Zuoyuezi (Chinese Sitting Month Postpartum Recovery) Rules with Modern Western Adaptation

What if I told you that the secret to staying recovering one's figure after childbirth, avoiding postpartum depression, having great and amazing quality milk supply and preventing many ailments in one's old age came down to doing the right things during the first month postpartum? What if I told you there was a way to get everyone to wait on your hand and foot after you give birth so all you have to do is focus on recovering and nursing a demanding newborn?

All you have to do is lock yourself up in the house for 30 days, abstain from bathing and follow a slew of other seemingly nonsensical advice. And have a mother or mother-in-law who will yell at you and anyone else that is not helping you adhere to those rules. (Hey, no reward is without a price.)

Interested? Let me tell you about zuoyuezi, also known as the Sitting Month. Most prolific in the Chinese community, though there are other cultures that adhere to similar rules, there are none that take it quite as far. Even in America, Chinese mothers sometimes pay into the 5 figures to be pampered at resorts that specialize in the 30 days after childbirth and all the rules that go with it. Some of us only pay for the food delivery, a major component of the Sitting Month, where a company well versed in Traditional Chinese Medicine, prepares fresh food, formulated for recovery and milk production, and delivers it daily for between $2,000 and $4,000, depending on the type of birth, extras and duration of delivery (as some mamas go as long as 45 days for their zuoyuezi period). Others hire in home mommy's helpers or postpartum doulas experienced in the Sitting Month or get help from their mothers or mothers in law. Some pick and choose the rules they follow.

The month is hard to do. Some of us don't know all the rules. Others of us don't necessarily believe all the rules are logical making it more than difficult to adhere to them. Some of us are in America where some of the rules just sound crazy and unsanitary. But some of us also have moms that worry and would never let up unless we follow those rules.

Having completed the month and following the rules as best I reasonably could, here are my thoughts and adaptations for the Westernized mama.
I am one month old! Now my mommy can bathe, thank goodness!

Rule: No bathing.

Superstition: Due to the large loss of blood, a postpartum mother is susceptible to cold. Bathing and showers increase that risk. Water is essentially cooling based on the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Yin Yang balance so exposure to water is cooling during a period of time where restoring the mother's body to a balanced state by warming it critical. Bathing can also result in ailments like arthritis later in life.

Probable Cause: Originally, this superstition probably developed before the advent of clean running water. Bathing in unclean water probably resulted in lots of infection and resulting death. Also, living in conditions with no temperature control, especially in cold winter months, likely caused a host of health problems for moms in an already immune compromised state. You know, historically typical third world country stuff.

Modern Adaptation: Traditionalists have a trick to allow for sponge bathing in diluted rice wine, which is warming, or a tea made of warming ingredients. My mother suggested a steam with warming ingredients in lieu of baths, which is relaxing but doesn't really address the cleanliness issue, and with 2 kids, was nearly impossible to find time to do. Maybe the real reason the no bathing rule exists is because it's really hard to get in a good bath when you have baby constantly attached to one's breast.

After finding that the slightest cool breeze would cause me to shiver in the first days after giving birth, I opted to heat the bathroom well with a space heater so I wouldn't get cold while giving myself a sponge bath with hot tea made of rock salt, rice wine, ginger, lemongrass, guava leaves and eucalyptus essential oils. Doing this every few days was enough to get me past the icky dirty feeling that caused me to give up on the rules during my first pregnancy.

And really, when doing the sitting month, one of the perks is that you have a cultural excuse to not be all done up or picture perfect immediately after giving birth. (I am talking to you, Western celebrity moms.)

Sponge Bath Tea Ingredients: Ginger, lemongrass, guava leaves.

Rule: No washing hair.

Superstition: This correlates to the same superstitions related to bathing but with an added twist. Shampooing or getting one's head wet will cause terrible headaches/migraines later in life.

Probable Cause: Many women experience migraines for the first time after giving birth. They usually go away within 8 weeks postpartum but are extremely intense. These are the same migraines that many women experience again starting in pre-menopause which is probably why women connect migraines as a pregnancy related ailment. Cold can exacerbate migraines also. It's also important to Chinese women to maintain their youthful appearance into old age and many probably attributed postpartum hair loss to washing one's hair since hair loss is most noticeable after washing and brushing.

Modern Adaptation: The reality check here is that having a crying baby in the house can cause headaches. It's not the shampoo's fault. Avoiding the cold on the scalp will reduce the number of migraines for the average mom so washing hair with the warming bath tea in a heated room is ideal. Also, blow drying one's hair is also important to prevent the head from getting cold from being wet. Some moms opt to use dry shampoo for the duration of their zuoyuezi resulting in some very voluminous hair.

I used the sitting month as an opportunity to try out the No Shampoo Method, which requires no washing of the hair for at least a week in order for the scalp and hair to reach an oil balance without being stripped. When I "washed" my hair with baking soda and apple cider vinegar, both of which are warming on the yin-yang scale, I rinsed with the bath tea described above. This resulted in much thicker hair and less hair loss than I experienced after my first childbirth.

This is my no shampooed hair after a month.

Rule: No leaving the house.

Superstition: Leaving the house can result in exposure to cold winds which can cause health issues.

Probable Cause: The world used to be much more disease ridden before proper hygiene and bathroom facilities were developed. Exposure to other people in a weakened postpartum state probably resulted in many women getting sick after childbirth.

Also, in order to properly adhere to all of the zuoyuezi rules, confinement from society was probably the easiest way to acheive that goal. Later, women probably realized very quickly that right after birth, being taken care of while nursing a newborn around the clock is a pretty darn good gig.

Modern Adaptation: Fully buy into not leaving the house for anything but doctor's appointments. SERIOUSLY. Adhering to confinement means having a cultural justification for maternity leave, not being expected go to the market or run errands because you're home and "not doing anything." Embrace the luxury of staying home and snuggling with a new baby that needs to be fed on demand without any other responsibilites.

Rule: No washing face or brushing teeth.

Superstition: Washing one's face or brushing one's teeth can cause a chill which can cause health issues. All the same risks as bathing.

Probable Cause: Once again, contaminated water supplies, lack of clean water, a high level of infection and all those other scary things from ancient China likely caused a host of health issues, like infection, in an immune suppressed mother in postpartum recovery.

I found, also, that washing my face and brushing my teeth with cold water postpartum did give me chills, probably because postpartum moms are more sensitive to swings in temperature thanks to fluctuating hormone levels.

Modern Adaptation: Let's not abstain from washing our faces and brushing our teeth. Not doing these things, especially in America, will make the average mama feel unclean and possibly depressed, like being treated as a deprived prisoner. Just make sure to use warm water in both instances and any chills can be avoided.

Rule: No visitors.

Superstition: No visitors are allowed for the first 30 days for mama or baby. Mama can rejoin society and introduce baby to friends and non-immediate family at baby's 30 day ceremony, traditionally known as the Red Egg and Ginger Party.

Probable Cause: Aside from the exposure to visitors who may be carrying germs, this rule probably came about due to moms not wanting to be seen by anyone while unbathed and disheveled with a possibly messy abode. Or to have to entertain visitors while totally exhausted and having to constantly nurse a newborn.

Modern Adaptation: There are plenty of Western women who just don't allow visitors at all until ready without the need for an excuse but they get flack for it. Maybe telling everyone they're adopting an Eastern lifestyle will be the unquestionable reason that everyone and their mom can't come over to see the baby. Personally, being cut off from everyone except my husband, children, parents and in-laws would have made me feel pretty depressed so I had visitors.

But, I also made it a goal to get up everyday and get dressed, do my hair and make-up to be just barely presentable enough for company so I wouldn't feel slovenly. Despite the rule about housework below, I also tried to keep the house somewhat tidy, not for visitors, but for my mental health. A messy self and messy house makes me feel gloomy.

Anyone who was coming to visit us was required to have their TDAP vaccination at least 2 weeks before visiting to prevent exposure to Whooping Cough, which in my home area of Southern California is seeing a resurgence in infection. Yes, this was demanding but my baby, my rules. There was also hand sanitizer available to visitors as well as a reminder to wash hands before touching the baby.

Lastly, preparing a Red Egg and Ginger party at 30 days postpartum was not going to happen in my world. Many moms do the party at 100 days instead of 30 days. If we were going to wait to have visitors until after that party, people wouldn't see us for a year.  I chose to do the party at 1 year, giving me more time and the baby a chance to develop a stronger immune system and get the appropriate vaccinations just in case. Plus, there's a bonus of a built in party theme!

Vistors at the hospital.

Rule: Cover all parts of your body. Wear long sleeves, socks, scarves and hats.

Superstition: All parts of one's body must be covered at all times to prevent catching cold or chilling one's bones resulting in arthritis later in life. There is a lot of fear of being cold.

Probable Cause: Lack of climate control in houses probably resulted in many women getting very cold in the harsh winters. Add the fact that in postpartum, many of us feel colder than normal due to shifting hormones and many of us get the chills in childbirth, especially those of us who had c-sections. And the cultural fear of sun exposure and dark skin compounded by pregnancy melasma, people probably believed that skin was more sensitive postpartum since the whole body is weakened by the process of child growing and birthing, covering the skin to prevent sun damage makes sense.

Modern Adaptation: There are women who blindly who adhered to these rules in the heat of summer without air conditioning and died of heatstroke. Seriously, it's these instances that make zuoyuezi seem outdated and dangerous. The fact of the matter is one should dress to be a comfortable temperature for the environment.

These rules make sense in the winter, especially in places with no climate control, but not in the summer.

I did opt to wear long sleeves because we safely co-sleep and my upper body gets cold from lack of blankets. And I do have a couple of pairs of comfy socks that make me feel cozy when walking on our hardwood floors. Otherwise, I skipped this rule because I live in Southern California, gave birth in relatively warm weather and have central heating in my home. My mom remembered having to wear a scarf all the time and it was an annoyance to her. When I would try to eschew any of the zuoyuezi rules she wanted me to follow, she always said, "At least you don't have to wear a scarf all the time."

Rule: Eat only warming foods.

Superstition: Eat only Qi warming Yang foods because a postpartum body is out of balance since much of the warmth has been removed from the body during childbirth leaving the body empty. Eating Yang foods, especially soups, to rebalance as well as foods that are hot in temperature is key to quickly recovering.

Probable Cause: Of course a woman's body is emptier after childbirth! The baby plus the placenta took up a lot of space that is left deflated postpartum. And, like all the other superstitions about cold, the sensation of cold is really from hormones fluctuating. Also, eating unheated food probably led to food poisoning and other health problems back in less sanitary times.

There are also a lot of rules about food while pregnant so a continuation of some of these rules into postpartum makes sense.

Modern Adaptation: Eating a healthy postpartum diet is good for mama and for baby. Soups are hydrating which helps with milk production. Most Yang foods are highly nutritious and often protein rich which improves milk quality and restores vitamins and minerals to mama so building a diet around them is a good idea, however, completely avoiding Yin foods isn't necessary.

I used a food service that delivered to my house daily. It was convenient and though I was always full and never felt deprived, I lost all the weight I gained in pregnancy by the end of the 30 day period. That's better than Weight Watchers ya'll!  Plus, I had no milk supply issues this time around. That doesn't mean there was a cheat day here and there of raw sushi grade fish because I missed it so much during pregnancy.

Jing Mommy delivered lunch.

Rule: No drinking cold water.

Superstition: Drinking cold water is not allowed. Only teas and rice wine are allowed.

Probable Cause: This is also a throwback to not having a reliable source of clean water. The boiling process in tea making, plus the added benefits of tea, killed any bacteria that might have cause illness. Rice wine, an alcohol, giving a warming sensation also lead people to believe it was restorative.

Modern Adaptation: Drinking only rice wine while breastfeeding is just plain dangerous for mother and baby. Modern mamas now know to boil the rice wine to get rid of the alcohol before consuming. In fact, there are companies that sell boiled rice wine as yue zi shui specifically for postpartum. It's expensive, doesn't taste great and is arguably unnecessary.

Non-caffeinated tea is also a great way to get more fluids and help mama stay calm and cozy.

But not drinking water is crazy. To get around this rule, many moms boil their water to warm it and avoid ice water.

Boiled Rice Wine from Jing Mommy.

Rule: No housework or work at all for that matter.

Superstition: Postpartum mams should do no housework or work. Some more extreme rules include no reading, including books or anything online, and no exposure to electronics.

Probable Cause: New mothers are expected to avoid getting exhausted as their bodies are trying to recover and are already exhausted. Basically, moms are treated like they are recovering from a major illness or injury. Reading is considered mentally exhausted and overworking the eyes which will result in damaged eyesight in mom's old age.

Modern Adaptation: Fully embrace the no housework or any work rule. Rejoice that a whole culture is basically telling women that postpartum housework is BAD FOR YOU. I can't do the dishes, it'll literally kill me. This vacuum is basically a murder weapon. Have the husband do the work, or you know, hire a maid. Anyone but mama does the housework.

And mama doesn't have to go back to work immediately after giving birth. DO YOU HEAR THAT UNITED STATES FMLA LIMITATIONS?! It doesn't matter mama has been at her job for less than a year, she shouldn't be working for at least 30 days! The Chinese, home of companies that literally work their employees to death, don't believe women should have to work so soon after giving birth, even in the home. Think about that. 

But not reading? Not being able to read a book or peruse the internet while being stuck under a breastfeeding baby is torture. Skip that interpretation of the rule.

I did some light housework, only because I felt like it so it didn't really feel like work. And I read whatever I wanted on whatever I wanted. Because it's my recovery period and I'll read if I want to.

Those are all the zuoyuezi rules I know. What if someone didn't know about the rules or wants the long term health benefits of the Sitting Month? Luckily, since Traditional Chinese Medicine teaches that the postpartum period is important because it's one of the few times a woman's body is fundamentally out of balance to the point it can be transformed, only the postpartum period of the most recent birth matters. If you didn't do zuoyuezi right the last time, there's always the next baby's birth!

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  1. What a fantastic post - thank you so much for sharing. I’m getting close to my due date and have been trying to gain an understanding of what’s practical and reasonable in our day and age. This helped me tremendously in making some decisions about what should be strictly followed vs not.

    Wondering how you were able to make enough tea for a sponge bath though?

    1. I used a 5 gallon stock pot. It took a long time to come to boil and my husband to move it to thr bathroom for me!


  2. Greetings! Very useful advice within this article! It's the little changes that make the most important changes. Thanks for sharing! yahoo mail sign in