking plain water during confinement will increase water retention in the body, causing the body temperature to go down. This is believed to lead to "wind" entering the body.
Fact: Mothers need to stay hydrated, especially if they’re breastfeeding. A normal adult needs 8 glasses of water a day. Breastfeeding mums should take at least that amount plus a little more. To meet your hydration needs, you should take at least 1 glass of water after every breastfeeding session (which is 8 – 10 times a day).
Myth: Coming into contact with cold water will cause "wind" to enter the body. This is said to lead to all sorts of diseases later in life, including chronic headaches and arthritis.
Fact: Maintaining good personal hygiene after giving birth is an absolute must – and this certainly involves taking a shower. It’s particularly important to keep the perineum (area between the genitals and the anus) clean and dry to promote wound healing and prevent infection.
Myth: Confinement is all about keeping warm and preventing "wind" from entering the body. To do this, mothers are told to wear warm clothing (even in warm weather) and refrain from using fans or air conditioning.
Fact: After childbirth, a mother’s hormone levels change as her body adjusts to not being pregnant anymore. Changes in these hormone levels can cause changes in body temperature. Women may also sweat more to get rid of excess fluid. Night sweats can disturb a mother’s sleep, cause irritability, and affect her quality of life. The best way to manage postpartum sweating is to stay cool, wear comfortable clothing, and drink plenty of water.
Myth: In traditional Chinese medicine, childbirth is thought to weaken the liver which is linked to the eyes. During confinement, mothers should not read or cry to avoid putting stress on the eyes.
Fact: There is no scientific proof to back up this belief. While prolonged reading of fine print may cause eye strain, there is no evidence to suggest that it can directly cause damage to the eyes.
The same can be said for crying. In fact, crying can be a way of relieving stress and dealing with the emotions that come with being a new mum. This is commonly called postnatal blues or baby blues, which is a natural result of hormonal fluctuations following childbirth and usually lasts up to 2 weeks.
However, some mothers may develop postpartum depression, which is a more severe, long-lasting form of depression that may continue for months or more. Symptoms usually develop within the first few weeks after giving birth, but may also begin during pregnancy or up to a year after birth. Symptoms can include poor sleep and appetite, low mood and negative thoughts towards yourself and baby. If you are experiencing any symptoms of postpartum depression, talk to your obstetrician right away. The earlier you seek help; the sooner you can start to feel like yourself again.
Myth: Walking or moving about can increase muscle weakness after giving birth. This is why mothers are advised to only lie down in bed during this period.
Fact: While it’s true that mothers who have just given birth (especially those who gave birth via C-section) need to rest, they should not be restricted to just lying in bed. Experts recommend new mothers to walk and move around once they feel comfortable as it can help decrease the risk of blood clots (deep vein thrombosis).
If you have more confinement or pregnancy-related questions, speak to your doctor or make an appointment with an O&G specialist.
You may also wish to learn more about post-natal care and how to best take care of your body after birth.