This blog post features an interview with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner, Ms Mi-Chen (Claire) Shen-Tonge, about zuo yuezi (Chinese postpartum confinement). Claire is a classically trained acupuncturist and TCM practitioner, who graduated with a five-year bachelors degree from the Tianjin Traditional Chinese Medicine University (China) in 2004.
Claire was my TCM practitioner when we lived in Australia. I began receiving treatment from Claire after a top gynecologist told me that I would never be able to fall pregnant naturally. Well, did Claire prove him wrong when I became pregnant with my first son – and now a fat, healthy Buddha of a second son. So you could say that I am a strong believer using TCM to help treat ‘women’s issues’.
How did you become interested in TCM?
I used to have extremely painful periods. On three occasions they were so bad that I passed out in the street. My uncle is a gynecologist/obstetrician, and he suggested I go on the pill. But my Dad didn’t want me to do this. So I decided to study TCM in Tianjin, China as a way of treating myself. Within three months of taking Chinese medicine, I no longer experienced period pain. TCM fixed my problem.
Why is zuo yuezi important for women recovering after childbirth?
A woman’s body undergoes major changes from the very first day of pregnancy. Zuo yuezi nourishes a woman’s kidney energy. When I say ‘kidney energy’, I mean the energy of the kidney rather than the physical function. Kidney energy controls a woman’s sex functions – especially during pregnancy and menopause. If a woman has poor kidney energy one of the first things she will notice is that she will easily feel the cold, e.g. she will often have cold hands and feet during cold weather and be sensitive to the cool air of early autumn. So it is important for women to wear warm clothes and eat warming foods in order to warm kidney energy after child birth.
How did you practice zuo yuezi after the birth of your first child?
I returned to Taiwan for the birth of my son and stayed with my parents. My mother ordered a vegetarian zuo yuezi meal delivery service. Every week we had different dishes: the meals during the first week were designed to cleanse the body of stale blood, the second weeks’ meals aimed to help the uterus to recover and the third and forth weeks helped increase energy levels.
How did you find doing zuo yuezi?
Doing zuo yuezi helped my body recover and I felt even healthier than before pregnancy after confinement. For example, I used to find the winters in Canberra (Australia) cold, but after doing zuo yuezi I did not feel the cold of winter this year nearly as much. But I made one mistake: I let cool air from the air conditioner in my room blow onto my head during zuo yuezi. Now I often get headaches when cool wind blows on my head and must wear a hat whenever it is cold.
Is thirty days of confinement long enough?
No, not really. Your body changes so much during pregnancy and childbirth, and one month for recover is quite rushed. For this reason my Mum asked me to spend forty-five days in confinement.
As a Taiwanese woman who now lives in Australia and has adopted Western notions of independence, did you find zuo yuezi restrictive?
Yes! I felt like I was locked up as a prisoner at home. But in the end I feel that the benefits to my health was worth it.
Which Chinese herbs should a woman take after childbirth?
This depends on each individual woman: everyone’s constitution is different. Ideally, your Chinese medicine should be customized for you after birth. You should ask your Chinese doctor to visit you during confinement to give you a prescription. But if you need to leave home to see the doctor, you should wear a long sleeved shirt and if it is windy, wear a hat.
Usually, I prescribe yi mu cao or chi shao for women during the first week after childbirth to help get rid of stale blood from the uterus. In the second week, I usually give huang qi. And in the third and fourth week it is imperative that women use du zhong, which helps restore kidney energy.
Chinese herbal medicine is safe to take while breastfeeding, and in fact can help to increase breast milk production. There are no specific lactogenic herbs. Rather, a TCM practitioner will treat the mother depending on the reason for low milk supply based on the principal of balance, e.g. if she has low energy she should take herbs to increase her energy, or if her energy is blocked the medicine should aim to unblock her energy.
What happens if you are not able to do zuo yuezi? For example, my first son was born premature and I was unable to rest because I needed to travel to hospital every day.
The only thing to do is get pregnant again and undertake zuo yuezi properly. This will fix any problems you experience from not having done zuo yuezi after childbirth previously.
A woman has three opportunities in life to change her constitution: when she first starts to menstruate, after she has a baby and during menopause. After that she has no further chances to make positive changes to her body.
Many Chinese friends have told me that I will feel grateful that I did zuo yuezi when I am older, that I will look more beautiful and age more gracefully. Is this true?
Many of my clients are Australian women in their 50s and 60s. Their complaints include headaches, hot flushes during menopause, extreme emotions (especially despondency), tiredness and waking up feeling flat every morning. They also experience dryness in their vagina that makes it difficult to experience quality time with their partners. The common factor is that none of these women had the opportunity to rest and recover after childbirth.
Can doing zuo yuezi help prevent post natal depression?
Post natal depression depends a lot on a woman’s personality. It is hard being a Mum, especially when you are a Mum for the first time. Everyone likes to tell you how you should raise your child. It is important not to take these opinions too seriously and to try to get enough rest. If you do not get good quality sleep, and then have so many things to do around the house, it is easy to go a little crazy.
During my son’s first few months, he used to cry constantly around midnight. I love him, but there were times when I felt like hurling him away. But my Mum was there to support me, so we could take turns looking after him. This enabled me to get some rest. I believe in ‘happy mother, happy baby’. Even if you are home with your baby all day, if you don’t get enough rest you will probably feel like you want to kill your child. In the early days after childbirth it is okay not to worry too much about doing too much housework. Rest is more important, and you can catch up when your husband is home to help on the weekend.
Claire has been a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner and acupuncturist in Canberra since 2004 and has a wide range of knowledge, expertise and excellent skills in patient diagnosis. Claire has experience treating a wide range of muscular, nervous system and skin issues. She is especially interested in women’s health issues with a focus on pregnancy related conditions such as menopause, IVF, and period pain.
Claire integrates Traditional Chinese herbal medicine with acupuncture, cupping, moxabustion to help many people to recover from a wide variety of painful and distressing conditions.
She is a full member of Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association (AACMA) and a register member with the Australia Health Practitioner Regulation Agency ( AHPRA).