updated 29 Sep 2013, 09:05
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Mon, Aug 19, 2013
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Breaking confinement taboos
by Eve Yap

SINGAPORE - Mrs Ratna Mishra considers herself a dutiful daughter-in- law, except when it came to observing confinement practices.

"I largely skipped the rules," she says.

When she gave birth to her first child four years ago, her mother-in-law flew here from India to help her through the 40-day confinement, and probably to enforce traditional Indian confinement rules, such as no showering.

Regardless, Mrs Mishra did it and pretended that the shower spray had accidentally wet her hair.

The 29-year-old teacher, who is on no-pay leave to look after her three children, recalls: "After the first few times of frowning at me when I came out of the shower with a wet head, my mother-in-law gave up on me. I was perspiring a lot from hormonal changes, so I needed to refresh myself. The shower times were an escape from the children or pressing things, such as getting my milk supply established.

"I was also supposed to eat like eight times a day, with a lot of ghee, which my mother-in-law says thickens breast milk.

But the ghee will make me 'thicker' too."

Instead, she made excuses to reduce her "quota" of food or "secretly passed the dishes" to her husband, a 34-year-old finance manager.

Another confinement rule also forbade new mothers to read so as not to risk losing their eyesight.

This, Mrs Mishra also ignored, because she was then studying for a postgraduate diploma in education. An assignment was due two or three weeks after she gave birth to son Sunay, her first of three children.

With no maid then, she also did the housework - another thing that is frowned upon - after her second child Suniska was born two years ago.

How does she feel now, after her third child, 11-month-old Sujay?

"I'm fine. I'm not blind from all that reading. I don't have backaches or rheumatism from showering and washing my hair daily or from mopping and cleaning the house," says Mrs Mishra, who lives with her family in a Barker Road house.

She does not pooh-pooh all confinement rules, especially the one about lying in bed.

"But you don't have the luxury of that with kids to look after," she says, adding that her 54-year-old mother did not "fight with me" to conform.

While Mrs Mishra is likely not alone in her modern ways, there are still women in Singapore who observe confinement practices. Local confinement nannies are in demand and can charge up to $3,500 for each assignment.

The main traditional Asian confinement taboos include avoiding water (no showers or baths), wind (stay indoors) and heaty and cooling foods.

Associate Professor Tan Thiam Chye, co-author of The New Art And Science Of Pregnancy And Childbirth (2008) and a consultant at the department of obstetrics and gynaecology at KK Women's and Children's Hospital, notes that confinement periods last 30 days for Chinese women, 40 days for Indian and 44 days for Malays.

He says: "In general, there has not been much research conducted on confinement practices but they originate from Asian cultures."

He adds that at least a century ago, mother and baby mortality rate were "high due to poor health-care systems and infections were the common cause of death".

So, measures such as not leaving the home or opening windows were meant to "reduce infections from external environments".

And the no-bathing rule was because the water was not clean.

That is not the case today. Bathing regularly ensures good hygiene, and reduces the incidence of skin and wound infections. "It also makes it more bearable for people around you," says Prof Tan.

TCM practitioners have a different take.

Madam Woo Fong Wah, from the Singapore Chung Hwa Medical Institution, says after childbirth, "the pores and bone joints of mothers have all expanded, mothers perspire more than usual and their bodies are especially weak".

Madam Woo, in her 50s, explains: "If the mother bathes during confinement, 'wind', 'cold' and 'chill' could enter her body and stay in the muscles and joints." This will cause stagnation of "qi" and blood, leading to poor circulation. The result: colds, bodily aches and pains and headaches.

Mr Chang Wee Lee, 53, head of education at the Singapore College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, advises new mums to take "just a shower, not a long soak in the bathtub". This is to avoid "unnecessary exposure to infections".

Keeping fresh was not an issue for teacher Tayyiba Muhammad Yusaf, 38, as Malay women are expected to bathe after birth.

But dietary restrictions such as no spicy food - believed to cause stomachache in breastfed babies - was a problem for the "chilli queen".

She stayed away from chilli padi for a month after having first child Zacharias Nils, had chilli padi in the third week after delivering second boy Daniel Johan, and ate the hot stuff during her confinement after giving birth to her youngest child Svea Nadia.

She says: "Zach didn't cry very much and Daniel had colic in the afternoons. It was Nadia who had no problems - no diarrhoea and no colic. So it couldn't have been the chilli. In any case, breastfed babies have watery stools, with or without chilli."

The children are now seven, five and two. They live with her and their Swedish father Erik Johan Hertzman, 36, executive director of an education provider, in an apartment in Guillemard Road.

Component analyst Megha Tripathi, 25, however, will err on the side of caution. She delivered her first child - a girl - on June 30.

Mrs Tripathi, who followed her mother's instructions and did not wash her hair for about two weeks, says: "It was hot and humid, and my scalp was itchy, but there's no choice. Better to be safe than sorry."

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