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Confinement: Local theories and best practices

Confinement is an Asian traditional “quarantine” practice for new moms, aimed at helping them recover from the rigours of pregnancy and labour. In Malaysia, all three main ethnic races – Chinese, Indian and Malay – exercise confinement according to their unique cultures and traditions.

Traditionally, new moms do not receive visitors apart from close family members until the confinement period is over.

While they may have different confinement practices, the common goal is to support recovering mothers by assisting in their recuperation after delivery.


For a Malaysian-Chinese mom, the confinement period lasts for a whole month from a baby’s birth. Malay women, on the other hand, practice confinement periods for at least 42 to 44 days while Malaysian-Indian mothers undergo confinement for 30 to 40 days.

In situations where mothers need more help and care – especially if new mothers underwent a caesarean section – they may choose to extend confinement periods. While practices may differ, all women who exercise confinements are not allowed to exert themselves in any way. Sex is definitely a no-no, while rest is of utmost importance throughout the confinement period.

Confinement care

Traditionally, the mother or mother-in-law will assist in caring for new moms during their confinement period. If one’s budget permits, a nanny or confinement lady is hired and she will see to the needs of the new mom and her baby.

In bigger cities and urban areas, confinement centres are becoming more popular because these places provide lodging, confinement meals and helpers. Along with this, confinement centres also provide traditional massages, postnatal yoga, parenting classes and breastfeeding support.

Apart from the convenience of having helpers, food and classes provided, traditional practices are observed at some confinement centres while providing baby products, herbs and spa specials. Some confinement centres also allow the new dad to stay with his wife and baby.

Traditional confinement taboos and restrictions

The three main ethnic races in Malaysia each observe somehow strict confinement practices. Let’s take a look at what they are.

Chinese confinement practices

New Chinese moms are not allowed to wash their hair during the entire confinement period. The reason behind this is because hair washing is believed to cause discharge of “impurities” from the womb causing physical issues such as problematic internal organs, abdominal pains, poor blood circulation and pigmentation. In terms of bathing, women can only bathe in hot waters infused in traditional Chinese herbs.

Another prohibition is excessive sweating and coming into contact with wind. Sweating is believed to open the pores and if wind enters the weak body, moms could suffer from arthritis, colds, headaches and rheumatism later in life. Hence, traditional confinement ladies will ensure you do not rest under fans and air-conditioning even if you are feeling warm.

New Chinese mothers are also discouraged from watching television or reading for more than 15 minutes because the eyes are believed to age first. Along with this, they are told not to cry as well. Cold drinks cannot be consumed for 21 days after delivery because they are thought to have negative effects on metabolism.

Traditional Chinese practitioners believe that it is important to replenish a new mom’s energy levels with good nutrition via special tonics, dishes and soups. These foods are believed to enhance a new mom’s immune system and physical strength to provide enough breast milk for her baby.

Traditional Chinese confinement foods call for foods such as fish, poultry and red meats. Along with this, cereal, fruits and vegetables that are rich in calcium are also vital. Chinese confinement meals also call for snacks such as nuts, eggs and meat soups which are believed to produce more milk.

New moms are also advised by experts to take a combination of roots and herbs which include Chinese wine, Chinese Angelica root, Szechuan Lovage, dried ginger, liquorice root and peach kernels. In traditional Chinese medicine, tonics are believed to improve blood flow, tummy aches and prolonged discharge. Moms are also not allowed to consume “cooling” foods such as onion and jackfruits because they are believed to cause colic.

A Malay mother’s confinement period

A Malay mom normally spends her confinement period in her family home where she is helped by her mother and the ‘bidan’. It is believed that women who diligently follow confinement practices or ‘pantang’ will regain their pre-baby figure, energy levels and even their looks. The ‘bidan’ will normally come to the house for three days to perform traditional massages. These massages are thought to release stress and to speed-up recovery.

During confinement, the ‘bidan’ may heat the woman’s abdomen with a smooth, warm stone. This is believed to prevent illness and quicken the shrinking of the uterus and thus, help the mother to get back into shape.

In terms of Malay confinement foods, moms are encouraged to eat fresh fish such as snakehead because it promotes healing. On the other hand, dried and salted fish, including mackerel and shellfish, should be avoided because it is believed to cause allergies and itchiness. Similar to Chinese confinement practices, the Malays believe that “cooling” foods such as cucumber, young coconut, water spinach and sugarcane should be avoided.

Confinement – The Indian way

Indian moms usually undergo their confinement period in their mother’s home. Traditionally, a new mom is encouraged to take herbal baths and undergo special massages with mustard seed oil every day.

Like Chinese traditional beliefs, Indian postnatal care also aims to rejuvenate the body by making it “warm” again. Such restrictions include switching off the fan or air-conditioning, wearing warm clothes and keeping windows and doors closed to avoid chills.

Indian mothers are also expected to steer clear of:

  • reading
  • watching television
  • having long conversations
  • crying
  • bending over at the waist

In some staunchly traditional families, the first week of delivery is considered a period of pollution for the entire family and thus, a ceremony must be held on the seventh day to remove that contamination.

In the Indian confinement practice, it is believed that certain foods have the power to speed up recovery and provide nutrients to both mother and baby. Certain gourd vegetables such as ‘lauki’ and ‘tori’ are believed to increase milk supply while betel leaves are supposed to improve lactation as well.

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