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Imagine giving birth to your baby and immediately becoming the center of pampered attention for a full month. Someone is with you 24/7 to take care of you and your newborn so you can rest, eat nourishing foods, feed your baby, and recover from childbirth.
Sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it? And not only nice, but a much-needed and refreshing approach to how mothers can spend those first four, crucial weeks after childbirth recovering.
The tradition of “Sitting the Month” or Zuo Yuezi in Chinese medicine goes back thousands of years to the Han Dynasty in China, where it was recognized that the month directly after childbirth is crucial to the future health of the mother and newborn. This program has become an ingrained tradition in Chinese culture and involves strict rules for the month following childbirth, some of which are still followed as closely as they were 2,000 years ago. It is now a full industry involving luxury hotels with doctors on call in house and a nurse in the room at all times. Families who can’t afford a luxury hotel still do a version of Zuo Yuezi where the new mother stays with a family member so she can have help recovering and focus on her baby.
While western medicine doesn’t treat childbirth as a condition that needs to be cured or given extensive weeks of added care, Chinese medicine believes the loss of blood and dramatic transformation of a woman’s body during the birth process results in a drained body of sorts requiring immediate replenishment. Left unaddressed, this fragility welcomes a myriad of long term health problems.
And while traditional Chinese postpartum confinement has very strict rules, some that might be outdated for modern women, there is a lot we can learn about how a woman can best recover after childbirth, especially when how we approach postpartum care here in the west is generally incredibly lacking. We need an updated version of this traditional chinese program, a more modern approach, while letting go of some of the superstitious rules that make it tough to follow in our current lives.
Here are some of the “ancient rules” and how we can apply it in this modern age.
1. Avoid contact with cold and wind
Cold and wind are pathogenic factors in Chinese medicine, meaning they can trigger a disease process. While this was just a way for them to understand and explain what we now know of as germ theory, science is catching on to how weather and temperature can affect our immune systems. Cold and wind are particularly pathogenic when the body’s system is lowered, such as after childbirth when a mother needs replenishing.
Mothers were told to bundle up even indoors and not go outside at all. They were also not allowed to shower as the cool down afterwards could be associated with a chill. While we do think it is fine to shower and get some fresh air, we do advise a mother to protect herself and her baby during this vulnerable time by wearing appropriate clothing, especially around the neck and upper back region, and erring on the side of staying warmer than usual.
2. Eat only warm, cooked, bland foods
Childbirth is very depleting and often there is a fair and sometimes large amount of blood loss. In Chinese medicine theory, there are certain foods that help replenish the qi and blood, which are depleted after birth. Cold raw foods are harder on the stomach and spleen to digest, so lightly cooked veggies are preferable. The tradition forbids fruits or uncooked vegetables. The takeaway advice here, is to of course enjoy fresh fruit and salads here and there, but that a postpartum diet should consist of mostly cooked and warm unprocessed food and drinks, emphasizing the following:
- bone broths
- fresh ginger (cooked)
- free range chicken and eggs
- dates and berries
- cooked greens and other colorful veggies
- liver (from organic animals)
- grass fed or organic meat
- brown rice, oats, and quinoa
- Adding cooked herbs such as Dang Gui, Huang Qi (Astragalus), and Goji Berries
A hearty organic chicken and vegetable soup full of ginger is a wonderful meal to make, and can be a useful gift to drop off for a mother you know who has just given birth.
3. Only rest, eat, sleep, and feed your baby. No TV, books, or other distractions
This may sound difficult and boring, but focusing on resting and low mental stimulation can be helpful for healing. This is where it is necessary to have help from someone (or a few people) you trust to help you take care of the things you don’t absolutely have to do. This is a big focus of postpartum care and something that is lacking in the west. We don’t live in villages that we once did, so relying on others for support can be harder. There are lots of things you can still do, however, to lower the workload during this first month: Pre-cook meals and store in the freezer during your pregnancy so you don’t have to cook. Line-up your partner to take as much time off work as they can to help care for you during this time. Request meals from friends, and ask them to leave them with your partner so there is no pressure to socialise or host, and you can solely focus on recovering. Hire a cleaner for these first few weeks. It’s also worth reflecting on how the things we think of as “entertaining” elicit emotional responses and can make our bodies respond like we are experiencing whatever is happening in the show or book. Most women have deep empathy during this time from hormones, which helps us sense the needs of our baby, but it also means we’re vulnerable to the emotions of others, even if they are on TV or in a book. While we know those things aren’t happening to us, our systems can still release stress hormones in response.
4. No visitors
Lastly, it’s most important you limit contact with visitors during this recovery time, especially if those people add to your emotional stress or create any feelings of anxiety. Be firm with well-meaning friends and family who want to visit you at the hospital or at home and explain you’re using this time to recover and bond with your baby. Limiting contact with the outside world helps keep that bubble of connection and calm around you and your baby as you are figuring things out and adjusting to your new life with them. Visitors can stress out the new mum in various ways (bringing drama, gossip, giving unwanted advice, criticizing, judging, etc.), further depleting the mother’s precious qi and blood, plus there is pressure on the mother to “host” and that is draining also. Passing the baby around from person to person can also be very stressful for a mother to watch, and that is completely detrimental to her recovery during this vulnerable time.
People can, however, be very helpful, so use your intuition to determine which ones you’d like to let in during this time, and don’t be afraid to ask others to wait until you feel stronger.
The most common underlying theme throughout the chinese postpartum program is protecting the mother and newborn from exposure to pathogens and extra stress. A new mother is in a depleted state and her system is more vulnerable. Using this first month to prioritize recovery by creating a calm household and making sure the demands on the mother are minimal, may quicken recovery time, potentially preventing postpartum depression and other health problems, while promoting healthy milk production and a healthy immune system for both mother and baby.