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Postpartum Care Traditions From Around The World

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano

Photography by Heather Winn Bowman, Photographed by Molly Winters

There’s no doubt about it—from maternity leave (or lack thereof) to postpartum care traditions for mother and baby, the United States is seriously lacking. Which is why we’ve found the book The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother so inspiring. Rooted in Chinese practices and giving a nod to rich postpartum rituals around the world, this thoughtful tome is filled with healing recipes and guidance on how women can take care of themselves after birth (or recruit others to take care of them). One of our favorite sections of the book is a rundown of other global postpartum care traditions that are thoroughly engrained in culture. Read some of them, excerpted from the book, below. Who knows, maybe some of these time-tested cultural traditions will inspire your own postpartum plans.

China: In its purest form, traditional Chinese zuo yuezi advises a tough-love approach of sponge baths instead of showers (to reduce the chance of catching a chill), no books in case reading strains the eyes, and no movies in case sad scenes upset you and disrupt your flow of chi—while others take over all your household duties, of course. Zuo yuezi is often referred to as “the Gateway,” as it is a threshold between one way of being (your life before baby) and an entirely new existence (life with baby). The reward for spending dedicated time in this revitalizing in-between space? The mother can emerge more beautiful and rejuvenated than before. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) doctors say that if the woman shirks this recovery, she may experience a yin deficiency, resulting in insomnia, excessive night sweats, hair loss, anxiety, or headaches. Chinese-American families frequently do a bit of zuo yuezi without even realizing it. Many a relative has shown up to visit mom and newborn at the hospital with traditional chicken soup, appalled at the idea of her picking at a limp tuna sandwich from the canteen cooler. (A customary gift of dried longan fruit might come with the soup.) That small warming gesture in itself is tradition in action.

Zambia: In Zambia, the mom is strictly banned from any work around the house until the umbilical cord falls off. (A whopping week to ten days usually—and then it may be back to doing the dishes as normal).

Latin America: In many parts of Latin America, a forty-day period known as la cuarentena—it literally means “quarantine” yet also plays off the Spanish word for “forty,” cuarenta—has female relatives take on all domestic duties to ensure the new mother rests at home, in order to safeguard against future exhaustion-related illnesses or ailments. Her midwife may visit frequently over the first two weeks to check on baby and mother’s well-being, and homemade chicken soup simmers on the stove (overly spicy or heavy dishes are nixed). The new mother’s abdomen is wrapped in a faja or cloth to help keep her belly warm.

Japan: Japanese mothers return to their mothers’ houses for a month or two of focused care and traditional food.

Native Americans: In many Native American tribes, ceremony is key: The customary “lying in” period after birth culminates in ritualistic bathing, a baby-naming ceremony, and going to a sweat lodge to boost circulation and help mom’s body eliminate any toxins. The Hopi people in the southwestern United States recall practices of twenty-day seclusion periods for mother and babe, during which the mother might be served blue corn piki bread, a ceremonial food. Prepared in an hours-long process by a wise elder woman of the community, the flaky, thin-as-air bread was served to honor rites of passage.

India: In India, the new mother often returns to her parents’ home with her newborn for up to three months of focused care. There, many pairs of hands are on call throughout the day. The women of the family cook soft and nurturing foods, boil fresh milk three times in a row to break down its proteins, and stir in melted ghee (clarified butter) and special spices, so it becomes easy to digest and restores the mother’s depleted state. These loving hands also hold the baby whenever mom needs a break. If members of the new mother’s family are versed in Ayurveda—the five-thousand-year-old healing art of India—she may drink herbal tonics for energy, immunity, and lactation and receive daily, warm-oil massages from a specially trained technician to soothe her nerves by calming the excess vata or “wind” in her system after birth. She even gets taught how to gently massage her little one’s body as well—a relaxing and bonding experience for both parties.

The Middle East: Forty-day rest periods for the new mother are traditional in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Palestine.

Korea: Korea’s postpartum tradition of samchilil decrees a period of at least twenty-one days, and ideally thirty days, of specialized maternal care dedicated to keeping mom warm, snug, and well fed. Miyeokguk, a traditional seaweed soup with beef, chicken, or anchovies, is served several times a day, every day, to boost circulation, restore lost nutrients, and enrich breast milk. Gums are tender so icy foods are banned to avoid dental problems later. At one hundred days, the baby is introduced to the wider family for the first time with a baek-il ceremony—a kind of fourth-trimester graduation party! This also ends the close-up focus on mom care—she’s ready to graduate, too.

Vietnam: Vietnamese parents don’t introduce strangers to their babies for six weeks, to protect them from envy or, simply, too much attention.

Ivory Coast: Female relatives descend on the new mother’s home in the Ivory Coast right after birth. The mother is bathed and massaged in shea butter by her own mother—a pampering rite that saturates skin with healing oils—while her grandmother and grandaunts gently bathe and dress the baby. Younger cousins and aunts cook a delicious meal, and after eating all together, the circle lets the new mother nap, with baby safe in their sights.

Indonesia: In Indonesia, a bright light burns in the new mother’s home for forty days after birth to honor the new life that has arrived. The midwife visits daily to massage mom; bathe her in therapeutic baths; feed her jamu, a special nourishing concoction of egg yolks, palm sugar, tamarind, and healing herbs; and wrap her belly to support her uterine healing while also checking in on baby. For forty days, the placenta is preserved and kept near the mother before being ceremonially buried. It is believed that the placenta still holds protective spiritual power that can safeguard the new mother from infection or illness.

Moldova: The Eastern European country of Moldova has a special chicken soup to encourage breast milk production.

Malaysia: In Malaysia’s pantang protocol, the mother secludes herself for forty-four days and receives hot stone massages, full-body exfoliation, herbal baths, and hot compresses to care for the life force that is sourced in her womb. Her mother or mother-in-law may oversee this, or an experienced live-in helper might guide her through this process. And it doesn’t stop there. Ask women of different ethnicities and backgrounds about their maternal customs and the stories keep coming. What does it take to help the expanded winter melon-sized uterus return to its normal pear-like size? The dramatic changes in the body of a new mother have to be nurtured slowly back to its prenatal form. If the new mother does not take care during this time, the roots of various ailments will establish themselves and lie dormant in her body, surfacing in her middle age. Thus, a new mother should not be annoyed when her mother-in-law keeps advising her to eat more digestive food, drink more nutritional tonics and soups, and keep away from specific foods. Proper postnatal care, rest, and diet will rebuild a
more mature, yet beautiful, body for the new mother.

Shanghai & Hong Kong: At the far other end of the scale, in Shanghai and Hong Kong, high-luxury “confinement hotels” offer upwardly mobile women a red-carpet way to experience zuo yuezi—call it five-star confinement—and conveniently lets them sidestep the drama of having mother-in-law take up camp in their home for a month. Sumptuously bathrobed in her plush hotel room, the new mom is served medicinal soups from gourmet chefs and can visit an on-site spa as often as she likes, while uniformed nannies handle baby’s every need, taking him out for sun baths daily and dipping him in warm pools to tone his muscles. It may be the antithesis of attachment parenting—and it certainly is a status symbol for the parents—but it hits the spot for busy women of means: Every moment of the month is devoted to optimal health for the newborn, and optimal rest and pampering for mom.

Europe and North America: In the past, special pui-yuet or confinement companions might have been hired by Chinese households to help run the month of care. Modern-day variations of this are emerging, putting traditional programs of postpartum care in reach of women wanting to experience the old ways: In Europe and North America, an emerging field of practitioners known as Ayurdoulas, postpartum doulas trained in Ayurvedic care, can be hired to visit the home over several weeks, bringing food, giving massages, and helping mom learn about baby care. In Canadian cities like Toronto and Vancouver, zuo yuezi–trained doulas do a bustling trade visiting homes in Chinese communities, and highly traditional cooking services can bring breast milk–enriching fish and papaya soup to your door. In New York and other U.S. cities, there are even humble Mandarin- or Cantonese-speaking guesthouses where first-generation immigrants who have no relatives nearby can “sit the month” in the old ways with a clutch of other mothers.

Reprinted with permission of the authors of The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother.

Related Article: An Arugument For Taking The First 40 Days Slow Postpartum.

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