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)
You can also explore our selection of CONFINEMENT FOODS. Here we explore all the CANand CANNOTeat 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.
This is a simple recipe part of our Confinement Series for new mothers. Designed to be heaty, healing and part of a balanced diet – actually anyone can eat this!
My version uses ginger juice (as I personally find the ginger shreds too spicy for my mild taste buds), but it is recommended to use the grated ginger flesh if you’re in confinement. Load on the ginger and black or white pepper! Other variations of this include adding chicken or pork, garlic and some neutral, diced veggies like choy sum.
And don’t forget to add that splash of sesame oil for both taste and warmth!
This recipe contains all the greats needed to get you through confinement (Sesame oil, ginger, black or white pepper ).
Ginger is excellent for warming the body and expelling wind (both important things to achieve during Chinese confinement). It is a nutritious and delicious course. This recipe is super easy to make.
I would recommend making a bowl / jar of pre-grated ginger so you can whip this up in less than 10 minutes. Any precautions? This is a heaty dish and not recommended for people who can’t too heaty foods or are currently overheated.
Prep time: 10 mins
Cook time: 15 mins
Total time: 25 mins
Serves: 1 cup of rice (but make more to store in the fridge for multiple consumption!)
1 tsp cooking oil
1 bowl of rice (leftover rice best for fried rice)
25g of fresh ginger, grated (produces 1 tablespoon of ginger juice)
This is a very common Canton (Chinese-styled) dish. The soy sauce base can be used with pork, chicken (various parts), duck (wings are best), pigeon and any other meats with bones as best. The trick to this dish is that it must be simmered for some time (or use a pressure cooker) to let both the sauce seep deep into the meat and enable the meet to be almost falling off the bone.
Why this particular dish is called out for Chinese confinement is that the chicken feet provides a healthy amount of collagen – and adding warming ingredients such as ginger, star anise and cinnamon help keep the body warm and heated throughout this period. My mom actually used to keep the sauce after she made it in a glass jar in the fridge, to be used again the next time around. The more it’s used, the tastier it gets. You can simply skim off the accumulated fat once it’s cooled and add more soy sauce if it’s been reduced too far. A delicious, easy-to-make, easy-to-keep Chinese confinement dish for any postpartum mother.
The key highlight of this tea is the wood ear. Wood ear in Traditional Chinese Medicine is known to reduce hypertension (lower blood pressure), support blood flow and circulation, tonifies and nourishes the blood and Qi, and alleviates coughs, moistening the lungs and removing phlegm.
To make this super potent, after you boil the tea, remove the wood ear and slice into small pieces and serve as a snack (or with the tea).
I’ve also made wood ear salads, which allows you to still consume wood ears with more diversity in your diet!
For post partum:
This tea I drank as a confinement tea and within the first 0-5 days of confinement to help eliminate the lochia. It’s a simple tea with 3 ingredients (the meat is optional if you’re vegetarian) and very easy to make. It’s a sweet, slightly tart tea and must be drank hot/warm. It’s one of the better tasting teas I know available for confinement! You can boil a whole big batch for 5 days worth, refrigerate and then reheat when needed or boil fresh batches everyday. It is recommended to drink 1-2 glasses a day (depending if you’ve got other teas or soups already filling your tummy!). Do not add additives like sugar or salt. Keep it clean, light and natural.
Soak your dates and wood ear for 10-15 minutes in cool water
Boil your soup or tea water
When the water boils, add all the ingredients together and boil on a medium boil (covered) for 1.5 hours
Serve hot/warm directly as is
You can pre-soak the wood ear first thing in the morning. This will soften until you need to boil them.
Be sure to buy and use pitted red dates as the seeds are quite fiery (not in a good way). Some red dates come pre-seeded, but if not, you can use a sharp knife and remove them or halve them first and remove.
I am writing about the ginger peel specifically because while normal people don’t use the skin very often, the Chinese highly value this “by-product” when it comes to confinement. It is commonly used for bathing purposes (either literally soaking the ginger peel in water and then rinsing your body with it or soaking your feet). What normally happens is that ginger is purchased in bulk (huge, huge amounts for confinement – especially the pig’s feet in ginger dish) and none of the ginger is wasted.
Peel the ginger in its entirety. The peel is dried, while the ginger itself is cut up and used in various dishes and soups and stews. For me, I am not a heavy believer of washing my body in ginger peel water, but did end up soaking my poor sore feet. The tradition falls back to historical (pre-electricity) Chinese confinement practices. Back in the days, after a woman gave birth, she was susceptible to virus, bacteria, disease because of the weakened condition of her body (for more information, you can do some leisure reading on the confinement practice). Ginger, being a heaty ingredient, enabled her body to stay and keep warm. Which is why she pretty much lived, consumed and breathed ginger. This also accounts for the reason why women were not allowed to wash their hair for a period of time after child birth – very likely because back then, drying the hair increased her risk because at some point, her hair would become cold (especially in the winter). Well, these days, we have the handy hair dryer and for those in colder climates, the benefit of a heating system – so the question is, do these traditions still apply?
Regardless, some traditions hold true and strong. My mother argues that the Chinese have thousands of years of history behind it and that as a western raised girl, I shouldn’t discount the power of generation-passed knowledge. Which is partially why I write and blog about everything I learn, because this is something I want to pass to my children eventually. Whether they take it with a grain of salt or think I’m off my rocker is a whole other story….
So to end this post, you’ll find within thechinesesouplady.com, we’ve got a host of information on confinement. That’s because collectively as a group of sisters, we’ve gone through 6 confinements personally and spoken to more sources than we can count on the practice. Veggie vendors, meat vendors, herbalists, the neighbor, your child’s classmate’s grandmother – everyone has a say and angle on confinement best practices and approaches. So please enjoy our collection of confinement soups and best practices.