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31st Oct 2019

A look abroad: In China, new mums are treated quite differently than here

Trine Jensen-Burke

Being pregnant and giving birth is a huge undertaking for a woman’s body. 

You have literally grown and birthed a new human being, and are now trying to recover from this, both physically, hormonally, and emotionally.

Which is why so many midwives and doctors are raging against the ‘bounce back’ ideal promoted by so many celebrities and spurred on by the world’s media.

In many other cultures, women are encouraged to take it easy for weeks after welcoming a new baby, and will get help from family members to make sure they rest as much as possible and are eased into motherhood in the most gentle way possible.

For instance, in China, the ancient tradition of “Sitting the Month” or Zuo Yuezi is still practised today, where it is recognised that the month directly after childbirth is crucial to the future health of the mother and newborn. This practise is an ingrained tradition in Chinese culture and involves strict rules for the month following childbirth, some of which are still followed as closely as they were 2,000 years ago.

In fact, Zuo Yuezi is now in modern times a full industry involving luxury hotels with doctors on call in house and a nurse in the room at all times. And families who can’t afford a luxury hotel still do a version of Zuo Yuezi at home, where the new mother stays with a family member so she can have help recovering and focus on her baby.

During this month, new mums get fed specific diet of soft, nourishing foods to aid their new body back to its former health and strenght, most often foods rich in calcium, iron and protein.

Traditionally, restrictions are also put on a mother’s activity during the “sitting” month, which is believed to  help a mother’s pelvis and uterus heal from birth.

Mary Sabo, a Manhatten-based modern doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, recently chatted with about what we can learn from the Chinese tradition of Zuo Yuezi and how we could all learn something from the way that mums have been treated postpartum in many traditional cultures around the world.

“That’s why I’m sharing the ancient rules of “sitting the month” with the Chinese medicine explanation and ideas for incorporating a more modern approach,” Sabo explains.

Avoid contact with cold and wind

“Cold and wind are pathogenic factors in Chinese medicine, meaning they can trigger a disease process,” says Sabo. “While this was just a way for them to understand and explain what we now know of as germ theory, science is catching on to how weather and temperature can affect our immune system.”

In ancient China, new mothers were told to bundle up even indoors and not go outside at all. They were also not allowed to shower as the cool down afterwards could be associated with a chill.

“I do think it is fine to shower and get some fresh air,” Sabo says. “But do protect yourself and your baby during this vulnerable time by wearing appropriate clothing and erring on the side of staying warmer than usual.”

Eat only warm, cooked, bland foods

Childbirth is very depleting and often there is a fair and sometimes large amount of blood loss. “In Chinese medicine theory, there are certain foods that help replenish the qi and blood, which are depleted after birth,” explains Sabo. “Cold raw foods are more likely to carry bacteria, so this is not bad advice. Also, warm and cooked foods are easier to digest than raw, so lightly cooked veggies are preferable.”

The acupuncturist recommends that new mums eat a healthy diet consisting of mostly cooked and warm unprocessed food and drinks, emphasising the following:

bone broths

fresh ginger (cooked)

free range chicken and eggs

dates and berries

cooked greens and other colourful veggies

liver (from free range animals)

grass fed meat

brown rice, oats, and quinoa

Only rest, eat, sleep, and feed your baby – no distractions

This may sound difficult and boring, but focusing on resting and low mental stimulation can be helpful for healing, Sabo explains.

“This is where it is necessary to have help from someone (or a few people) you trust to help you take care of the things you don’t absolutely have to do. I do think it is wise to be mindful of how the things we think of as “entertaining” elicit emotional responses and can make our bodies respond like we are experiencing whatever is happening in the show or book. Most women have deep empathy during this time from hormones, which helps us sense the needs of our baby, but it also means we’re vulnerable to the emotions of others, even if they are on TV or in a book. While we know those things aren’t happening to us, our systems can still release stress hormones in response.”

No visitors

According to Sabo, the main reason for this rule is that poeople bring germs.

“And people can also stress out the new mom in various ways (bringing drama, gossip, giving unwanted advice, criticising, judging, etc.), further depleting the mother’s precious qi and blood.”

However, she says, people can also be super helpful however, so use your intuition on this one and accept help when needed, but don’t be afraid to ask others to wait until you feel stronger.

“The most common underlying theme throughout the program is protecting the mother and newborn from exposure to pathogens and extra stress. A new mother is in a depleted state and her system is more vulnerable. Using this first month to prioritise recovery by creating a calm household and making sure the demands on the mother are minimal, may quicken recovery time, potentially preventing postpartum depression and other health problems, while promoting healthy milk production and a healthy immune system for both mama and baby.”