The Chinese custom of postpartum confinement— ‘sitting the month’—is a topic that generates a lot of interest and debate.
Perhaps you’re considering the practice for yourself, looking to find common ground with a traditional mother-in-law, or are simply wishing to understand a different culture.
So what exactly does confinement involve and why? We examine this ancient tradition from a modern perspective.
Understanding Traditional Chinese Medicine
‘Doing the month’ or ‘sitting the month’ (cho yuet in Cantonese or zuo yue zi in Mandarin) is a 30-day period of confinement after your baby is born.
The practice hails from ancient China, yet is still followed by many modern women across China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and beyond.
Its origins are deeply rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a Chinese philosophy on health and wellness that affects diets, remedies and lifestyle.
Its core philosophy is balancing the abstract concepts of yin and yang, which are always in flux.
Yin has feminine, colder, darker and damper properties, while yang has masculine, hotter, brighter and drier properties. When yin and yang are not balanced, one is vulnerable to illness.
In TCM it is believed that after labor, women go into a state of imbalance. The yin dominates because of the significant loss of blood and fluids.
New mothers need to rest, build up their strength and regain balance with a month of ‘sitting’.
A key component of sitting the month is nutrition. As mothers’ bodies are already considered to be in a cold, yin state during this time, cold food and drinks are to be avoided.
This also refers to foods that are deemed to have ‘cooling’ properties—certain fruits, vegetables and soy products.
Mothers have meals prepared for them during the month that help restore the balance of yin and yang, as well as promote the production of breast milk.
The postnatal diet includes hot, hearty meals made from foods with ‘heating’ properties like meat and ginger.
Classic examples of such nutrient- and calorie-dense meals include pig trotter stew and papaya fish soup.
Rest and Hygiene
Aside from diet, a prescribed set of behavior is designed to help mothers recover during the month so they don’t overextend their bodies.
Traditionally, women were expected to be bed-bound for the entire month to fully heal.
As with any tradition, there’s no handbook. The rules are numerous and women follow them to varying degrees.
While many do not follow this verbatim any more, it’s still expected that mothers do not leave the house, except for medical appointments.
Any activities like cooking, chores and exercise are to be avoided. You’re also advised not to read, watch TV, or go online, but to focus on resting instead.
Many of these guidelines also stem from the idea of reinstating balance by not letting more coldness enter the body.
A 2014 study by Wuhan University in China found lower aerobic endurance and higher rates of depression in women practicing confinement.
According to TCM, a woman’s joints and pores have opened up after birth, so the body can get cold more easily, becoming susceptible to chills, illness, and even rheumatic diseases later in life.
This is why air-conditioning or fans are not allowed for the month. And even bathing, washing your hair, and brushing your teeth is to be avoided!
There is a loophole for personal hygiene though if you bathe in specially prepared hot ginger water and properly dry your hair and body immediately.
The Difficulties of Keeping up Tradition
As with any tradition, there’s no handbook. The rules are numerous and women follow them to varying degrees—with many tweaking them for modern life and needs.
For example, many new moms opt to use air conditioning in summer as long as the cold air doesn’t hit them directly. Likewise, many women live without a shower for 30 days, but will still brush their teeth.
It’s also worth recognizing that sitting the month can be quite mentally and emotionally trying, with a focus heavily on physical and nutritional health.
The period can create ‘negative physical and emotional outcomes’, a study by Syracuse University in America found when it analyzed the postpartum practices of Chinese American women in New York.
Chinese mothers can find themselves having to negotiate between cultural traditions and western societal expectations.
Another study by Wuhan University in China actually recommended routine screening for postpartum depression for confined mothers after discovering a link between the two in 2014.
Finding Your Balance
For women who want to try the practice of sitting the month, there is definitely a lot to consider.
While rest and nutrient-dense meals are undoubtedly great for recovery, the lack of emotional consideration as well as some hygiene aspects are debatable.
Arguably one the biggest challenges is striking a balance between tradition and modern life, or between mother and elders; and deciding where to draw the line.
But at the end of the day, doing the month aims to achieve the same things that all postpartum cultural customs do—help a new mother recover, avoid infection and illness, and focus on the new baby in her life.