The moment has arrived!
After nine months of being careful with what you eat and making the foetus’ nutrition your top priority, your little one has finally emerged!
Although your pregnancy is over, some habits developed in the previous nine months should be carried over, such as resting well and eating healthy. The postpartum period is a critical time to recuperate and re-energise your weakened body so you can be in a better state of health to enjoy those first moments with your baby.
Women are said to be at their most vulnerable at this time, as giving birth drains women of qi and blood, which can weaken their bodies, making them vulnerable to ‘wind’ in the environment. Lack of proper care can lead to future ailments such as rheumatism or arthritis. It is vital, then, to replenish their health with good nutrition during the one-month confinement period, otherwise known as zuo yue zi.
Confinement dishes, tonics and soups not only serve to enhance the mother’s immune system and help strengthen her constitution, but also ensure that mums have enough breast milk for their baby. Physician Wong Yueh Chin from the Eu Yan Sang TCM Clinic @ Rivervale Mall suggests that mothers can take herbal formula such as sheng hua soup to dispel blood stasis and improve blood circulation after giving birth. “It can also aid them to regain their appetites and help the uterus to return to its original size after expansion from childbirth,” Physician Wong explains. “Once they regain their desire to eat, it is a signal that the body is ready to take in nutrients from the food they eat. Other herbs can then also be introduced to help replenish qi and blood loss.”
Eating warm to fight the cold
Upon the delivery of the baby, the digestive system of postpartum mothers remains weak and vulnerable to cold. Therefore, ‘warming’ ingredients—old ginger, sesame oil, wine, and black vinegar—are must-haves in confinement diets.
“Depending on the patient’s individual constitution, herbs such as Chinese angelica root, radix astragali, wolfberries and red date tea can be consumed as a supplement to help promote circulation of qi and blood,” says Physician Wong. Although these ‘warming’ ingredients can neutralise the effects of ‘cold’ foods, Physician Wong says that it is better to take foods of a neutral or relatively ‘warm’ nature.
“Meats such as pork and chicken or even seafood such as prawns and mussels have quality proteins, which aid in recovery,” Physician Wong offers. However, crabs are not recommended as they are considered ‘cold.’ Even vegetables and fruits must be carefully chosen. Physician Wong advises mothers to consume tropical fruits such as grapes or longans.
Despite these suggestions, women in confinement should eat more than just these foods, as having a balanced diet is essential to good health. In addition, mothers should also be slightly active: light exercises such as sit-ups can improve blood and qi circulation. However, women who have undergone a Caesarean section should refrain from exercising before their wounds heal.
Postpartum health isn’t just dependent on what you eat or do after pregnancy. Physician Wong says she has seen patients who have difficulty recovering after pregnancy due to weak body constitutions, and suffer from conditions such as dizziness, body aches, and colds. “Some patients came to consult me even before their confinement ended,” Physician Wong shares. As such, nourishment should start as early as the beginning of pregnancy and, in fact, plays an important role in ensuring a speedy recovery after labour.
Good to Start Early
Physician Wong recalls a 32-year-old patient, a Mrs Lim, who decided to begin her nourishment process right from the start of her pregnancy.
“She looked so frail and pale when she walked into my clinic. She was also coughing and presented symptoms of a cold. I realised that her limbs were cold, and she had regular nausea and vomiting episodes. She could hardly eat anything,” Physician Wong recalls. She diagnosed that these symptoms were signs of spleen and stomach deficiencies, which had led to digestive dysfunction and immune deficiency. This was caused by her irregular eating habits and work stress. “I decided to prescribe herbal medication that would nourish her spleen and stomach, and curb her nausea,” Physician Wong says. After two weeks, Mrs Lim’s vomiting subsided and her appetite improved. “This is important as the foetus gets nutrients directly from the mother. If a mother is malnourished, her unborn baby may be affected as well,” Physician Wong cautions.
Physician Wong further prescribed herbs to nourish Mrs Lim’s kidneys and liver to regulate her qi and blood, so as to maintain their smooth and even flow in the body and to restore internal balance. This stimulated her body’s natural healing potential and combated her pregnancy-related symptoms such as dizziness and vomiting. “By the time she reached her third trimester, her constitution had improved a lot and her immune system had strengthened. She had a smooth delivery and took only a week or so to regain her appetite and recover,” Physician Wong describes.
Although herbal remedies can be used to stregthen body constitutions, Physician Wong advises pregnant women and mothers to understand the principles behind the herbs before consuming them as nourishment tonic, or as practised in old wives’ tales. She recommends patients to seek help if needed, as inappropriate use of herbs may do more harm than good.
Beyond the Body
According to Physician Wong, treatment goes beyond healing the body when it comes to confinement—the mind and soul need nourishment as well.
Mothers, especially those who have just given birth for the first time, may feel stressed over their new responsibilities. This anxiety can manifest in varying degrees among them. “I had a patient who had swollen nipples and was facing problems with production of breast milk. I could see that she was under a lot of stress, so I tried to give her advice to get her to relax,” Physician Wong remembers. She explains that post-natal depression is linked to the flow of qi in the liver.
Feelings of unhappiness and anxiety can cause liver qi stagnation. Physician Wong thus prescribed herbs to alleviate the swelling of the patient’s nipples, as well as lily bulbs and lotus seeds to disperse qi stagnation in the patient’s liver and sooth her mind.
Physician Wong also believes that emotional support from husbands, family and friends should be part of good confinement care. With support from all sides, including the physician’s, the journey of motherhood will be a smooth-sailing one. Enjoy the ride.
Photo courtesy of Thinkstock. This article first appeared in NATURA magazine issue No.12.