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.

October 2018 Newsletter: Toddler Nursing & Weaning

By Saidatunnajat Yusuf, BMSG Counsellor

I breastfed my baby for almost 3 years. When I got pregnant, I knew that breastfeeding was the only way to go. Even though I was a first-time mother, I was one of the lucky ones who had a smooth sailing start to breastfeeding. I had a good support system, and most importantly, I followed my instincts and listened to my baby and body. I did not question my supply – as long as he was drinking happily, I knew that everything was okay. As a stay-at-home mom, breastfeeding got even easier as Nuraz grew older. He was an expert latcher, and I was happy to offer the breast anytime to instantly calm a fussy, cranky baby.

As good as it might have seemed, things took a different turn when my baby became a toddler, and I knew that one day, these wonderful breastfeeding days would come to an end. I was gradually getting more tired and I increasingly felt that I wanted my space and body back, but I persevered, because I knew that my baby still needed me.

Najat (right) with her husband and son. (Photo courtesy of Saidatunnajat Yusuf)

I had people (especially my mother-in-law) telling me how skinny my baby was because he was not eating well, and that I needed to give him some sort of calcium or alternative source of milk so that he would put on weight. As such, I doubted myself a lot. Visits to my MIL’s place were always stressful, as she would make me feed any sort of milk from a bottle; “he needs his milk after every meal” she would say. There was also this expectation for me to provide a certain amount of milk on a daily basis just to meet his daily milk intake. I tolerated the comments, breathed in and out, and just trusted myself as the mother of my own child. I had to believe in myself, and trust that what I was doing for my child was right. I gave myself numerous pep talks so that the negativity would not cloud my beliefs and principles. I told myself that it was okay to continue nursing my toddler. I would wean him when the time was right. I was at no liberty to wean him just because someone told me to, or because he was naturally skinny. The time would come, and I would do it when we were both ready.

I set a target to close the doors on my breastfeeding journey when he turned two years old. However, it wasn’t easy as it seemed. When Nuraz turned 2, I also decided to go back to work, and my husband and I sourced for a daycare to care for Nuraz for the five hours each day that I would be at work. I took this opportunity to slowly cut down our nursing sessions. A plan is just a plan, so how did it work out? Well, it was a long 10-month process!

He doesn’t tell me that he misses breastfeeding, but I know that he misses our late night nursing sessions – just like me.

Nuraz was one of those babies who depended only on the breast to put him to sleep. As such, I would have to lie in bed with him every nap time and evening just so that he could sleep. I knew it was normal behavior, but I questioned myself so many times. Was I spoiling my child? It was such a concern when I put him in daycare. I questioned the caregivers every single day on whether Nuraz had been able to sleep and how long he hadslept for. We did also attempt to try to put formula into a bottle for the caregiver to give to him, something I regret. We thought that perhaps if he saw his other classmates having the bottle and sleeping he would follow suit. But my kid knew that nothing other than mother’s milk was going to soothe and comfort him. At two years of age he was still such a picky eater – a phase that we have luckily escaped from. Nuraz did not take any other form of milk – fresh, powdered, strawberry, chocolate, anything – it was really tough because I was concerned that he was not getting enough nutrients from his small intake of solids. Subconsciously however, perhaps I did not really try very hard with solids because I still believed that he was thriving well with whatever I was providing him through my milk.

Any amount of breastmilk is good for a toddler, just like older babies. There is no need to supplement with follow-on formula or formula marketed as toddler’s milk. Toddlers can thrive just on breastmilk and healthy, wholesome solids.

Cutting down nursing sessions were hard. Firstly, I cut down on nursing sessions by ensuring that we kept ourselves busy. Often, when Nuraz saw me idling, he would want to nurse knowing that his mother’s breasts were available! As such, I would always find something to do and made myself busy, so he would know that the breasts were busy too. We went out a lot too so that he would be occupied running around.

The nursing sessions before nap or bedtime were the hardest to drop. I still nursed him, but I would cut it short. And whenever I realized that he had fallen into a deep sleep, I would quickly unlatch him and leave him to sleep alone – well, until I joined him for bed in the night. As much as I wanted to nap beside him, I knew that this would just give him easy access to my breasts. On nights when I just did not feel like nursing Nuraz to sleep, my husband would take over to tackle the situation. It was heartbreaking, as Nuraz would cry out for me as he did not want his daddy to put him to sleep. He wanted me, and he wanted to nurse. What my husband and I did was to set a timer for 5 to 10 minutes, and if all else failed, I would relent and go in to nurse him to sleep. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it did not – so we played by ear. Still, Nuraz would always find his way back to the breasts in the middle of the night and help himself to the feed. I started wearing really tight unaccessible clothing to bed. Our nursing sessions got shorter and shorter, and there were times when I woke up in the morning, realising that my clothing was still intact and that he had not nursed at all. And then one fine afternoon on October 2016, Nuraz took his last nursing session, and that was that.

Cutting down on nursing sessions especially night nursing to wean your toddler may take awhile. Embrace the process and take your time until your toddler is ready!

My son is turning five soon, and it has been exactly two years since he took his last feed from me. We had a good run together, and I am happy to say that he is thriving on all kinds of solids. Nuraz, although independent, can be clingy and insecure. Sometimes, I wonder if it is an only child syndrome, or if it is because I breastfed him for so long. It becomes very difficult to get others (even other family members) to care for him when I need to run errands or just have some “me time”. He doesn’t tell me that he misses breastfeeding, but I know that he misses our late night nursing sessions – just like me.