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The Health Benefits of Traditional Pregnancy Confinement Practices in SEA

Confinement practices for mothers who have just given birth are traditional postpartum customs involving dietary, physical, and social restrictions intended to promote recovery and well-being. 

These practices are prevalent in various cultures, especially in Asian communities. The emphasis is on rest, a specific diet, and avoiding activities deemed harmful during the post-partum period. This article explores the health benefits of these traditional confinement practices in Southeast Asia (SEA).

Traditional pregnancy confinement practices in Southeast Asia are deeply rooted in cultural beliefs and have been passed down through generations. In Malaysia, for instance, the confinement period, known as “pantang,” lasts for about 44 days. During this time, new mothers are encouraged to consume warming foods such as ginger and turmeric. These foods are believed to aid in post-partum recovery by improving blood circulation and expelling “wind” from the body. This practice prioritises the mother’s health by focusing on dietary intake that supports healing and strength recovery.

In Chinese culture, the confinement period, or “zuo yue zi,” typically lasts for a month. Mothers are advised to eat nutrient-rich foods like chicken soup with herbs to replenish their bodies and boost milk production. These practices highlight the cultural importance of ensuring the mother’s well-being, recognising that a healthy mother is better equipped to care for her newborn.

Reduced Postpartum Complications

Adhering to confinement practices can significantly reduce post-partum complications, a benefit widely recognised across Southeast Asia. In Singapore, a large majority of mothers from various ethnic backgrounds—96.4% of Chinese, 92.4% of Malay, and 85.6% of Indian mothers—observe these traditional practices. 

For example, in Malay culture, the “urut” or post-partum massage is a common practice aimed at improving circulation, reducing swelling, and helping the uterus contract. This practice not only aids physical recovery but also provides a comforting routine that prioritises the mother’s relaxation and well-being. Similarly, in Indian communities, mothers follow the “Jaapa” period, which includes a special diet, massages, and herbal baths designed to restore the body’s balance and strength. By integrating these culturally specific practices, new mothers experience fewer health complications and enjoy a smoother recovery process, reinforcing the importance of maternal care during the post-partum period.

Enhanced Psychological Well-being

Confinement practices also play a crucial role in enhancing the psychological well-being of new mothers. The structured support system provided during this period helps alleviate mental distress and reduces the risk of post-partum depression. 

In Chinese cultures, the confinement period is marked by the presence of family members who assist with household chores and childcare, allowing the new mother to rest and recover. This support system not only helps in physical recovery but also provides emotional comfort and stability. 

In the Philippines, the practice of “hilot” involves both physical and emotional care, where traditional midwives offer massages and also provide companionship and guidance to new mothers. 

These practices highlight the cultural understanding that a mother’s mental health is as important as her physical recovery. By ensuring that mothers are surrounded by a supportive environment, these traditions help mitigate feelings of isolation and anxiety, promoting overall psychological well-being.

Maternal-Infant Bonding

Confinement practices significantly enhance maternal-infant bonding, which is essential for the emotional and psychological development of both mother and child. In Taiwan, the practice of “zuo yue zi” not only involves dietary and physical care but also places a strong emphasis on fostering a close relationship between the mother and her newborn. During this period, mothers are encouraged to spend as much time as possible with their babies, engaging in skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding, which helps strengthen the bond. 

Similarly, in Vietnamese culture, the “cữ” period involves mothers staying indoors and focusing solely on their baby’s care, with family members taking over other responsibilities. This dedicated time allows mothers to develop confidence in their parenting skills and fosters a deep connection with their infants. The uninterrupted time together helps mothers to better understand their baby’s needs and cues, laying a strong foundation for future parenting.

Breastfeeding Support

The period of confinement also provides crucial support for establishing successful breastfeeding practices. In Malaysia, confinement centres offer an environment where new mothers can receive continuous assistance and guidance on breastfeeding techniques. These centres provide a supportive setting where lactation consultants are available to help mothers overcome initial challenges, ensuring a better start to breastfeeding. 

Similarly, in Indonesia, the tradition of “40 days confinement” includes guidance from elder women in the family. They impart their knowledge and experience on breastfeeding and infant care. This hands-on support helps mothers build confidence and encourages the continuation of exclusive breastfeeding. 

The structured environment and experienced guidance during the confinement period are instrumental in promoting higher breastfeeding rates and longer durations. This benefits both mother and child in the long term.

Community and Social Support

Beyond physical and mental health benefits, confinement practices foster a sense of community and social support that is invaluable for new mothers. In Thailand, the tradition of “yu fai” involves not just the family. Friends and neighbours also come together to support the new mother. They provide meals, help with household chores, and offer companionship. This creates a supportive network that eases the mother’s transition into parenthood. 

In Cambodia, the “ang pleung” or “fire sitting” practice involves staying warm by a fire and being cared for by female relatives who share their wisdom and offer emotional support. This communal approach ensures that the mother does not feel isolated and has a strong support system to rely on during the vulnerable post-partum period. These traditions highlight the cultural emphasis on collective care and the importance of community in the post-partum recovery process.

Embracing Tradition in Modern Times

As the world becomes increasingly modernised, many families in Southeast Asia continue to embrace traditional confinement practices, recognising their profound benefits. In Singapore, modern confinement nannies who are well-versed in both traditional methods and contemporary medical knowledge are becoming more popular. They provide a balanced approach, integrating age-old wisdom with current health guidelines. 

Similarly, in urban areas across Southeast Asia, confinement centres are adapting to offer luxurious services that still adhere to traditional principles, such as specialised diets and post-partum massages, ensuring that these practices remain relevant and accessible. These evolving practices demonstrate a deep respect for cultural heritage while adapting to meet the needs of modern motherhood. By valuing and preserving these traditions, communities ensure that new mothers receive the comprehensive care and support they need during one of the most significant transitions of their lives.

References

  1. Mohd Fahmi Teng, N. I., Yahya, N. F. S., Md Said, N., & Nuzrina, R. (2022). Confinement Diet, Physical Activity and Well-Being of Mothers with a Preterm Infant: A qualitative study. Environment-Behaviour Proceedings Journal, 7(20), 219–224. https://doi.org/10.21834/ebpj.v7i20.3338
  2. Fok, D., Aris, I. M., Ho, J., Lim, S. B., Chua, M. C., Pang, W. W., Saw, S., Kwek, K., Godfrey, K. M., Kramer, M. S., & Chong, Y. S. (2016). A Comparison of Practices During the Confinement Period among Chinese, Malay, and Indian Mothers in Singapore. Birth, 43(3), 247–254. https://doi.org/10.1111/birt.12233
  3. Mwape, L., Muleya, M. C., Mukwato, P. K., & Maimbolwa, M. (2018). Confinement Following Child Birth and Associated Postpartum Mental Distress. Open Journal of Psychiatry, 08(02), 152–167. https://doi.org/10.4236/ojpsych.2018.82015
  4. Wong, J., & Fisher, J. (2009). The role of traditional confinement practices in determining postpartum depression in women in Chinese cultures: A systematic review of the English language evidence. Journal of Affective Disorders, 116(3), 161–169. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2008.11.002
  5. Foong, S. C., Tan, M. L., Foong, W. C., Ho, J. J., & Rahim, F. F. (2021). Comparing breastfeeding experiences between mothers spending the traditional Chinese confinement period in a confinement centre and those staying at home: a cohort study. International Breastfeeding Journal, 16(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13006-020-00353-1

 

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