Chinese post-partum confinement is an ancient practice that ‘filled my cup’, says YouTuber Taylor R, and helped her fully recover from birth
- When a Hong Kong-based Canadian YouTuber vlogged about undertaking a month of Chinese confinement after the birth of her son, her followers were fascinated
- She hired a confinement nanny who lived with her, made her bitter soups and told her what she could and could not do – it is a job that is in high demand
“I feel like a true mummy. Like a mommy … but a mummy!” laughs Taylor Richard, as her stomach is bound in a tightly knotted binding.
The binding is called a bengkung, brought to Hong Kong from Malaysia, and is elaborately wound around a new mother’s abdomen to provide post-partum support.
It is a practice that the 33-year-old Canadian YouTuber, Instagram influencer, model and now new mum had chosen to follow for a month after the birth of her son, Levi.
Instead, Carol Chan – Richard’s pui jyut, or confinement nanny – came to live with her during her first post-partum month to guide her.
“Having an experienced woman around helping me to heal, as well as teaching me how to care for my baby, sounded wonderful. I was also very curious about the traditional and cultural aspects … I wanted to learn about and experience everything myself.”
At its core, Chinese confinement is about replenishing the mother after childbirth. Translated directly from the Chinese co jyut zi or “sitting the moon/month”, it is the period during which a new mother simply “sits” or rests and recovers.
“Childbirth depletes womens’ physical strength and leaves them in a state of ‘insufficient blood and qi deficiency’ after labour,” Chan says. “But they can regain their original constitution through confinement.”
It is a rigorous process: no working, no household chores, no washing your hair, use ginger water for bathing, no bare feet, no cold foods, no using air conditioners or fans – a struggle in Hong Kong summers – and no going outside.
But for most, the traditional rules have been relaxed to fit modern lifestyles.
“Nowadays, we rarely keep to those rules,” Chan says. “It isn’t practical to do so. For example, since the weather is hot and temperatures go up to nearly 40 degrees Celsius, it doesn’t make sense to keep the air-con off.”
“I cried quite a bit,” says Richard. “I’d often just be scrolling on my phone, or editing videos secretly in my room – because you’re not supposed to work! But she knew what I was doing, it was fine.”
Food plays a large part in the daily rhythm of Chinese confinement. Herbs and medicines are chosen for their various properties, all aimed at boosting milk supply, blood circulation, relieving pain or reducing water retention.
“I found it challenging to drink all of the teas and soups,” says Richard. “It’s a lot of liquid after eating full meals!”
Sang faa tong is one of the most popular confinement drinks, made from a mix of root vegetables including ginseng. But it is not for everyone.
“[It] was the worst thing I’ve ever drank – so bitter! I drank it all though!”
“There was so much to do. I was feeding my baby every two hours or so, consuming the many foods, teas and soups, doing the many practices, spending quality bonding time with my newborn, and learning everything I could about being a mother,” says Richard. “I was ‘confined’ to my home, but I wasn’t bored at all because Carol kept my schedule packed.”
Even so, when Richard shared the confinement process with her followers, the reaction was mixed.
“No crying seems impossible,” said one commenter, while others said the binding process “looks painful” or is “not a good method”.
But for many mothers, Richard included, confinement is a system of support while the body heals from pregnancy.
“I think there’s definitely more support needed for mothers in Western societies,” she says. “In Canada, new mothers are often sent home the day after giving birth and left to figure everything out with their bodies and baby.
Chinese confinement is big business in much of Asia.
“In mainland China, confinement centres are complete with healthcare facilities, doctors, and paediatricians, just like an actual hospital where you can house both the newborn baby and the mother,” Chan says.
“In Hong Kong, it’s more common for families to employ a pui jyut to help the mother at home, on an eight-hour or 24-hour basis.”
Particularly since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, demand has far outweighed the number of pui jyut available, pushing prices up.
“Many mothers now want to reduce the risk of contracting coronavirus, so they choose to employ 24-hour term pui jyut, if they had the means to, instead of eight-hour nannies or confinement centres,” Chan says.
Hiring a less experienced pui jyut who will work eight hours a day costs on average HK$18,000-HK$20,000 (US$2,300 -US$2,500) a month. The cost to have her available for 24 hours a day is more than double that. And an experienced nanny can charge up to HK$80,000 a month for round-the-clock service.
“They can only do several contracts a year and get booked up fast,” Richard says. “There’s a joke that some women call their pui jyut as soon as they know they’re pregnant, even before telling their husband!”
Karen Lai is one such mother. She had her first child in July through Caesarean delivery, and decided to spend two months in confinement, resting more the first month and focusing on the traditional diet during the second.
“Everyone does confinement – it’s traditional for Chinese people,” she says. “The only difference is whether they hire a pui jyut or not, but most of them do confinement.
“I never thought about not doing it, to be honest. As soon as I knew I was having a baby, I went to find a pui jyut right away.”
Lai’s parents and parents-in-law work during the day, so she hired Chan for support.
“For me, it’s helpful to have a lady who is knowledgeable about everything from taking care of the baby to cooking food for me, and helping to heal my body,” Lai says.
“It’s helpful when the baby cries – I may not know what the reason is, but a pui yuet will know right away. So that really saves a lot of time, and helps the baby emotionally.”
Chan recalls her own pregnancy – it is one reason she decided to become a pui jyut.
“When I gave birth to two sons, nobody helped me to do my confinement,” she says. “I did everything by myself. It was really hard.”
She adds that she has always liked newborn babies. “I remember helping take care of a crying baby when I was a child. When I hugged him, he didn’t cry. My hands are like magic! So I wanted to become a pui jyut and help people.
“Seeing mothers go from not understanding everything in the beginning, and teaching them to do everything well, watching them healthy and happy, gives me great pleasure and happiness.”
Richard now describes Chan as family, and it is a bond that has helped her raise her own.
“Every day we’d have long talks on how I was feeling, and Carol would prepare teas and soups for me accordingly. She took care of my mental, emotional, and physical well-being constantly, all while taking such good care of my son,” Richard recalls.
“You can’t pour from an empty cup. Chinese confinement filled my cup so I could go forward and pour from it for my family.”