Nov 2018 Newsletter: Indian Confinement Practices

By Namrata Trivedi, BMSG EXCO Member

I can hear mum’s footsteps as she walks into the house while the maalishwali* is vigorously rubbing me down with a concoction of warm oils and herbs. My newborn is snoozing away in the cot nearby after being given a bath and massage, which he violently protests daily. I wonder why, though, because he seems peaceful now, all wrapped up and tightly bound like a cigar, as my husband calls it.

I can hear mum chatting with my helper, giving her instructions as she places my daily lunch tiffin on the table. The maalishwali asks me what’s on the menu today and whether my lunch will be dripping with ghee like yesterday’s meal. “Why of course!” mum exclaims as she walks into the room. She’s overheard our conversation and begins describing to her why it’s imperative that I eat ghee after giving birth. Their voices drown out as I begin piecing together in my mind every bit of advice on Indian confinement practices and diet I’ve overheard over the years from all the ladies in my family.

*Maalishwali – a female traditional Indian masseuse

The Crucial First 40 Days

For most Indians, the confinement period lasts for forty days after the day of delivery. This period provides the delicate newborn physical protection and allows the mother complete rest and recuperation, and also to establish breastfeeding. Tradition calls for the new mother to get daily massages and binding to help strengthen and heal her body, have hot showers or baths every day, cover her head with a scarf so that she doesn’t expose her ears and catch a cold, and have a diet rich in ingredients that promote lactation, digestion and resistance against infections.

A Nutritional Diet for Mums

Foods that promote lactation would include coconut, fenugreek seeds (methi), fennel seeds (saunf), dill seeds (sawa), cumin (jeera), carom (ajwain) and sesame seeds (til).

Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, fenugreek and mustard greens, and especially from the gourd family such as bottle gourd (lauki), apple gourd (tinda), and sponge gourd (tori) are traditionally believed to improve milk supply.

Carbohydrate sources such as oats, whole wheat and broken wheat (daliya), elephant yam (suran) and jaggery provide much needed energy.

Ginger, dry ginger powder (saunth), garlic, spring onions are encouraged because they promote circulation. However, the latter two should not be consumed with dairy products in the same meal. According to Ayurveda, milk generally does not tend to go with any food. It is best consumed on its own, and if mixed with garlic and onions, may tend to cause gas.

Many Indians, being vegetarian, rely on pulses and lentils as a source of protein and iron such as masoor and moong dal. Therefore, on my plate daily would be porridge (khichdi) made of moong dal and rice as opposed to just the latter on its own, which, according to the elders, would be gassy.

Nuts and dried fruits are a daily accompaniment to most main meals and snacks for the calories they provide. Ghee is encouraged in copious amounts because a mother is thought to have lost a lot of energy during childbirth and ghee helps one to regain strength, repair her pelvic muscles and promote bowel movement.

Turmeric is synonymous with Indian cuisine. Just as Salt Bae flamboyantly sprinkles salt over his meat like shimmering magic, imagine our Indian mothers doing the same with turmeric over our milk, stir fries and porridge after childbirth. This anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and antifungal agent is sure to be found in every Indian household.

Gondh (edible gum taken from the bark of Acacia trees) was another one of those magical ingredients that my grandmother extensively talked about and encouraged daily. It has been used for centuries in the Middle East, Africa and Ayurveda after childbirth as it helps with wound healing, digestion and bone health.

Foods Mums Should Avoid

Foods that should be avoided during the first forty days and gradually introduced back into the diet would include those that are believed to cause gas (even for the baby) and constipation, such as cauliflower, cabbage, okra, broccoli, onions, urad ( split black gram) and toor dal (pigeon peas), chickpeas (channa), kidney beans (rajma), black eyed peas (chawli), potatoes, foods fried with chickpea flour (besan), pickles, green peas and dry peas.

I think about the foods that were discouraged during confinement and came to the conclusion that all the knowledge from my western-educated degree (I happen to be a dietitian) had to take a back seat when debating with my mother about why I couldn’t have my favourite okra stew or chickpea curry just after childbirth. Surely the hundreds of years of experience and knowledge of our cultural practices passed down through generations of women should hold some weight? Plus, I was assured, again and again, that this is only for a short time!

I snap out of my thoughts as I am told that the massage is done. I grumble at the maalishwali as she wraps my belly so tight it feels as though she’s cut off my air supply. I waddle over the dining table to eat before the little one wakes up again. “Remember, what you eat for these 40 days will affect your next 40 years!” quips Mum as she walks out the door.

Confinement Diet Tips from the Author:

  • Start with eating easily digestible food and gradually go back to a regular diet towards the end of your confinement period.
  • Note that the above-mentioned foods and practices vary from family to family, and region to region. If a particular food doesn’t cause you any side effects such as bloating, constipation or gas, then go ahead and have it in moderation. These recommendations are general and each person should look at what suits their body type.
  • Eat local and seasonal produce.
  • Eat warm, freshly prepared foods and avoid cold leftovers (this makes sense as food poisoning is the last thing you want to get during this period).
  • Eat every few hours, rather than infrequent big meals that can cause discomfort.
  • As long as you are breastfeeding, you should aim to have more calories to produce more breastmilk for your baby. Do note that you should avoid filling up with empty calories. Rather, try and have nourishing foods packed with nutrients like green leafy vegetables, whole grains, fruits and nuts.