Here’s one mama’s experience of living in confinement
After seven years in Hong Kong I have adapted to many things — the summers aren’t as hot as when I first arrived, the bones in foods don’t bother me anymore, and the hills aren’t as difficult to traverse as they once were (and in heels!). I have changed the way I speak now using words like “lift” and “queue” and ending a multitude of phrases with “lah”. When so many things are different, and usually for the better, why not add in a very old but new-to-me custom?
I’m talking about the practice of not leaving your home for a month and being looked after by a pui yuet, otherwise known as confinement! Many of my Chinese friends have done this and raved about the practice but I didn’t know a single Western girl in my circle who had tried it out. Well, this just seemed like one more thing I wanted to experience in Asia so for the month after my son was born, I was a Western girl confined!
What is confinement?
The practice of confinement is much more than just not leaving your house for the month after your child is born. It stems from the idea that when you give birth, your body loses a lot of warmth and allows wind to enter the body, resulting in health problems later on. The month is a time to restore the warmth and to heal — no cold foods or drinks are consumed, you don’t bathe or wash your hair, you keep covered and away from cool or windy spaces, and you take a variety of Chinese medicines to aid in the healing process. The name actually translates to “sitting the month”.
A pui yuet or confinement nanny moves in with you full-time to prepare the foods and medicines, watch after the baby, and help guide you in what it is to be a new mother. Many are certified in a variety of child care classes including CPR, infant first aid, baby massage, pre/post-natal nourishment and Chinese herbal nourishment, to name a few. This first month is also the time when your child is most susceptible to illness so limiting their exposure to the outside world aids in optimal survival. This is not so much a concern now, but when the practice first originated it was very much a big deal!
As a first time mum with my family 8,000 miles away, confinement seemed like the way to go as I could heal, learn and bond with my baby while being very well taken care of by a pro! The challenge was finding a pui yuet that spoke enough English for us to get by, as my Cantonese is laughable (perhaps that will be the next thing I adapt to!). I saw this article on Sassy Mama and contacted every agency on the list.
Out of the responses, I found E-Mother to be wonderfully professional and timely with their dealings. Within a week, Melisa set me up with an interview with a nanny that would be available during the time of my delivery. We sat down and asked all the questions we could think of to ask and were very satisfied. We signed on to have our pui yuet do full confinement with me for the first month post-baby and then stay on as a night nurse for the following two months (Thank you Grace Lam for this tip! It is genius!).
I thought that I would’ve been bored out of my mind staying home for a month so in the preceding weeks, I stocked up on magazines and knitting projects and saved all my favourite TV shows. Some pui yuets advise to stay away from anything that may strain your eyes such as reading material and all screens (TV, computer, phone, etc.). Thankfully, mine didn’t insist on this so I was free to indulge. Even so, I rarely watched TV or read any of my stockpiled mags as my son was feeding every two hours so I always had something to do. When he finally went down for a nap I would catch up on thank you notes or a few emails or try to have a meal before his little clock registered chow time again.
Plus, we had family and friends over for visits basically every day. Add in the naps that I was ordered to take and the hours and days slipped by unbelievably fast. I left the house only for doctor’s visits and, during the last week, a quick dinner date with my husband (baby wasn’t on a bottle so we only had about an hour). Honestly, the few times we left the house I felt so frazzled between trying to figure out the taxi/car seat situation and managing the baby’s fluids that never seem to stay in his system that not leaving the house was a-okay with me!
Our pui yuet was very surprised when I told her that I wanted to go the full on Chinese route. She assured me that she could make Western dishes but I insisted to go traditional. We agreed that if there was something that I really didn’t like that she would do a substitution. We never had to do this. The foods were awesome from bbq pork chops, to ginger chicken with choi sum, to this amazing ginger and soy whole steamed fish. Morning, noon, and night I had animal protein and a veg served with a bowl of steamed rice.
Though fruit and beef are not allowed on the menu, I looked forward to every meal and was never hungry. Many new mums are so busy caring for the baby that they forget to eat. This was not a problem for me. Baby would go down after a feed and I would be told to go eat. I cleaned every plate, much to our nanny’s surprise! The foods were rich and fatty which is good for creating a hearty supply of milk for a hungry tot. Before each meal I would have a bowl of herbal soup to aid in healing and increasing the milk supply. The soups are even tailored to the type of healing you need depending on your method of delivery. In addition to the warm soups, I drank multiple glasses of warm water and an herbal tea, which tasted very woodsy but helped get more fluids in me.
The Chinese Medicine
The medicines were put into the tea and soups, some more potent than others. The first soups tasted like dates and chestnuts and were easy to sip. The later ones were far too intense for me so I would shoot them like I was back in the ‘Fong! I still got every one down though. The worst of the bunch was given at the end of confinement and contained fish maw and little worm-like things called cordyceps. These are actually parasites that grow on the backs of insects and eventually kill their host. Cordyceps also happened to be the most expensive ingredient starting at around $5,000 for a small pack! This was the first item on the list given to us in prep for my confinement. My husband’s jaw dropped when he saw the list of 20 plus things, assuming they were all this expensive. Thankfully, nearly all the other ingredients were around the $10-20 range. Three months post-baby I am still taking cordycep soup three times a week! I’m told you can do so for the first 100 days — not something I was so thrilled to hear!.
The No Bathing
This is the one thing that most people ask about when I mention that I did confinement. Honestly, I didn’t feel that gross as I was just sitting on the couch all day so I wasn’t working up a sweat. Dry shampoo, applied liberally, did a good enough job of making me presentable to guests. While you don’t take a normal bath or shower, you are allowed to bathe with special ginger water made by your pui yuet.
Around once or twice each week two huge pots were concocted, one more concentrated than the other, and carried to my bathtub. The smell was heavenly and reminded me of Christmas! With the less strong water I was allowed to wash my hair first then wash my body with the stronger version after. I sat on a small stool in the tub and poured the water over me. I found this time so relaxing that I really came to look forward to it and was sad when the month was up and I no longer got to have it. The “heat” from the ingredients in the water made me turn red as a tomato after each bath for around 30 minutes. No one warned me of this so after my first bath I was left running to the nanny declaring that I was allergic to bathing! She laughed and just told me to wait it out.
My baby boy was taken such good care of during the period of confinement. Between my husband, my mother, our helper, the pui yuet and myself, he was never left in want for anything. Feedings went like clockwork and he slept as much as possible even with his colic bouts. I learned a host of tricks to soothe and comfort him as well as the proper hygiene methods for caring for a little one.
When it was time to feed, our nanny would change his diaper then I would hear “Mummy, stand-by”. I would get my pillow ready and a few moments later a clean, though slightly fussy, baby would be gently dropped off. At night, the bedroom door would open and baby would be placed on my chest for his feeding and then collected after 30-40 minutes. I got as much sleep as possible for a new mum. I was even instructed to take naps during the day, an order that I happily followed.
To be honest, there were not many challenges for me during confinement. Because my baby was constantly surrounded by people, it seemed that he always had someone to hold him. This is great for making babies feel secure but when they will only sleep in someone’s arms it becomes tricky. Our nanny would take him post-feed and put him in the crib to sleep, which took some time to accomplish because as soon as his little head touched the mattress he was awake! After a few weeks of practice, it became easier to put him down for his naps.
The only other thing that I found difficult was trying to enforce a timed schedule with him. He demanded feedings every two hours and our nanny said most other babies were going for four hours. We tried delaying the feeding (much to the dismay of everyone in the building) which didn’t last long, so we ended up feeding on demand which resulted in a much calmer house. Our pui yuet also mentioned that feedings should only last 30 minutes but my little guy would snooze and snack, resulting in 40- to 60-minute sessions. She showed me that I could uncover him and tickle his feet and sides to make him keep eating which worked like a charm.
A resounding YES to confinement! I will be doing this with every baby we have in Asia. I have never felt so well looked after and wonderfully nourished. Baby was also quite healthy and happy. There’s so much to learn when you are a first-time mum and having a pro on hand to advise is amazing! I can’t recommend this enough and feel that this was a service worth every dollar spent. Just having the peace of mind at night that baby is in their crib sleeping soundly with expert eyes watching over makes mama sleep better too. And we all know how important that precious sleep is those first few months! This was not a custom that I grew up knowing anything about but I am so glad to have been able to learn about it and experience it in Hong Kong. I cannot recommend this enough to all soon-to-be-mums out there!
Gorgeous photos of Sabrina and her baby boy are courtesy of Martice Milton. Check out more of her amazing work at www.marticemiltonphotography.com.