This story was originally published September 16, 2016.
Imagine giving birth to your baby and immediately becoming the center of pampered attention for a full month of rest. Someone is with you 24/7 to take care of you and your newborn so you can rest, eat nourishing foods, feed your baby, and recover from childbirth.
Sounds pretty nice, right?
The tradition of “Sitting the Month" or Zuo Yuezi in Chinese medicine goes back thousands of years to the Han Dynasty in China, where it was recognized that the month directly after childbirth is crucial to the future health of the mother and newborn. This program has become an ingrained tradition in Chinese culture and involves strict rules for the month following childbirth, some of which are still followed as closely as they were 2,000 years ago. It is now a full industry involving luxury hotels with doctors on call in-house and a nurse in the room at all times. Families who can't afford a luxury hotel still do a version of Zuo Yuezi where the new mother stays with a family member so she can have help recovering and focus on her baby.
The concepts to follow during this time are rooted in Chinese medical theory, but some of the strict rules make it difficult for Western women to follow and are a little outdated.
As a modern Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese medicine who works with busy new moms in Manhattan, I've come to realize we need an updated version of this program, especially in the West.
A more modern approach could benefit many new mothers during this important recovery time, making this program approachable and attainable, while letting go of some of the superstitious rules that make it tough to follow in our busy lives.
That's why I'm sharing the ancient rules of “sitting the month" with the Chinese medicine explanation and ideas for incorporating a more modern approach.
Avoid contact with cold and wind
Cold and wind are pathogenic factors in Chinese medicine, meaning they can trigger a disease process. While this was just a way for them to understand and explain what we now know of as germ theory, science is catching on to how weather and temperature can affect our immune systems. (See Harvard research on this topic here.)
Mothers were told to bundle up even indoors and not go outside at all. They were also not allowed to shower as the cool down afterward could be associated with a chill. I do think it is fine to shower and get some fresh air, but do protect yourself and your baby during this vulnerable time by wearing appropriate clothing and erring on the side of staying warmer than usual.
Eat only warm, cooked, bland foods
Childbirth is very depleting and often there is a fair and sometimes large amount of blood loss. In Chinese medicine theory, there are certain foods that help replenish the qi and blood, which are depleted after birth. Cold raw foods are more likely to carry bacteria, so this is not bad advice. Also, warm and cooked foods are easier to digest than raw, so lightly cooked veggies are preferable. Eat a healthy diet consisting of mostly cooked and warm unprocessed food and drinks, emphasizing the following:
fresh ginger (cooked)
free-range chicken and eggs
dates and berries
cooked greens and other colorful veggies
liver (from free-range animals)
brown rice, oats, and quinoa
Adding cooked herbs such as Dang Gui, Huang Qi (Astragalus), and Goji Berries
Only rest, eat, sleep, and feed your baby. No TV, books, or other distractions
This may sound difficult and boring, but focusing on resting and low mental stimulation can be helpful for healing.
This is where it is necessary to have help from someone (or a few people) you trust to help you take care of the things you don't absolutely have to do. I do think it is wise to be mindful of how the things we think of as “entertaining" elicit emotional responses and can make our bodies respond like we are experiencing whatever is happening in the show or book. Most women have deep empathy during this time from hormones, which helps us sense the needs of our baby, but it also means we're vulnerable to the emotions of others, even if they are on TV or in a book. While we know those things aren't happening to us, our systems can still release stress hormones in response.
People bring germs.
And people can also stress out the new mom in various ways (bringing drama, gossip, giving unwanted advice, criticizing, judging, etc.), further depleting the mother's precious qi and blood.
People can also be super helpful however, so use your intuition on this one and accept help when needed, but don't be afraid to ask others to wait until you feel stronger.
The most common underlying theme throughout the program is protecting the mother and newborn from exposure to pathogens and extra stress. A new mother is in a depleted state and her system is more vulnerable. Using this first month to prioritize recovery by creating a calm household and making sure the demands on the mother are minimal, may quicken recovery time, potentially preventing postpartum depression and other health problems, while promoting healthy milk production and a healthy immune system for both mama and baby.
A version of this article appears in The Motherly Guide to Becoming Mama: Redefining the Pregnancy, Birth, and Postpartum Journey.