TCM and Postpartum Traditions
Traditional Chinese Medicine Traditions After Birth
TCM and postpartum traditions are rich. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the postnatal period is a watershed in women’s health. “Caring well for the mother (in the postpartum period) not only ensures her good health for the future but can even resolve past health issues”1. Conversely, inadequate rest and care of the new mother can lead to a myriad of problems for the woman. By extension, this also affects her family. With appropriate care, a woman can build a solid foundation to tackle the demands of mothering. Likewise, this helps preserve and enhance her reproductive health for future children. Also, down the track, becomes an easier experience of menopause and aging.
Zou Yuezhi translates as ‘doing the month’, which is 40 days rest and recovery time in the postnatal traditional of Chinese culture. After the rigors of pregnancy and birth, it is considered essential for the family and society that a woman is given this period of total rest. It is a recognition of the sacredness of this time, the importance of it for a woman’s health, her baby, her family, and her community. The emphasis during this time is very much on the mother’s recovery, unlike here in the west where the emphasis is on the baby. A quote from the Ashtanga Sangraha, an ancient Ayurvedic text underlines why the mother’s health is so the importance of this time and echoes the sentiments of the traditional Chinese view:
“The woman plays the key role in this ashrama (family life). Hence the health of the woman should be protected by all means. If the woman is protected, in turn she will protect the whole community.”2
During Zou Yuezhi, the woman’s only job is to feed and get to know her baby. She should eat the nourishing foods cooked for her by extended family networks and community, and gently transition into Motherhood. In the Chinese tradition, the new mother is not advised to read very much. She should also not watch television in case she strain her eyes. She must not engage in mental activities for the reason that these all use qi. Qi should be conserved by the new mother.
Period of Seclusion
Traditionally this is a period of seclusion. This is partially to protect the new baby and give him/her a gentle transition into the world. However, it is primarily considered an essential time for the woman to heal. Rest is a vital aspect of replenishing qi and blood, and women are expected to spend much time sleeping, and lying down during this period to regain her strength and allow her pelvis to heal. It was a time that a woman was considered very vulnerable. She was considered an open vessel and must be protected from undesirable energies, including emotions, and elemental energetics such as wind and cold. Rest and isolation from the community were ways to protect the new mother from these undesirable elements.
Food is Medicine
In traditional Chinese culture, food is medicine. It is the source of your postnatal qi and blood and is essential for proper healing. It is acknowledged that there are increased nutritional requirements during recovery from birth and particularly while breastfeeding, so the foods prized for this period are very nutrient dense. In addition to aiding healing and replenishing nutrients depleted by pregnancy and birth, the mother must be supported to produce breast milk and undergo a major life transition.
The focus is on nourishing blood, qi and yin, and yang all of which are necessary to grow a baby, are lost in birth and are required for breastfeeding and mothering. Because of the emphasis on highly nutritious foods, meat is generally at the centre, and most commonly soups and stews made of bone broths. Broth based soups are the ideal postpartum food, they are a source of protein, supply some iron, calcium, magnesium in an easily absorbed form, and contain gelatine which supports the repair of connective tissue, and helps stop excessive uterine bleeding.
Special Mention Foods
There are a few foods that are worth a special mention for being prized for their nourishing properties in the postpartum:
- Ginger – this is warming, nourishing, aids digestion and moves the blood. It is in every traditional postpartum recipe I have ever seen. For women bleeding heavily use only in small amounts and increase once the flow of lochia lightens.
- Black sesame – is a traditional qi and blood tonic and increase lactation. They are full of essential fatty acids, b vitamins, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and tryptophan which is a known mood stabiliser. Do not eat excessively if you have weak digestion.
- Black vinegar – this is a warming, nourishing ingredient that purifies the blood and aids circulation, helps digestion and constipation, it also encourages perspiration which is an avenue for eliminating toxins and additional fluid after birth. It contains amino acids that are used in tissue repair and growth and can pair beautifully with bone broths.
- Pig’s Trotters – These are THE food of new mothers in traditional Chinese culture. They are warm, supplement the blood and yin, and nourish the kidneys, which are also called the gate of life, and are thought to be depleted by pregnancy and birth. Pig trotters are moistening, so will help constipation or skin dryness. They are full of cartilage and will cook down producing a very nutritious gelatine that is ideal for replenishing, repairing tissue, replacing blood, aiding lactation and supporting stable emotions. Don’t worry if you can’t come at including these in your diet, bone broths contain many of the same healing elements, and are a bit more palatable to many!
- Eggs – nourish the yin, benefit the heart, kidneys liver and spleen. They are a highly nutritious food and are often included in postpartum recipes.
In addition to these foods, herbs are often used in traditional postpartum preparations. Commonly used herbs are Huang qi (astragalus), dang gui (angelica), hong zao (jujube fructus), dang shen (codonoptis), and ginger.
For vegetarians soaked and sprouted pulses & grains replace the use of animal protein. Aduki beans and rice are especially valued. They are well cooked and served in soups and stews, like congees, and eggs are used in most dishes. There is also a larger emphasis on using nourishing herbs in recipes where animal proteins are not used.
Yin and Yang
Mothers are ‘warmed’ with nourishing and warming foods, but the concept of warming is taken further. Postnatally yin and yang thought to be unbalanced as a woman uses much of her yang energy in the transformative process of giving birth. She has also lost blood and qi which are both protective and warming. The new mother is energetically and physically at her most open. She is therefore considered to be particularly vulnerable to exterior cold penetration at the same time as being internally cooler. Her yang must be supported and no cold is allowed near a postpartum woman. Women traditionally were not to wash their hair for fear of cold invasion, though now with hair dryers this is not emphasised as much.
The abdomen and sacrum are kept covered, and the woman dresses warmly to protect herself from cold penetration. The idea of putting ice on a tender perineum is absolutely forbidden in Chinese culture. It is also forbidden in many Asian and other postpartum traditions. TCM and traditional Chinese culture suggest the use of warmth; warm clothes and heat packs, to soothe and aid healing. This modern practice of ice is thought to be responsible for painful menstruation, difficult menopause, pelvic pain and even arthritis, down the track.
This idea of warming and yang tonifying is extended to a physical process literally called ‘mother warming’. This is usually performed on new mothers about a week after childbirth. The treatment includes some acupuncture. Moxa (a herb) is held above the abdomen and sacrum while burning. This is done indirectly, don’t worry, it feels fabulous! This warms and aids uterine involution.
This process also assists healing and circulation. Also, it assists in the replenishment of blood, yang and qi. It relaxes and repairs the tendons and ligaments. This is especially helpful after being stretched during pregnancy and birt. This allows the pelvis to return to its pre pregnancy shape. This treatment is performed regardless of the mode of delivery. However, in the case of caesarean, this is performed 2 weeks postpartum. With this approach, acupuncture for c section scar healing is added in. This is a powerful way to replenish energy and increase a sense of well-being.
Learn from the Traditions of Our Ancestors
While many of these traditions are not practical in today’s world, there is wisdom in many of these practices. After all, many women do not want their mother-in-law living with them in the house for 6 weeks! Heng Ou notes that we can learn from the traditions of our Grandmother’s. Then we can forge a new path forward.
“We have forgotten the time-honoured wisdom that this special cocoon of care should extend to the mother as well…During this time, she can revitalise herself and replenish her reserves, creating a solid foundation from which to tackle the demands of mothering”3.
While we may still desire to wash our hair, have a shower, and read a book in the weeks after birth, I am keen to see women in my community develop their own practical and relevant traditions. Traditions involving the three threads of postnatal care: rest, nutrition, and warmth. What pieces of wisdom can you take from these traditions? Ensure that you nourish, rest and emerge in optimal health from your postnatal period.
 Ou Heng. (2016). The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother. p10