Eastern and Western culture have significantly differing opinions on the issue of postnatal bedrest. I personally think the difference is due to history. The Chinese custom of postnatal bedrest is the culmination of thousands of years of study in gynecological health. It belongs to the restorative sector of traditional Chinese medicine. TCM is also the first to incorporate restorative medicine formally into its health care system.
Should one “take a month to sit in bed” after having a baby, as the Chinese custom dictates? Is the tradition of postnatal bedrest an old wives’ tale or a valid practice in restorative medicine? Let’s take a look at what is going on for the mommy and her baby in the process of birth. First, there is the old saying, “Before birth, a pot of fire. After birth, a pot of ice.” What does this mean? As the prenatal fetus grows, the mother’s metabolism speeds up accordingly to cope with the increased burden of supporting two lives. Her body temperature rises and she will feel warmer than usual. This is natural, like feeling hot after exercise. We all know that most of the nutrients the mother consumes during pregnancy are funneled straight to the fetus, to facilitate growth and development. Therefore, the mother becomes much depleted after childbirth, when the culmination of all that extra nutrition and increased metabolism leaves her body. Factor in the blood loss and physical exertion involved in labor, and it is no wonder that mothers are left in a relatively anemic state postpartum. Our body is an organic whole; our organs are the core of this wholeness. When the body is anemic, its priority is to ensure blood supply to organs. Blood supply to the rest of the body will therefore be reduced, and the mother will feel cold. This is a bad time to get sick, because with drastically reduced defenses, diseases are more likely to penetrate deeply, causing more damage to the body than at any other time.
Also, in the first seven to ten days postpartum, the mother will sweat profusely, experiencing what the Chinese call “childbed fever.” This is actually a natural process. Perspiration is the fastest way to lose water weight, so the sweating actually helps the mother get rid of the extra fluids and toxins that accumulated in her body during pregnancy. Therefore, it is important to maintain the smooth flow of perspiration during this time. In addition to detoxing, the uterus shrinks most intensively in these first two weeks. During pregnancy, the uterine walls thicken and the uterus expands dramatically. It contains more blood and body fluids than at any other time. Regardless of whether the baby was born naturally or by caesarean section, some residue remains, known as “lochia.” Lochia must be expelled in order for the uterus to return to normal.
After birth, mothers usually have varying degrees of mood swings. Also known as “baby blues,” symptoms include feeling sad, depressed, irritable, and being easily moved to tears. Mood usually improves when lactation begins, but may develop into postpartum depression if not handled properly. I’ve listed the most common postpartum conditions. Now, let’s see what should be done to prevent them from happening. Since the mother feels like “a pot of ice” after giving birth, then keeping her warm is of course a priority. It is important to warm her both from within and without. Dress warmly. Choose to eat warming foods. This includes both temperature and nature. First, the temperature of food consumed (including fluid intake) should never be lower than body temperature. Secondly, the nature of the food should at least be neutral. Avoid cold, refreshing foods such as watermelon, cucumber, apple, etc. Cold food slows the metabolism and decreases blood circulation, leading to the incomplete excretion of waste and toxins. This will greatly hinder the recovery of the mother’s body; the lochia will take longer to be fully expelled, seriously impact on the restoration of the uterus. Also, because the mother’s body is depleted, toxins will accumulate faster and deeper than usual, perhaps leaving permanent conditions.
In the long history of Chinese medicine, different emotions have been linked to the performance and function of different organs. These levels of dysfunction, though not measurable yet by western medicine, affect the patient’s mood as follows: liver dysfunction causes irritability, lung dysfunction causes sadness and weeping, kidney dysfunction causes fear, spleen dysfunction causes worry, heart dysfunction causes mania or excessive joy. For postpartum depression, the irritability and crying are symptomatic of the liver and lung being decreased in functionality. Some mothers also experience panic, insomnia and other symptoms caused by weak kidneys.
Let’s take a look at the customs involved in the tradition of “sitting in bed for a month.” Basically, the goal is to create a place where new mothers can restore their health as soon as possible.
- Wind: Traditionally, the windows are pasted shut, doorways are covered with heavy curtains made of cotton, and it is considered polite to enter and exit the room slowly, moving the curtain as little as possible. In some areas, the mother is even required to wear a turban. This is not just to keep warm, but to prevent wind. This is a priority because the pores must stay open to ensure smooth flow of perspiration, and wind will cause the pores to close, trapping toxins within and causing disease at a time where the body is defenseless.
- Warmth: This one is obvious. Generally, it is recommended to keep the room between 78F-82F. This is good for both the mother and child.
- Birth Transformation Decoction’ or sheng hua tang: The purpose of this decoction is to help clear congestion and toxins within the uterus, thus shortening the recovery time. Usually taken in the first week after birth.
- Nutrition: Choose warm or neutral foods, especially ones that help with liver, kidney and lung function, to prevent postpartum depression. (I usually added these things directly to the sheng hua tang.) Also, pay attention to nutritional intake, to lay a good foundation for raising the baby.
Now that we know why we should “sit in bed for a month” after childbirth, let us turn to the next article, which will detail how to do it well. For a more complete list, please contact our office.