The value of the Asian tradition of postpartum lie-ins


Raidah Shah Idil

Raidah Shah Idil

Raidah Shah Idil

 When I was 36 weeks pregnant, my American colleague asked me: "So, how long will you be under house arrest for?"

I laughed. Shaking her head, my Malaysian colleague replied, "It's not house arrest! It's postnatal confinement."

They were both referring to the traditional 44-day postnatal lie-in traditionally observed in many parts of South East Asia. During this time, the new mother is expected to do just that - keep off her feet, and focus on healing and bonding with her new baby. An older woman is in charge of giving her the care she needs, and she could be the new mum's mother, aunt, grandmother or a hired confinement lady.

During this period, there's a big emphasis on eating the right kinds of food. Warm-natured foods, such as ginger, turmeric and black pepper are encouraged because they help promote wound healing. Cold-natured foods must be avoided because they cause masuk angin, or 'wind invasion'. This will lead to anything from catching a cold to muscle aches.


In addition to that, new mums will receive a myriad of postnatal treatments, including abdominal massages using hot stones or special herbal oils. Belly binding with a belly belt or a long strip of cloth is used to help the uterus get back into position. Belly binding is often combined with sticky herbal pastes that help heal the uterus. Some postnatal treatments even include what is called tangas, or vaginal steaming, using local herbs like lemongrass and pandan leaves. The benefits of vaginal steaming include improved blood circulation and detoxification.

Sounds peachy, right? Except it's not so easy to stay indoors for 44 days, adhere to a strict diet, keep off your feet, and tend to a newborn. But in comparison to running a whole household days after giving birth with zero support – the postnatal lie-in does sounds like a resort pamper package.

However, some younger mums in this part of the world have shed many postnatal care practises, to the despair of their own mothers. Some say it's too much of a hassle, while others say they would go stir-crazy from staying indoors for that long. Malaysian diaspora to different parts of the globe has also caused this decline. For example, a regal matriarch in her sixties said to me that she didn't have the luxury to lie around for 44 days after giving birth. She and her husband had migrated to Europe, and she had no family support. "I couldn't be a princess! After a week, I just strapped a corset on and went back to running my home."

Sometimes, women who may want postnatal treatments are unable to access those services. A Malaysian woman living in a rural German village, for example, would be hard pressed to find a confinement lady there.

Other young women are very much committed to observing the postnatal lie-in. Postnatal care is a thriving business here, and it takes different forms depending on your circumstances, and how much you're willing to pay. I've been told that in days gone by, there was a lot more herbal wisdom amongst womenfolk, and most female relatives, most often the mother, would look after their daughters' postnatal needs. These days, it's a lot more common to hire a confinement lady. Some will look after both mum and baby, while others focus on looking after the mum. In scenarios where the new mum's mother is unavailable, there are special confinement centres with different packages. Some packages offered are quite basic, while others are a lot more luxurious. Many confinement centres also provide breastfeeding support.

How did my postnatal confinement go? Overall, I'm grateful that it went pretty well. I have to thank my mother, husband and family for being an incredible postnatal care team. There is no way I could have done it alone, which brings me to the next point - a postnatal lie-in can only really work when the new mum's loved ones rally together to support her. I had a newfound respect for all women who have given birth.

From my own experience, I can say that postnatal aftercare contributed a lot to how well I healed after birth. A good friend of mine passed the contact details of her confinement lady to me. Her package came with ten massages, heat pack therapy, belly binding, and herbal wraps. She gave me some of the most painful yet healing massages of my life, which I spread out over the 44 days. In between sessions, I would breastfeed my baby daughter because we didn't want to introduce the bottle to her too soon. My confinement lady gave so many helpful tips about milk-boosting foods, how to burp our gassy baby, and taught us how to massage her.

It helped, so much, to not have to worry about the laundry, dishes, cooking, and the myriad other tasks that come with running a home. I remember feeling sore, tired, and absolutely drenched in new mummy hormones, and the last thing I wanted to worry about was a pile of unwashed dishes or laundry. Having the love and comfort of family during such a vulnerable time was also so important for me. I don't know how anyone else copes without this level of help.

Did I stay indoors for 44 days? Nope. "How did your confinement go?" I was asked. "Malaysian style or Aussie style?" My answer was "A bit of both." There's almost a badge of pride by young women who steadfastly stay indoors for the 44 days, but in reality, we have to leave the home to take our babies to doctor's appointments. I cheated on a few days because I couldn't stand being indoors any longer, so I bundled up my baby in her sling and went for a short walk. The fresh air did wonders for my mood, and for my baby's. Thankfully, this was before the awful haze hit.

We've all heard the phrase "It takes a village to raise a child." That actually starts right from his/her arrival, earthside! Not everybody is able to get 44 days of complete rest, but at the very least, it's important to recognise that all women who have given birth have done something incredible. We need some time to recover before reaching a new level of normal with our gurgling babies in tow.