In traditional Chinese culture, women who have just given birth are supposed to stay inside with their baby for 40 days. Other cultures in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, South America and Africa have a similar practice, and it’s called many things in these various cultures. In Chinese culture it is called the “confinement period”.
During confinement, women who have just given birth are not meant to go outside. They have help from family members around the house and are cooked special dishes with warming herbs like ginger, because they are not meant to consume anything cold.
Some will go so far as to not wash their hair or bathe….
In my practice, I see a fair few women of Chinese descent and I’ll often ask them if they will be, or have done, the one month confinement. I’m often met with the same response.
It sounds a bit like torture, right? Well, the confinement period is not meant to be torturous. It’s meant to enable proper healing and recovery of a woman after she’s given birth. I like to explain to my women why the confinement period is a good idea and the purpose and wisdom behind it.
And I also explain why you can most definitely have a shower and wash your hair!
I don’t think anyone would argue that it takes a fair bit of energy to look after a newborn baby. Not to mention growing that baby and birthing that baby. And for up to 6 weeks post-birth, women bleed (lochia) – all whilst sleep deprived mind you.
We say, therefore, that a post-natal woman is in a state of depletion. Chinese medicine says that post-birth, a woman’s body has been depleted of energy (Qi) and blood. Some women also choose to breastfeed and this creates further depletion. Why? Because whilst breastmilk is nourishing and builds the baby, it is depleting for the woman because she has to create a whole entire food source from her body. (When was the last time you had to do that??) This in itself, takes a huge amount of energy, and blood, but she’s just spent most of hers giving birth.
If a woman’s body is trying to rebuild itself after giving birth, whilst simultaneously having a “6 week long menstrual period” and creating a food source for another living being, all whilst being sleep deprived, it makes sense that she would need as much rest as she possibly can get, and as much nutritious food as she can eat.
In Chinese medicine, when your body is in a state of “depletion” it is vulnerable. It is especially vulnerable to getting sick easily, and/or not recovering well if one isn’t careful. Chinese medicine also explains the importance of keeping warm. If cold enters the body (via food, or being exposed to the external environmental elements), this can create illness and lead to a prolonged recovery period. In clinic, sometimes we see women who will complain of new gynaecological symptoms that only started “after having my baby”.
“Cold” is the one element in all aspects of Chinese medicine that we spend a lot of time driving out of the body because cold inhibits circulation. (See our other blog article on cold here)
Being cold is not what you want when you’re trying to recover from birth. Muscles, tendons, ligaments and soft tissue get stretched when giving birth. Sometimes there is injury, in the case of an episiotomy, tearing or Caeserean section. For proper recovery of all these tissues it’s vital that adequate warmth be maintained both internally and externally to allow the appropriate healing response via adequate circulation.
So back to washing hair….
It’s important to understand these cultural practices in context.
Many of these rituals have been practiced for thousands of years. Think about what it must have been like for women before hairdryers and ghds. Before electricity. Women have been giving birth for THOUSANDS of years without the mod-cons. I can imagine that in certain climates and certain seasons, a first priority would have been to keep warm. If you didn’t keep warm you probably froze. Literally.
Not great for a woman that’s just given birth. And certainly not a great idea to wash your hair if you don’t have any means to dry it straight it away. How the heck did they dry their hair anyway? When keepimg warm is your first priority I doubt that they would have wanted to sit around with wet hair to let it “air dry”. I’m sure they had an internal fire somewhere in their house, keeping certain parts of the house warm, but do you think they had the time to sit in front of it to dry their hair while they’re looking after a baby?
I’d guess… no?
So I’m assuming that’s how the no-washing-of-hair rule came in. We don’t want post-natal women hanging around with cold, damp, wet hair on their head. That’s just inviting cold to set right into the body to disrupt general circulation all around the body.
I’m going to also assume that if you were poor, and lived in China a thousand years ago, you didn’t have the luxury of an indoor bathroom as we know it. I’m sure a lot of peasant women would have roughed it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had bathtubs outside. Again, in the middle of winter, or on any cold day a thousand years ago…how the heck are you going to keep warm??? There was no fancy plumbing with instant hot water access. I’m sure there were no Sheridan towels available either. How are they drying themselves properly? Wouldn’t it just be easier to have a “blanket rule” that says no bathing, no washing hair etc for a month after you give birth? hmm….., yeah, probably…..
So ladies, we are privileged to live in the 21st century and not the Warring states period. We have electricity! We have instant hot water! And we have super-duper appliances!
You are allowed to wash your hair, just dry it with a hairdryer after, thoroughly, straight away! Shower and bathe away to your hearts content, just keep warm afterwards!
I hope you enjoyed my de-constructive explanation to the quirkiness that Chinese culture can seem to have. When it’s explained in context, however, I’d like to think that the quirkiness is actually just common sense. There is actually so much more to post-partum care but I might save it for another time. Thanks for reading!