Author: Chian Kee | Date: 1 December 2013 | Please Comment!


Those of you who have never been Asian and pregnant before may not have had the pleasure of acquainting yourself with Confinement.  According to “traditional Chinese medicine”, which these days is a euphemism for “the Internet”, a new mother’s body experiences an imbalance of “hot” and “cold” for the first month postpartum.  In order to remedy this, all conduct that promotes “cooling” is banned, and anything “heaty” is required.   This all sounds entirely permissible and the more open minded of you might already be preparing to hitch the  modern-medicine-doesn’t-know-everything bandwagon to your high horse and ride it into the heaty sunset.  If that’s you, please don’t think that I’m advocating that new mothers shouldn’t rest and recuperate.

That said, here are my objections to the three key pillars of confinement:

Number 1: Don’t let your feet touch the ground

As everybody knows, nothing cools your feet more than direct contact with the sleet-covered dirt floor of your thatched hovel in an Inner Mongolian frozen tundra.  If you find yourself in that situation and your husband/feudal lord is requiring you to get back into the rice paddies within 40 days of ejecting an infant from your nether-regions onto said floor, you can go and tell him to 离开 because you’re in confinement and you don’t want to die from pneumonia before the ripe old age of 45.

If you have sufficient internet access to be reading this, chances are that you live in the wrong era and in too comfortable surrounds to benefit from being bed-ridden for such an extended period of time.  Plus, if your feet are cold, these days we have socks.  Of course, you can take your opposition to this one too far.  Thanks to the magic of the hormone Relaxin, a new mother’s joints are likely to be hypermobile and she will be much more susceptible to imbalance and injury for quite some time after birth.  So take it easy, but you don’t have to become the world champion of “the floor is hot lava” in order to avoid chronic illness – although I guess if the floor was lava, then it wouldn’t be cooling, so that would be ok.

Incidentally, ancient Chinese medicine also dictates that you shouldn’t sing “My feet won’t touch the ground” during confinement, because it’s too Coldplay.

Number 2: Don’t eat cooling foods

Not to be confused with a ban on cold food, a woman in confinement is not to consume cooling foods regardless of their thermal state.  As far as I can gather, everything that you can ingest can be categorised on a spectrum between yin and yang, yin being cooling and yang being heaty.  The poster-child for heaty foods is ginger, so you’ll usually find that any self-respecting confinement menu will contain more ginger than a Julia Gillard lookalike convention.  That photo of a bowl of ginger at the top of the post wasn’t actually the entirety of the ginger that my wife, Cecylia, ate in her first postpartum week.  That was just the ginger that fit into the bowl.

For a layman such as myself, it’s not possible to guess whether certain foods are heaty or cooling.  For example, chicken and turkey are heaty, but duck is cooling (Because ducks like water? Because Daffy is cooler than Foghorn Leghorn?).   If anything, you would think that the fact that ducks come with a built-in hydrophobic layer and duck down insulation would make them more aligned with yang than yin.  Maybe it’s only ok to eat duck feathers.

Now, I’m from the school of thought that says Cecylia can eat whatever she wants – so if she wants to eat ginger-infused ginger with a side serving of ginger, and a chicken, then she can go right ahead. In fact, some evidence suggests that a traditional Chinese confinement diet can help to increase breast milk production and decrease the likelihood of prolonged jaundice (source).  I’m also reasonably confident, however, that women who eat freshly prepared food for each meal after delivery, and who are prohibited from eating the usual junk that we stuff our faces with, will fare better on all sorts of metrics regardless of whether they have a sneaky piece of duck.

My main problem with this rule is that many people following strict confinement diet rules will be failing to eat foods that may contain essential nutrients – especially if they only know of a handful of heaty foods and they don’t have a Chinese medicine guru around to tell them otherwise.  Also, some of the heaty foods are generally just a bad idea.  For example, certain kinds of rather strong alcohol are considered heaty and therefore good for nursing mothers.  Added to cooked food, this isn’t much of an issue, but your alcohol concentration in your blood is the same as the alcohol concentration in your breast milk.

My other issue is that there seems to be some confusion about whether certain foods are yin or yang, and I’m pretty sure there isn’t a laboratory test you can do to figure it out.  This means that most modern mothers will Google for a list of foods they can eat, which can lead to them thinking that they can’t eat fruit during confinement or, my favourite, that barbiturates are fine as long as you stay off the cocaine.

Number 3: Every rule about water

So it turns out that after a woman gives birth, she turns into a Fire-type Pokemon.  This means that, according to various corners of the internet, there are an entire raft of confinement rules designed to protect her against water-based attacks, including:

  1. No drinking water
  2. No showering
  3. No washing hair
  4. No brushing teeth

I understand that sweating and crying are also not encouraged.

The main exception to the above rules, which were probably introduced reasonably quickly after it was discovered that even Asian women couldn’t survive for a month without ingesting water of some description, is that water may be used if it is infused with something heaty – usually ginger.  Want to wash your hair? Do it in ginger water.  Want a drink? Drink some (hopefully different) ginger water.

I don’t know about you, but if I were responsible for nourishing another human being using only my bodily fluids, I would be drinking as much H2O as possible.  Unfortunately, as most of us don’t have heated ginger water on tap, this usually means that most serious confinement practitioners may have difficulty finding sufficient hydration on demand and will forgo washing.  For a month.  Combine this with the rules that you can’t use air conditioning, and that you need to wear long sleeved clothing at all times, and you have a surefire recipe for spousal postpartum depression.

The only other option for the woman is to evolve into Mega-Charizard because then her Dragon-type will cancel out her Fire-type’s weakness to water… or so I’ve heard.

2 Comments in the fine print. Add yours!

  • Push It — 3:17 pm on December 4th, 2013

    […] Eating ‘heaty’ foods that have a healthy douse of ginger, drinking water that has only been marinated with ginger, and washing hands only in warm water, infused with, yeb, you guessed it, ginger. Other rules include being forbidden to look at TV and computer screens, as they are too ‘damaging’ to retinas and of course, not leaving the house or have ‘wind’ blown on you. That means, no air-con and no standing in the doorway. Oh, and the really hard-core types farewell showering and shampooing for an entire month. So far, I’ve broken every rule – and hubby also has his doubts about the strict confinement regime. […]

  • Margaret 3:19 pm on January 7th, 2014

    All said and done, the confinement monthwith a few abberations seem to have worked out well.Baby, Mom and Dad seem to be thriving.Thank God!