THE DO’s and DON’T’s Of Chinese Confinement
It all starts with one key principle in Traditional Chinese Medicine: Re-balance the Yin and Yang in the body.
The energy in the body post birth is normally in an increased yin (cooling) state due to the loss of blood and fluids during childbirth. This means there is more yin in the body than normal and the yang (warming) needs to be strengthened (or replenished).
This is the basis of the traditional DO’s and DON’T’s of Chinese Confinement. Keep in mind that historically, without technology, heating, or the luxuries we have today, some of these traditions held very true. However, my guidance is for you to take the principles and tweak it so it fits your lifestyle, your environment, and whatever your resources allow. For example, DO NOT WASH YOUR HAIR is one that you will hear very often. The wet hair induces dampness into the body and as it air dries, it becomes cold, which also increases yin into the body through the head. However, modern technology allows for heated spaces and hair dryers. So if you do wash your hair, be sure to do so in a heated room and then blow dry your hair on medium to high heat until it is fully dried.
Don’t be exposed to windy or cool conditions
Yang itself is the warming and dry element of the two and is difficult to replenish if the external environment doesn’t allow it. In fact, it may be the opposite in that more Yin is going into the body if it’s too cool, too damp, or too wet in and around the healing body.
This is why you’ll see pregnant women wearing wooly hats in the summer in Hong Kong. At all costs, eliminate any opportunity where any parts of your exposed body are to cool, cold, or wet conditions. Here are some examples:
- If you’re breastfeeding and have your shoulders exposed, use a towel, shawl, or wrap to cover them
- If you must have air conditioning on, turn the vents towards the ceiling or walls and have the cooler air circulate on the outside edges
- Wear thicker socks or slippers if you’ve got tiled or colder floors. The feet are one source where yang can easily leave the body.
- Exercise in moderation, paying attention to sweat rate and exposure of sweaty skin to the cold air. I find gentle yoga or light stretching where you aren’t sweating buckets is good (but pay attention to which muscle you’re stretching, will explain further down).
- This goes on to support the DO NOT WASH YOUR HAIR or DO NOT TAKE BATHS (with normal water) traditions, however, you still can if you’re able to keep the room warm and dry off immediately, including drying your hair thoroughly after you wash it.
Don’t overexert the body
This has more to do with the use of energy in the body and how it’s being resourced. The priority of your energy should be on allowing the body to fully heal during confinement. This is where confinement gets its terminology. Traditionally, it’s basically the woman lying in bed, pretty immobile for a whole month. This is highly impractical and unlikely in modern times, but some of the concept of energy preservation still apply.
- DO NOT LIFT HEAVY THINGS. The exertion applies very similarly to when you’re pregnant in that you don’t want any muscle strain to the uterus at all. As these parts of the post partum body are healing, use the same principles.
- IF YOU MUST, EXERCISE LIGHTLY AND IN MODERATION. If you must exercise, although some TCM’s and Pui Yuets (Chinese Confinement Ladies) will frown upon this, do it in a way that’s minimal exertion. Light stretching of legs and arms, but avoid the core area (unless you’re doing it wrapped) because that’s where the tradition of wrapping helps pull the stomach and core muscles back into place.
- DO NOT DO HOUSEHOLD CHORES. I wish! Haha… however, this is the traditional way of managing confinement. You usually had your mother, mother-in-law, or a Pui Yuet who can support you, but that’s a far ask in modern times. It’s definitely easier in countries where hired help is more economical, but that’s where some planning will help you manage. Pre-bought and prepared meals ahead of confinement will save you many trips to the grocery store and the prep work. Source healthy food delivery or food preparation vendors. Enlist the help of neighbours, family, or friends, including other children. Recognize and accept trade offs.
As my second post partum began, we let go of my helper in Hong Kong. In my head, I had my mom fly over and I was a strong empowered woman, so I could do it! Right? I was so wrong!
I was trying to do it all. I was trying to be the great mom to my first daughter, the helpful daughter to my mom, the great wife to my husband, and the super housewife, but every time I see a Chinese doctor now, they always ask me to have a third baby so I can go through confinement again and do it properly and fix all the wrongs in my body! It’s that crazy?
My lessons learned is that there have to be trade offs. So what if you have a messy house? So what if you’re wearing the same clothes for 4 days straight? Protect your body. It’s only 30 days.
Do consume warm and drying (yang-nourishing) food and drinks
e of the most important part of confinement is the food and drinks you consume during this important period of your healing. The key principle here is that anything (from a TCM perspective) nourishing the yang, mainly characterized by warming ingredients.
Warming ingredients include:
- GINGER, GINGER, GINGER. The best type is to start with raw ginger and then find uses for its peel and the root itself. You can find this in many (if not all) confinement recipes.
- SESAME SEEDS. Black is best, but white are also OK. Sesame seeds are warming and can nourish yang nicely. I’d suggest buying a bucket of these and sprinkle over white rice, dishes, stews, and even into your soups.
- SESAME OIL. Similar to above, this is best used in stews and dishes and all of your cooking.
- BLACK VINEGAR. Perfect for confinement and found commonly in the Pig’s Feet Vinegar Soup. This is a great condiment to have as part of your confinement garnishes. One favourite dish I like is the stewed pork ribs in black vinegar with sugar.
- This also means avoiding foods that are deep fried, hard to digest, raw, considered toxic (goose, beef) or cooling (seafood, watermelon, ice cream, bubble tea)
For a selection soups for confinement, check out our CONFINEMENT SOUPS.
You can also explore our selection of CONFINEMENT FOODS. Here we explore all the CAN and CANNOT eat ingredients.
- Maintaining a dry environment is also important. This is because the principle includes dispelling both cold and moisture from the body to replenish the yang and avoid retention. Water itself is a cool element and associated as yin.
Do create a warming environment for the body
Beyond the DO NOT’s of sitting in front of the air conditioning or exposing parts of your body to the air, what you want to do is be conscious and intentional with creating a warm space and moments for your body. In some instances, ginger is your friend here as well, which is weird, but stay with me!
- DO OVERUSE GINGER. Here’s how you can get creative with ginger. The peel (along with a mix of other Chinese herbs) can be dried and used to soak your feet (a great way to get yang into the body), wash your hair, and bathe in. I would suggest using a soup bag to store all the dried ingredients so you can take it out easily and dispose of. You can use the peels as large dried pieces into a foot soak at least once a day. I did this before bedtimes and it helped me sleep so well!
- DO KEEP EXTREMETIES AND HEAD COVERED. This means, hands, feet, head, back of neck, shoulders, elbows crease, back of knees, back of ears, and ankles are sufficiently covered and not exposed to cold or air. You’ll notice that all these body parts have pressure points when it comes to TCM and acupuncture. There is no such thing as overdressing. Actually, my Chinese doctor says, there is no such thing as over-nourishing during confinement!
- DO COOK OR HEAT UP EVERYTHING THING FIRST. This means food or drinks, too. This is part of the warming environment, which is just as important in terms of what you put into your body. DO NOT EAT RAW FOOD. This is part of principle in staying with warm and cooked foods and drinks. And I know sometimes you get so thirsty when breastfeeding, especially if you’re in an Asian country (where it’s humid and hot), so I ended up making a dried herbal tea of longans and red dates and let it cool to room temperature. That’s how cool as I’ll drink. Nothing with ice. Nothing colder than body temperature ideally.
Children are naturally energetic and full of yang. They are constantly moving, running, on the go, and vibrant. As we age, we lose that ability to hold that yang in and our energy decreases and as we become older, we become more yin and actually prefer to slow down. This is very natural.
Knowing this, in general, it means that younger mothers can hold more yang and replenish it easier than older mothers. It is encouraged to replenish yang as you age (regardless of whether it’s post partum or not). This will also help reduce hot flashes (during menopause) and con conserve their Qi in later parts of their lives.
I’ve started consuming a cup of dried longans and red dates tea midday since I turned 40! I may need it even more now that I’m in Canada and definitely feeling the cold.
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