For thousands of years, many cultures around the world have implemented and honored an extended period of rest, recovery, nourishment and adjustment for new mothers after childbirth, also known as a postpartum confinement period. Traditional cultures place a heavy emphasis typically on the first month or 40 days after birth, because they believe the future health of a mother is dependent on her postpartum recovery from birth.
These practices can be found in many Asian cultures, such as China, South Korea, Morocco, India and Malaysia, along with many other cultures around the world. While some principles may differ slightly, the main focus of confinement practices across the world is prioritizing recovery after birth with warmth, bed rest, easy to digest and nutrient-dense food, and limited to no visitors.
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Nowadays, many new mothers are adapting the idea of postpartum confinement to fit within today’s modern world. From hiring a confinement nanny or postpartum doula with knowledge around traditional practices, it’s possible to identify the principles of confinement that resonate with you—and create your own version.
What is a traditional confinement?
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it’s believed after a mother gives birth there is an empty space within her body where the baby once was. The mother’s body is open, her ligaments are loose, and if wind or cold comes into this open space, it will cause further ailments and prevent the body from properly healing.
This means that during postpartum confinement, a new mother is encouraged to stay warm inside and avoid touching cold objects, drinking cold liquids or eating cold food. In a very strict traditional Chinese confinement, a new mother will not wash her hair, shower or brush her teeth as it is believed that contact with water opens the pores, causing wind and cold to enter the body, which is believed to accumulate over time and cause health complications later in life.
A traditional confinement also encourages no physical activity, including housework and sometimes includes removing all distractions like television, books and mobile devices to ensure that the primary focus of the mother during confinement is rest.
How long does a traditional confinement period last?
A traditional confinement lasts 40 days to allow the mother’s body to close up and rebalance after childbirth. Nourishment during this time is the cornerstone of confinement and is considered essential in helping mothers to recover and restore energy and vitality.
Leila Armour, founder of Village for Mama, is a holistic postpartum doula located on the Sunshine Coast in Australia, who supports new mothers in recreating a traditional confinement by providing daily, in-home postpartum support and nourishment for the first four weeks following birth.
The term for Chinese confinement month is called zuo yue zi which can be directly translated to ‘sitting (out) the month’ and Armour’s “Golden Month” package helps new moms do just that. To support the health and healing of new mothers, during those four weeks, Armour provides five days of breakfast, lunch, snacks and beverages for the new mother and dinner for the whole family, addresses any postpartum conditions, provides emotional support and holistic breastfeeding support, cleans and tidies the home, runs local errands and grocery shopping, babysits older children, and schedules in-home TCM acupuncture and massage treatments.
“We place so much pressure on new mothers as a society and culturally we do a terrible job of supporting them through this transition,” Armour explains. “We set an unachievable standard of the perfect mother, who ‘bounces back’ to her old self, unchanged by the whole experience.”
Anti-bounce back culture
Postpartum confinement is the stark opposite of today’s bounce back culture. The concept of confinement places importance on caring for the mother and recognizes that a mother needs time to recover from birth.
Most importantly, confinement establishes a system where a mother isn’t supposed to do it all by herself, which is in contrast to many Western cultures where the postpartum period isn’t typically valued.
“The race is on, as soon as you give birth, to how quickly can you get back to your old self with a baby in tow,” Armour says. “There is so much pressure for mothers to meet this ideal, that they then begin to associate their success as a mother with how unchanged they are from the experience.”
Realistically, many new mothers in today’s modern Western society cannot replicate strict traditional postpartum confinement practices, which may seem somewhat extreme in today’s world. However, even Western society defines postpartum as the first six weeks and understanding the detrimental effect that jumping back into everyday life immediately following birth has on your and your baby’s health is important.
The central idea of a traditional postpartum confinement, ensuring that the first six weeks following birth, a new mother feels rested, nourished and supported is just as important today as it was 2000 years ago.
8 steps to creating your own postpartum confinement
Many traditional postpartum confinement principles can seem out of sync with modern motherhood, so take the practices that fit you and your family to allow for a period of time after birth dedicated to your rest and recovery. Armour recommends the following steps:
1. Set an intention
Think about how long you would like your confinement period to last. This doesn’t have to be the traditional 40 days, as this isn’t realistic for many mothers today. Instead, focus on a timeframe that works for you and your family. Something is better than nothing.
2. Make a confinement plan
Write a day-by-day postpartum plan for your confinement that includes nutrition, support and your priorities each day. Create a meal plan for your postpartum confinement. The meals you enjoy during this time don’t have to be complicated. It’s also such a small window of time that eating the same thing for a few meals, knowing that it is nourishing and replenishing you. (You can download a detailed confinement plan and recipes in Leila’s course Creating a Traditional Confinement in Today’s Modern World.”)
3. Stock your freezer
Most confinement meals freeze really well. Slow cooked stews and meals are easy to make in bulk and freeze for later.
4. Gather your village
A traditional confinement suggests you don’t have any visitors, but in a modern confinement we need to call on our visitors to support us during this time. Identify where you need support—and delegate.
5. Hire support
If you have the means to do so, hire support like a postpartum doula, cleaner or nanny to help with older children so you can focus on resting and bonding with your new baby.
6. Connect with local practitioners that do home visits
When you’re creating your plan, see if you can find care practitioners that will come to your home so you don’t have to leave the house. These could be pelvic floor physiotherapists, chiropractors, lactation consultants, midwives, etc.
7. Stock up on essentials you will need for confinement
Some items you may need for your confinement could include: socks and slippers to keep your feet warm, a slow cooker for hot drinks and nourishing meals, and thermal bottles for teas and soups.
8. Go easy on yourself
Follow confinement principles that resonate with you. It’s important to do the best you can for as long as you can, but give yourself grace—becoming a new mother is hard enough.
Learn more about creating a traditional confinement, find a four-week confinement plan with meals and support, plus recipes for postpartum confinement meals and teas in Leila’s course at Atlas of Motherhood, or her book, Village for Mama.