Zuo yuezi – Chinese postpartum traditions

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“While sitting the month you can’t be too active, you should lay on the bed and rest, you can’t take a shower, wash your hair or eat fruit…”

Yesterday I went to the park with our baby and my mother-in-law who was taking care of my nephew, her grandson. We had a lovely walk around the small pond, but then we got to the play ground where my nephew likes to look at other kids playing. He’s not even 6 months yet, so he can’t really join yet.

Lot of the mother’s and grandparents there know my mother-in-law and quickly came to talk with us. When they saw me and my two-week old baby girl in the sling, they asked were almost terrified on how I could take her out before she is one month old!

In China there is a tradition of zuo yuezi aka sitting the month, where the new mom stays at home for one month with the baby, and doesn’t go out at all. The rules and special diet to follow during this month varies from province to province. What the other mothers were the most shocked about were how I could take my baby out when she is too little and how I wasn’t wearing enough clothes.

The Chinese believe that everything you do during the first month affects your health for the rest of your life. Go to bed without drying your hair gets you headache when you’re old. Wearing too little hurts your bones in the old age. Drinking anything cold is of course out of the picture too. In more traditional families even taking a shower might still be prohibited and you need to be covered in thick clothing from head to toes. Eating a lot of chicken and drinking special soups is a must as well.

I briefly explained to the mothers that we don’t do “sitting the month” in the West and in Finland we can take our newborns out the very first day we get out from the hospital if it’s Summer. During the Winter it’s advised to wait a bit and perhaps stay at home if it’s colder than -10 Celsius. But this is Guangzhou and the weather has been around 28 Celsius degrees the whole two weeks I’ve been at home with the baby.

So am I doing the “zuo yuezi”? No, I wouldn’t say so and I don’t have the need to label this time either. I’m just simply doing what I think is best. At first I needed a lot of help from my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law because I had a C-section and the scar kept me from moving freely. My husband also only had seven days total off from work.

But now that I’m pretty much back to normal, of course still being careful, I can handle my self and the baby on my own. It feels good to be able to do things my self again! My mother-in-law keeps helping us with cooking, cleaning and giving a bath to our baby girl, while also helping out with her daughter and grandson!

Now that the first half of my first month after giving birth is over, I have to admit that I would go a bit nuts if I needed to follow the Chinese postpartum traditions to the letter. I’m feeling much better when I can go outside for a walk and do other things than laying in bed or on the sofa. Luckily my mother-in-law isn’t too strict with these and understands that I do things my own way.

Have you followed the “zuo yuezi” traditions or what kind of special traditions women have in your country? I’d love to hear in the comments!

  • Anna Zech

    Sara it’s a good thing that you do what you think is right. I think we all have to make our own experiences, expecially with raising children. It’s a first for everyone. Of course, we can listen to advise of people who have been there, but at the end of the day, it’s your baby, your life, you decide.

    As you know our village is very rural, so the traditions are very very much alive! Even our city people follow zuoyuezi very strictly. But traditions on what is right and wrong during sitting the month actually even vary from family to family. So, I really don’t believe in them that much… Some tradition can be even harmful to you and the babay. For example here, it’s not only not allowed that the mother doesn’t shower but also the baby! Some babys don’t shower for several months! You can imagine what that does to a babys skin… Most little babys in the village have some kind of skin disease! They all blame it on all kinds of superstitous reasons… and don’t realize that it’s simply because the haven’t bathed the baby for six months!!! I mean I do understand that it is cold here, and conditions in the village aren’t too good, but still… Also here during zuoyueyi the mother itself is not allowed to take care of the baby! For me the most paradox thing! The mother stays in bed and rests, and grandmother takes care of newborn baby.
    Oh and I heard that during zuoyuezi new mothers have to eat youtiao 油条 …

    I will NOT do zuoyuezi, no matter how much my MIL will try to convince me. I will rest of course, and maybe do some customs, but none of the extreme customs. I already know people will talk very badly about me and any problem I might have later or baby might have will be blamed on me not having done zuoyuezi….

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Those traditions really sound bizarre, not bathing the baby for months?! That’s just crazy and very unhealthy as well. I also don’t like that a newborn is taken care of someone else than his/her parent. Especially the bond between a mother and a baby is very important to establish and nurse from the very beginning.

    I think it’s a good idea for you to try to follow some of the customs to make your MIL happy, but only the ones you feel comfortable with and don’t endanger you or the baby.

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    Olga 奥日家 Reply:

    I’m actually shocked by those village traditions. Not bathing the baby? Not taking care of the baby? What about bonding with the kid? Those first months are precious. Luckily, us “foreign wives” can get away with almost anything, they will always blame it on the fact that we’re foreigners!

    On to “zuo yue zi”: When we had our 2nd daughter, my MIL freaked out when my husband told her I was ***having a shower*** (3 hours after giving birth). She (and my dear father in law) came over when the little one was 1 month old and stayed for 3 months. Poor her, her deep sense of Chinese tradition clashing with a daughter in law like… well, me! I did behave and ate all the concoctions she and/or my husband would prepare for me.

    We need to find a balance and please them from time to time, but within reasonable limits.

    Good luck, ladies!

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    Timo Reply:

    Yeah the shower thing after giving birth was also a huge shock for my MIL. In Finland every women takes a shower a giving birth (shower room is right next to it) and MIL got sooo huge eyes and she got so pale, I will never forget it :D

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  • My wife also didn’t do this resting month. Before getting pregnant she wants to do it but once she knew that there is a little human life growing inside her she started to research this topic and was shocked about the whole tradition. We have many friends in Finland who did this month and there is even one woman who believes her knee pain (which actually came from her overweight during +32kg…) is due to the cold wind she once got during zuo yuezi when the Window was shortly open :p

    It’s good that you are able to decide on your own, my wife had some fights with her mother back then

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Well that’s handy that you can just blame all the issues in the future by what you did or didn’t do during the zuo yuezi ;)

    Luckily my mother-in-law is very understanding in this regard and I guess my sister-in-law has also reminded her not to be too strict with me as she knows I do things my way. I believe a lot of Chinese women have fights with their mothers or MILs over these issues.

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  • Crystal Kushwaha

    This is really interesting, and in a lot of ways, it reminds me of Indian post-partum traditions (In my husband’s family). I believe the women have to stay at home with the baby for a few months, without leaving the house. Mostly for fear of the “evil eye”. Afterwards, babies are made to wear eye-liner to scare away evil. Also, women aren’t allowed to eat or drink certain things. Very strict.

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Eye-liner for the baby, that’s something I’ve never heard before. Kind of interesting how these things vary in different cultures.

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  • Good that you have been able to choose what you want to do. I would also go crazy if I had to do the zuoyuezi! And for the people who ask and criticize, you can use the usual Chinese excuse but this time in your favour: “Western women are stronger, we don’t need to follow zuoyuezi!”.

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    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    True! Those excuses I once thought were nonsense are now very handy indeed ;)

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  • TuuliaK

    Interestingly enough in Germany there is a similar postpartum resting tradition. Not all midwifes tell you to do that, but maybe half of them. “The first week postpartum should be in bed, the second one around the bed and the third one in the house”. They don’t believe this having much effect on you in the old age (being westerns they are), but rather try and remind you that your body has done a lot of work during pregnancy and labor, and that all those physical changes in the body, especially related to hormones (like ligaments being loser than normally) do take some time to revert. And also that women often have hard time to let anyone else manage the family (including cleaning, cooking etc), so “forced resting” or “my midwife said I shouldn’t do anything” should give you an excuse to take the rest you need in those first weeks. Get your milk going (for which the rest is really important), get to know the baby, let your body and womb recover (to ensure sufficient but to avoid too long postpartum bleeding) – that’s what should be your job in the first weeks, they say. I think they are right for most part :)

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    Timo Reply:

    That must be a very old tradition, as even when my uncle was born 61 years ago there was nothing like that, dear granny started like anyone else getting family business done few days after giving birth. Same happened with my brother and also with me.
    But it could be also that it depends on the region in Germany, the south is very traditional and things might be different there

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    TuuliaK Reply:

    Hmm, maybe I’m just mistaking it for a tradition – it might be also a newer influence, or a “german midwife thing” of nowadays. I don’t know the old german midwife/birthing traditions so well, being a Finn myself. I also bet that in the good old days not many (german) women could afford to stay home doing almost nothing practical for several weeks… I’m living in Berlin, so I have no idea how the southern german traditions might be :D

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  • Billy Bob

    做月子没用!你太有意思了!别忘!你是西方人!哈哈哈!

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  • I think you as the mother know best what’s good for your body and your child. You may listen to the advice the others give you but then make the decision what to do. I think it’s great what you are doing! I want to see more photos of Anna please <3

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  • Rebekka

    Actually yuezi is a old tradition and I believe that back in the days it was necessary rules to keep the new mothers alive. I think it’s interesting to think about why these rules existed, and I think in those days they made a lot of sense. In ancient China women had long hair that probably wouldn’t dry for days (as they didn’t have anything to dry it with), getting it wet would have easily meant catching a cold. Bathing in the past was in water from a river or lake (which probably had bacteria etc) would easily infect the womb which has open wounds. Of course nowadays we have access to hairdryers and clean water so these old rules seem silly. But please remember that a large percentage of Chinese families still today live in quite humble settings, and thus in the countryside these old rules still make sense. I understand that it’s not fun being locked up and loosing freedom, but considering how dirty (air pollution) big cities like Guangzhou are, and how high the percentage of people with infectious diseases such as Hepatitis are, I would stay home with a small baby. There is a good reason for why traditions are different from one country to the other. In Finland babies sleep on the balcony, here I close the windows to keep air pollution and toxic smells out of my daughter’s room.

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  • Ellen W

    Finally, I decided to share my (differing) experience and opinion, too :)

    You might know that I DID follow the custom of zue yuezi, and I enjoyed it very much. Since I had a C-section, too, then I felt myself especially terrible after the operation and felt that I wanted to eat nothing but chicken soup and rice. I even went beyond the “prescribed limit” of one month and went on with the special diet for more than a month. I don’t know how much zuo yuezi custom contributed to the fact that only 5 weeks later my body was back in shape and by the end of 6th week after giving birth I was even slimmer and more beautiful than ever before, but I was.
    I didn’t wash myself for 8 days after giving birth and generally washed myself as seldom as possible. My MIL made special water for that matter, using herbs. My daughter was born in the middle of December, which is the coldest period of a year. In the South of China, there are no heaters. So when the temperature outside is 11 degrees and inside is slightly above it, usually you don’t feel like taking shower. I don’t have the custom of using a hair-drier, because I have very long hair and it takes too much time to dry my hair using this device.
    Finally, I enjoyed sleeping as much as I could. I breastfed my baby, who demanded a feed every one-two-three hours. That meant no good sleep in the night, neither. For the first month, my daughter slept with my MIL almost 24 hours. I didn’t see any harm in that.

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  • Zt Liu

    Sara your blog is great!!!I just wanted to search “learn Chinese in Guangzhou” and somehow I found my way into your blog.These articles are nicely written and I’d like to read them all.Keep updating please!;-)

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  • Yangchen

    Hey Sara, I agree with Anna that it is a good thing that you did what you think is the best. I wish the same message can be seen by more people who are confused by traditional Chinese postpartum, zuoyuezi. I am particularly interested in this subject because it is a very good example of how tradition can be harmful if not studied thoroughly.

    It is important to understand that traditions like zuoyuezi, are created under different social contexts. For thousands of years Chinese had been living in feudalism and it wasn’t until the establishment of the very recent government, that we experience great improvement in living standard. Thus what was life-saving technique can now become obsolete. Some places require mother not to shower after giving birth, because back then the water was not clean. Some require the water to be boiled first because it was efficient in killing germs. Nowadays clean water supply is no longer an issue is most places and therefore no use to follow the same tradition.

    That being said, there are traditions that still fit in today’s standards and can be beneficial. After all, rejecting obsolete traditions does not mean all traditions are bad. Some of them are scientifically proven useful. 小S, Xiao S or Little S is a famous Taiwan host, actress, and singer. Other than her talents in hosting TV shows, her body figure is a more popular topic that people talk about. Once her zuoyuezi technique was released online, people are amazed and start to follow the exact methods. There is even company that specializes in making products specifically for zuoyuezi.

    For instance, the reason for woman to limit their physical movement after giving birth, is to prevent organs from being dragged down due to earth gravity, since previously the organs are pushed tightly together because of the baby. Therefore, it is actually a good tradition to stay laying down at the beginning weeks and to tie up the belly with gauze when moving. Taking shower still is not the optimal choice, but instead one can use postpartum specific diluted rice wine to clean up. There are so many other wisdoms of tradition that we can learn to help a mother stay slim and healthy.

    The point being is that we should treat tradition with more study and knowledge before we jump to conclusion whether it is beneficial or harmful. Sometimes, like zuoyuezi, tradition can come in both forms.

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