Unlike a decade or more ago, less and less of tradition is observed or practiced today among the races in Malaysia and in many cases, traditional practices are even modified to suit modern tastes. However, when it comes to post-natal care and the observing of the ‘confinement period’, tradition seems to still run strong within our Malaysian mums. Yes, this will be the time that the clever and knowledgeable traditional confinement pros will be sought! A good thing indeed as new mums need lots of rest and care to recover fully from the stress of labour and also to regain all the lost energy so that they can nurse and care for their babies.
Post-natal practices in Malaysia are indeed interesting and intriguing! These practices and beliefs are responsible for bringing thousands of new mums back to their feet, helping them feel refreshed, energised and ready to take on the new responsibilities of motherhood. Let’s see if there are any similarities among the three main local practices.
Refined & Defined – Malay confinement practices
New mums within the Malay community will traditionally observe a 44-day confinement period, a time-honoured post-natal tradition. Restrictions and taboos, also known as pantangs are aplenty and it is believed that, although tough to follow through at times, new mums who diligently abide by them will enjoy the benefits – The regaining of their pre-pregnancy figure, vibrant and radiant outlook and renewed energy.
Traditionally, a new mum in confinement is helped by either a bidan (traditional midwife), her own mother or her mum-in-law. Needless to say, it would be pretty difficult to observe a 44-day period of taboos and practices without someone to help around the clock.
The Malay confinement practices stem from the belief that the womb is a woman’s life force and affects her overall health. Thus if a woman wishes to stay radiant and attractive, she must ensure the health and vitality of her womb. Some of the main practices observed by Malay women during confinement are:
- Jamu –These are traditional nutrition and dietary supplements and are considered an essential part of Malay confinement. It is believed that the right supplements will help new mums recover their energy and heal from the rigours of labour and childbirth. Post-natal jamus are unknown to expel excess fats and toxins, regulate the bladder and bowels, boost energy and keep the body warm. It is also believed that jamus help shrink swollen muscles and veins, dispel wind, remove excess fluids and slim down the body.
- Bengkung ( Traditional tummy wrap) – Considered the cornerstone of Malay confinement practices. A bengkung should ideally be worn throughout the day and night. It is usually worn with medicinal leaves such as galangal or pandan; traditional medicated oils, herbs and spices or bengkung cream sold at traditional wellness shops. When worn correctly, a bengkung
is said to be able to flatten the stomach, shrink the uterus, promote good posture and of course,
- Post-natal massage – Believed to be effective in ‘lifting’ the womb and prevents sagging, breaks down fat, improves blood circulation and tones up the body. Traditional post-natal massages includes breast massage which helps stimulate milk production. Traditionally, new mums are advised to undergo this traditional massage for at least three consecutive days, and if possible, even longer.
- Hot compress (bertungku) – Prepared with lemongrass, galangal or pandan leaves, wrapped in a cloth and then heated up. Sometimes a healed river stone is used together with the herbs and leaves. Bertungku is also believed to help the womb contract, break down fat and help the body return to its pre-baby state.
Traditional food issues
New mums will likely be encouraged to consume medicinal herbs as well as roots and spices such as ginger. Turmeric is highly recommended as a side dish or juice as it is nutritious and believed to be effective in shrinking the womb. However, you will likely be advised to abstain from:
- “Cold” foods such as certain fruits and vegetables;
- Oily foods;
- Iced water or too much water as it is believed excess water will keep the tummy swollen and harder to “shrink”.
Zuoyuezi – The Respected Chinese Confinement Tradition
The Mandarin term “zuoyuezi” when translated into English means “sitting out a month”. This term holds true to its meaning as it refers to the traditional Chinese custom of requiring new mothers to rest for a whole month at home. Traditionally, the new mother will be under the care of their mother-in-law, for a month after delivery. These days, the services of confinement ladies are often engaged to administer the same traditional care to new mums. It is all about rest, rest, rest. The predominant belief is that if confinement practices are not carried out in the proper way, the woman’s uterus will not be able to contract and this will result in “drooping womb” or uterine prolapse.
Another main principle of confinement is to prevent “wind” from entering the body. Wind, which happens to be considered the evil element in most Malaysian confinement customs, is said to be the cause of joint problems when one is older. One way the Chinese confinement practices discourages wind from entering the body is by disallowing the new mum to bathe. Needless to say, the washing of hair, no matter how sweaty or uncomfortable it gets, is a complete no-no!
During this period mothers were supposed to eat certain foods and herbs that, according to traditional Chinese customs, will speed up the recovery from labour and childbirth. This is definitely not the time to be yearning for tasty dishes! Depending on who is taking care of the new mum and what their methods are, she may even have to endure the same herbal chicken soup throughout her confinement! Chinese confinement dietary recommendations are mostly aimed at warming the body, improving blood circulation, “expelling” toxins from the blood and promoting contraction of the uterus.
Women are encouraged to eat liver and kidney cooked in old ginger, sesame oil or rice wine. Herbal soups and tonics are also a main part of the diet, as they rejuvenate the body.
Taboos in Chinese confinement practices:
- No bathing for twelve days
- Absolutely no washing of hair for at least twenty-one days
- No direct exposure to wind – This includes hot air (like hairdryer) or cold air (for example, air-conditioning)
- No excessive reading or watching of TV for the eyes need to be well-rested
- No crying! (post-natal blues will just have to wait!)
- No carrying of heavy objects
- No over-exertion or walking up and down the staircase
Meticulous and Doting – The Indian Confinement Care Methods
According to traditional Indian customs, confinement includes the practice of keeping both the new mum and her baby within a room or in a particular section of the house for an extended period after delivery, where she will be cared for and nurtured back to her pre-pregnancy self. The practices in Indian confinement customs are aimed to help the new mum to make a full recovery from the stress of childbirth. It is believed that the loss of blood and energy causes a new mum’s body to enter a “cold stage”. As with traditional Chinese and Malay beliefs, traditional Indian post-natal practices aim to help the new mum rejuvenate her body by making it “warm” again.
Confinement practices may vary depending on the various regional communities of Indians. Hence in Malaysia, a new mum is most likely to observe the confinement practices familiar to the older women in her own family.
A special assistant traditionally known as a dai or amah is usually engaged to care for a new mum. Traditionally, the dai or amah prepares special meals for the new mum, massages and bathes her and her baby, and does the laundry. Again, quite similar to the practices of the Malays and the Chinese, the Indian confinement custom is laced with many restrictions in food and movement – all intended to help the new mum relax, rejuvenate and regain her energy. Indian confinement practices revolve around ensuring that the uterus shrinks back to its normal size and that the internal “wounds” heal properly. It is a belief of the Indian custom that if a new mum does not heed or practice proper confinement care, the results will be backaches and pains in the joints, perhaps not immediately, but later on in her life.
The Indians also have their own form of massage or maalish and herbal wraps, which are believed to help the mother regain her figure. Baby is not left out either. The dai massages the mother and the baby daily with oils (ghee for Northern Indian practices, mustard oil if the family originates from Eastern India or coconut oil if they are from the South). The mother’s abdomen is massaged, after which a long cloth is used to bind the tummy area to help tighten up the lax muscles. Maalish is believed to help the new mum relax and get back into shape. In baby massages, it is believed that using olive oil improves the tone and texture of the baby’s skin. Another practice is to bathe the newborn baby in cooked rice water (kanji) to strengthen the baby’s bones.
The dietary recommendations in Indian confinement customs are primarily aimed at improving the production of breast milk. Green leafy vegetables, shark’s meat, garlic, black dhal pudding and boiled fenugreek seeds (halba) are among the foods believed to help produce a lot of quality milk for baby.
- Seafood is discouraged when a new mum is breastfeeding, as it will cause vomiting and rashes in the baby.
- Vegetables and fruits, like cabbage, eggplant or grapes are prohibited for these are believed to be ‘windy foods’.
- Excessive drinking of water is discouraged
- It is advised to swap red chillies
for black peppers during the confinement period
- Food like jackfruit and onions are not allowed, especially for breastfeeding mums, for they are said to cause colic in her baby