Zuo Yue Zi: Postpartum Recovery The Asian Way

 

In many Asian cultures, the period after childbirth is seen as a critical and vulnerable phase in a woman's life. In Chinese tradition, this postnatal period is known as zuo yue zi or simply yue zi — literally translating to ‘sitting the month.’ It is a confinement period of 30-40 days where the new mother undergoes care aimed at restoring her physical and mental well-being after the rigours of childbirth.

 

Sitting The Month: Its Origin

The roots of zuo yue zi can be traced back to some of the earliest traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) texts. It is based on the philosophical concepts of yin and yang — the idea that a woman loses a massive amount of yang (positive life force/heat) during labour which must be replenished through rest and specific dietary measures. TCM theory holds that during pregnancy, the mother has to work doubly hard to nourish two bodies, depleting her of qi (vital life energy) and blood in the process. If these reserves are not restored carefully, it could leave her susceptible to a variety of future health issues like arthritis, rheumatism and aching joints. Hence the month of confinement evolved as a protective and restorative practice for the new mother.

Many families engaged a traditional postpartum carer, known locally as a yue sao, to stay in the new mother’s home during the confinement period and assist the mother. The carer is traditionally someone who is considered an expert in the necessary postpartum diet and practices. Their skills were obtained through experience rather than formal training. The traditional postpartum carer would move into the home for the entire duration of the confinement. She would usually be given her own room. Depending on the mother’s preference and feeding choice, the baby might room-in with the traditional postpartum carer during the night or be with the mother. The carer would have full access to the baby as her primary role would be to care for the baby in order for the new mother to ‘rest.’  From massaging to bathing the baby, cooking confinement meals, preparing herbs and observing taboos, the yue sao was responsible for enforcing proper zuo yue zi.

For that first month, the new mother was not allowed to receive visitors (except very close family) or leave the house at all.

 

How It Worked

At its core, zuo yue zi revolves around the basic tenets of rest and regimen. The traditions may vary slightly across different Asian ethnicities, but the underlying principles remain the same:

  • The new mother is exempted from all household chores and told to stay in bed and rest as much as possible for the full 30 days. Many families have a spare bedroom or ‘confinement room’ set aside just for this period.
  • She is advised to avoid any strenuous physical activity like exercising or even walking too much to allow her body to heal.
  • Mental exertion is also discouraged as reading books, watching TV/movies or using electronic gadgets for extended periods is seen as unnecessarily tiring.
  • The new mother follows a special confinement diet centered around ‘heat inducing’ foods like ginger, brown vinegar, chicken, sesame oil and herbs.
  • On the flip side, ‘cooling’ foods like fruits, vegetables, soy products and caffeine are avoided as they are thought to introduce excessive cold into the body and slow the healing process.
  • Emotional distress like excessive crying is also avoided as it is believed to slow postpartum healing.
  • The mother is advised against bathing, shampooing or doing anything that could potentially let ‘wind’ enter her body. Wiping with a damp cloth is permitted.
  • Besides resting, the mother engages in light stretching exercises and massages to improve blood circulation. Exposure to wind or extreme temperatures is avoided.

 

Why Was It A Thing? Why Is It Still A Thing?

The lifestyle and practices that typify zuo yue zi had, and still has, immense health and biological benefits to new mothers:

  • The emphasis on rest allows the new mother's body to recover from the physical stress of labour. Adequate sleep and reduced workload enables healing.
  • A high-protein diet rich in nutritious ingredients like ginger, vinegar and herbs provides vital nutrients for breastfeeding.
  • Massage and warm showers improve blood circulation and reduce swelling/engorgement in the postnatal period.
  • Confinement limits exposure to infectious diseases from outside during the critical first few weeks after childbirth.

However, some practices like restricting shower/bathing and avoiding crying do not have any proven medical advantages.

 

Modern Day Zuo Yue Zi

If you find yourself in any major Asian city like Singapore, Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur, you will notice that dedicated confinement centers and postnatal retreats are a thing. These confinement centres are where zuo yue zi happen in contemporary society.

In Singapore, upscale confinement retreats like Zhang’s Singjoy — located at the Shangri-La  — offer lavish confinement packages for a full month’s postnatal retreat experience. Lactation consultants, nannies and chefs on hand around the clock are only some of the luxuries offered by Singjoy. Zinnia Fields in Kuala Lumpur even offer organic baby skin care, jaundice monitoring and up to six meals per day to aid the postpartum recovery process.

These care facilities blend Asian techniques for helping mothers recuperate from childbirth with top-end amenities like massages and music therapy, and have seen explosive growth across the regions where the super-rich from mainland China have been flocking.

Modern confinement facilities evolve the zuo yue zi customs to be more progressive and palatable. The experienced yue sao at these centres can help with postnatal massages and basic infant care. Additionally, these centres provide a safe and supportive environment for new mothers to connect with other parents going through similar experiences.

The dietary regimes have been updated to be more nutritious. Some even offer new-age options like vegan or Paleo-friendly confinement meal plans. Several centers have in-house chefs and nutritionists who can customise confinement diets based on the mother's body conditions. Other innovative spins include providing postpartum fitness facilities like pilates or yoga, as well as educating new mothers on how best to care for their newborns.

With the services and progressive tweaks these centres offer, taking these postnatal retreats has since been justified. Per The Malaysian Reserve, Qi Zhai-McCartney, a psychotherapist and counsellor at Alliance Counselling in Singapore says the confinement centres can provide a restful shelter with professional help away from cramped homes or well-meaning relatives who pressure new parents with expectations and advice. There is also the appeal of having a low-commitment ‘maternity staycation’ where new mothers can rest, recover and be pampered without any household duties.

 

 

While the customs are being modernised, zuo yue zi remains an integral part of many Asian cultural identities and postpartum recovery processes. This confinement process and the confinement centres are gaining Western appeal too. The Village Postnatal Retreat Centre in San Francisco and the Boram Postnatal Retreat in New York City are good indicators. As long as it continues to evolve with the times, this age-old Chinese practice will likely endure as a traditional rite of passage for new mothers across the world.

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