As part of our Around the World Series, I'm very excited to share with you my confinement practices after the birth of my three children as a Malaysian Chinese woman living in Australia.
From a young age I knew that once I had a baby I'd be practicing confinement - no questions asked. Even if I didn't believe in it, I'd have done it out of fear that something terrible would happen to me but now that I've experienced confinement three times,
I'd recommend nothing more than carving out time for rest, nourishment and space during such a scared time as one transcends from maiden to mother.One from the archives: my beautiful mama (left) with her Aunties and cousin (holding a new born me). My mother observed her confinement at my paternal grandmother's home and was visited daily by my maternal grandmother who lived just a bike ride away.
This image is so beautiful because I love that it depicts the sharing of love, care and knowledge by the women who had birthed before my mum.
Did you know...
The name Elan was chosen to change the misconception many people have of Chinese Postpartum Confinement practices? Those unfamiliar with the concept will think of it as restrictive and a period of gloom. We wanted the name to convey how we wanted mothers to feel having experienced beautiful nourishing care during a sacred time and we eventually landed on the French name Elan, which means lively and enthusiastic.
However, it is also the combination of two beautiful Chinese characters;
意 - the character for meaning, intention, wish, significance.
兰 - a character in my mother's name, meaning orchid which represents love, luxury, beauty and strength.
Anyone familiar with Traditional Chinese Medicine (also known as TCM) will know that the cold and wind are regarded as the ultimate evils to one's health. It is considered to enter the body via our meridians causing colds, flus and ailments. Especially post birth when our bodies are vulnerable, we are especially susceptible to such "evils" and hence we stay indoors to avoid them and consume herbs and spices that are warming.
A favourite warming ingredient that I saw my mum cook with for anyone who had just birthed was ginger. Ginger in your tea, ginger in your bath, ginger in your fried rice, ginger in your soup - it is regarded as highly effective in expelling wind.
Red Dates are another big favourite. Especially after my third pregnancy where I had a postpartum haemorrhage and lost 2.5L of blood, I consumed many Red Date Teas to replenish the blood I had lost and I still consume it now on the regular. For my first two births my Mum would deliver fresh warm meals, soups and tea to the hospital for me but for my third, due to COVID restrictions, I prepared myself by bringing a portable travel cooker to freshly cook my tea and heat up my soups.
Upon returning home, I frequently consumed herbal soups that were designed to go through the 4 stages of confinement;
Week 1 - Healing and Detoxifying
Week 2 - Restore and Repair
Week 3 - Nourishing
Week 4 - Rejuvenating
I also used herbs in my bath that were first cooked in boiling water. Most days it would be a sponge bath to stay fresh and I did manage to keep my hair unwashed for 11 days which really is a personal record. But after that first wash, I felt so refreshed I went back to washing it every other day but just ensured I quickly dried my hair to avoid catching the cold.
A common practice back home in Malaysia is belly binding, also known as Bengkung. Thanks to my doula Addison, I was able to experience this here in Melbourne and it was beautiful. Some women view it as a way of getting your body back to shape, but really it is so much more.
Did you know...
that once you have birthed your baby and placenta, there is an empty space in your womb the size of a dinner plate? The act of belly binding is to close this space and allow the new mother to feel physically held and supported.
Another practice I was fortunate to experience through another beautiful human, Sophie, who supported me post birth was Closing of the Bones. It is a South American practice not dissimilar to Belly Binding, but is carried out from head to toe. I was massaged with Black Sesame Oil then wrapped up with special woven cloth known as Rebozos and given the space to be in a deep state of rest. The feeling of being held and supported as a new mother is immeasurable when you are the one constantly holding and supporting your newborn.
Nourishment through herbs and food is a major part of Chinese confinement. Ideally you are consuming freshly cooked meals, teas and soups throughout the day. A staple in most Chinese confinement meals is pork knuckle cooked with ginger and black vinegar. My mother in law makes a mean one and you can instantly feel the goodness of the gelatine from the dish oozing through you (apologies to any vegan or vegetarian readers), but in TCM, we do believe that blood replenishes blood and hence animal protein is highly regarded in aiding the recovery of a mother during her postpartum period.
According to TCM, this dish has the ability to improve Qi, warm the blood, and expel cold and dampness. Many believe it speeds up recovery from childbirth and restores strength and vitality to the body. Some also love it because all the collagen in the dish can improve skin texture, and the ginger improves circulation.
It is believed that vinegar breaks down the calcium in the pork bones. Pregnancy and breastfeeding can deplete calcium in women's bodies, so one of the main nutritional benefits of the dish is its high calcium content. Ginger also contains vitamin C, which can help bolster the immune system. The addition of eggs provides protein, which can help repair muscles.
When I had my first daughter my mother in law would often say to me, "What are you doing up!? Stay in bed!!". It wasn't until my third where I learnt the reasoning behind this demand. During confinement, mothers are encouraged to spend their first week lying in bed, second sitting up or walking around the room, third week walking around the house then after the fourth week, slowly venturing out. This was to alleviate pressure and gravity on your pelvic floor and internal organs having just accomplished the enormous and recent feat of growing and delivering baby.
I learnt to feed whilst lying down, spent afternoons napping on the couch with my newborn lying on me and enjoyed his little twitches, his baby smell and his milk drunkenness. It really took me the birth of three babies to learn not to feel guilty about holding them and thinking I was going to spoil them too much.
During confinement, physical activity is kept to a minimum to avoid over exertion. Instead, movement should be focused on gentle stretching and breathing exercises. Where possible, delegate household duties, reach out to loved ones to help prepare meals to feed you and the family so you can spend time resting and recovering.
*Please note that your mental health is of upmost importance as well as the prevention of DVT. So if your body calls for some movement, then trust your body, just avoid over exertion.
Really savour this time and show yourself grace - it can be hard in this fast paced world to feel we're not doing enough or not being productive. But honour this time for you have just brought life into the world. There is no greater power than that.
It was during my confinement after the birth of my eldest daughter that I dreamt up of Elan. I hope that by sharing traditional practices and knowledge that women feel comfortable and worthy of the care and support that we innately know we deserve but have for too long brushed aside.
See our Instagram post here.