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Chinese Medicine and New Mums

Childbirth is a beautiful process that is probably one of the most empowering things a woman can ever do. From the first positive test, both baby and mum are introduced to a library full of well intentioned healthcare advice about drinking, smoking, eating, resting, exercise and stress management. Most mums engage with this major lifestyle change with passion and enthusiasm.

What happens after childbirth is a similar but with slightly different zeal. Mum is exhausted and baby becomes a full time job. Even reading the plethora of magazines and books on the subject can sometimes become a chore for mum. New mums can be out of the maternity ward after only a few hours. This can leave the impression that childbirth is easy and now that baby is “out” the main activities of childbirth are finished. Mum should “take it easy” and look after her child. There is a distinct difference between this perception and Chinese culture.

Yue Zi (月子) – A Month of Postnatal Stillness

Chinese culture also takes childbirth very seriously but the emphasis is not only on baby but particularly on mum. They even have a term for it called “Yue Zi (月子)”. The translation is simply “The Month”, with a capital T and M. The Chinese particularly recognise that a pregnant mum has expended an abundance of “essential energy” called (Yuan Qi) ancestral energy, a deep foundational energy that is difficult to replenish.

Yue zi in China, is a month long period of confinement for mothers after a childbirth. Of course it makes sense to “take it easy” Right! but to “Zuo Yue Zi ” (Sitting The Month) is so much more than just taking it easy. Mothers will stay at home for the full month and not leave the house. Relatives will “live” in the house providing emotional and physical support and help out with cooking, cleaning, washing and even taking care of baby. One of my patients asked if this actually encouraged post natal depression.

Postnatal Depression

Zuo Yue Zi  is the preventative treatment to prevent post natal depression. In the ancient texts it is said that ” Zuo Yue Zi reduces back pain and poor spirit”. New mums are also prescribed specific Tuina (Chinese medical acupressure) or acupuncture protocols, as well as nutritional healing herbs and foods. One of the weird foods being “bird’s nest soup”. An excellent dish that’s recommended for new mums is Ginger Chicken. New mums are encouraged to eat temperature warm/hot foods to replenish essential energy to assist their body to recover after childbirth and they are discouraged from eating cold foods, which require extra energy to digest and absorb. Drinking herbal teas, such as fennel, which is traditionally used to improve lactation.

A fundamental concept of Traditional Chinese Medicine is that Yin (阴) and Yang (阳) are the complementary forces of the universe and life that create an energy called Qi. When they are imbalanced, there is disharmony leading to a physical disorder or illness. Yin represents cooling, while Yang represents heating. An example of a well balanced Yin and Yang would be a regulated body temperature, neither too hot (as in hot flashes) nor too cold (as in cold hands and feet).

To restore balance, an excess of Yang (hot) Qi is balanced with cooling foods and herbs, while an excess of Yin (cool) Qi is balanced with warm food and herbs. Pregnancy is considered a warm condition and delivery causes a great loss of warmth due to bleeding. Consequently, during the Zuo Yue Zi period, Chinese women eat hot food and spices in order to restore balance to their inner energies. See below for a list of warming and cooling foods.

They are encouraged not to read for long periods, to preserve their eyesight. If they do read, it should be in a correct position with sufficient light. The most important is nothing will affect their rest. The temperature of their house should be balanced, neither too hot nor too cold.

In addition to this, these new mums are encouraged not to shower for the whole month. After childbirth, new mums are especially susceptible to colds, flu and diseases during this time. Some mums are discouraged from brushing their teeth, in case water contains unhealthy elements.

Young Chinese today are moving away from the tradition  “Zuo Yue Zi “, as they believe that they can be protected and “cured” with modern medicines and hospital treatments. Perhaps forgetting the first cardinal rule of health, wellbeing and fighting any disease, “Prevention” in other words “practicing behaviours that prevent us from getting sick in the first place”.

Some warming food and spices (Yang)

  • Asparagus
  • Black vinegar
  • Cardamom
  • Carp
  • Cashews
  • Chestnuts
  • Chicken
  • Chinese dates
  • Cinnamon
  • Dates
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Grapes
  • Guavas
  • Herbal teas
  • Longans
  • Mandarin orange peels, dried
  • Oats, yin/yang
  • Olive oil, yin/yang
  • Onions
  • Pepper
  • Raspberries
  • Rice alcohol (for cooking)
  • Rosemary
  • Scallions
  • Sesame seed oil
  • Shrimps
  • Turkey
  • Warm water

Cooling food and drinks (Yin) to be avoided during lactation according to TCM

  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Beansprouts from mung beans
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Cold water
  • Cucumber
  • Fig
  • Green tea
  • Hops
  • Ice creams
  • Kangkong
  • Kiwi
  • Lettuce
  • Mulberry
  • Oranges
  • Papayas
  • Pears
  • Persimmon
  • Pineapple
  • Pomelo
  • Spinach
  • Star fruit
  • Tomatoes
  • Turnips
  • Watermelon
  • Yogurt

Eating cool food (both in nature – Yin – and in temperature – cold) is supposed to cause colic and diarrhoea in breastfed newborns.

The cooking methods allowed are basically only two and that is steaming or lightly stir-frying foods, with minimal use of oil, salt, or soya sauce.

James O’Sullivan from Galway is a credible and engaging speaker, a people friendly practitioner and lecturer of Integrated Medicine, serving his patients, his students and the public with the positive benefits of both Conventional Western Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine. He is a respected author and has appeared on many public media. #jamushur


This article is not intended to diagnose or assess. The information provided is not to be considered a substitute for consultation with a qualified health care practitioner.

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