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Pantang: Confinement After Childbirth

Posted by on 25 June 2012
ibu berpantang

Mother in pantang (confinement). Image from BabyNeedsShop.

Just when you think you are home safe after finally giving birth to your bundle of joy, then comes pantang, the confinement period observed by Malaysians after childbirth. I have very little knowledge about this matter, especially since (i) my mother is Filipina and (ii) my Malaysian mother-in-law does not really care much about these things, so I will share with you what little I know to give you an idea of what pantang is and what it involves.

The word ‘pantang‘ comes from the phrase ‘pantang larang‘ which means ‘taboo’ so from the term ‘pantang‘ itself, you can already tell that there are many prohibitions involved in the said confinement period.

For starters, both mother and baby are expected to stay put at home, hence the term ‘confinement’ period which can be 30 days, 40 days, 44 days or 45 days, depending on your race (the Malays, Chinese, and Indians all have their own versions of pantang!) or to be more specific, your mother or your mother-in-law. For someone who’s always on the go like me, this part of the confinement has got to be the hardest. I can’t go anywhere. I. Just. Stay. Home. It comes to the point when I practically welcome trips to the clinic or hospital, just to get out of the house. [NB: But when little Peanut got prolonged jaundice and had to go for almost daily blood tests at the hospital, I didn’t like that at all. And wished we could just stay home. I also got horrified looks from aunties in the hospital waiting room when they found out Peanut was just a few days old and I was already out and about…until they found out he had jaundice. Talk about ‘peer pressure’ of sorts!] I suppose there is some wisdom to this “house arrest” portion of pantang. After all, newborn babies’ immune systems are still very fragile so keeping them home for the first month of their lives means limiting their exposure to microbes. Mothers also stand to gain from all this rest, whether we like it or not. So I’ve always tried my best to follow this part the best I could. With emphasis on the “tried my best” part ;) *cough* *cough*

With MyEldest, I was stubborn and didn’t feel I needed the rest so just a week after giving birth, I was driving already. I suffered a mysterious pain in my lower back after that for many years, a pain that extended all the way down to my right leg which would induce cramps at the most inopportune times. There’d be instances when my right foot and toes would just stiffen up while I’m driving so it got pretty scary. The problem was only resolved after countless chiropractor treatments and numerous acupuncture sessions. From that time on, I never drove again during my confinement period with my other children.

Anyway, as I was saying, there are many prohibitions during the confinement period and food takes up a major portion of it. The new mother is expected to avoid foods that are considered cold or berangin (closest translation: ‘causing wind’) lest they cause joint pain or muscle pain or general body weakness to the new mother. Examples of such food are cucumbers, watermelon, swamp cabbage (kangkung), durian, long beans, French beans, cabbage, Chinese cabbage. Foods that can potentially cause itchiness are also to be avoided, especially when you have stitches — certain types of fish, shrimps, crabs, some even go as far as not eating eggs. Spicy food is also a big no-no because the chili might make the baby’s stomach upset through the breastmilk. Again, the list of forbidden foods would depend largely on your mother, your mother-in-law, or — surprise! — how your baby reacts to certain foods, eg my little Peanut somehow gets terribly fussy and gassy when I take dairy products so I’ve been forced to give it all up.

Haruan image from Wikipedia

Haruan image from Wikipedia

Foods like the haruan fish (Channa striatus) is highly recommended because it’s supposed to help promote healing of wounds and stitches. It’s so popular in Malaysia that they come in the canned variety as well as in bottles as pati ikan haruan (essence of haruan fish). Me? I could never stand its taste and smell…but I’ve healed properly even without it, thank you.

The new mother is also expected to wear socks (to avoid getting the feet cold) day and night, as well as a corset, which traditionally is a very long piece of cloth that is wound all around you, called bengkung. The bengkung is wide enough to cover the area just under your breasts all the way to the top of your thighs and forces you to sit up straight. Unfortunately, I find it very cumbersome to put on so I settled for the next best thing — a modified version with loops which is tied like those corsets from the Middle Ages. I also have the modern corsets with those tiny hooks that fasten in front. Here are some Google image results for bengkung, just to give you an idea of how these tummy wraps look like.



Google image results for 'bengkung'

As if it’s not difficult enough to be bound day and night, before putting on the bengkung, you’re supposed to rub a mixture of kapur sirih (limestone paste — available from your nearby Indian sundry shop) and limau nipis (lime juice) on your tummy. This mixture makes my skin feel very itchy but somehow I find it effective in making my tummy shrink better as compared to just using the bengkung ‘plain’.

limau nipis

Limau nipis (lime)

kapur sirih

Kapur sirih (limestone paste)

The Chinese have it the worst — the new mother is not allowed to wash her hair for 30 days. Some say 21 days but most of my Chinese friends follow 30 days. This is the part that many Chinese ladies dread the most about confinement. This prohibition has naturally led to an array of those so-called dry shampoo products in the market. (But, as you know…there’s nothing like getting all that water and sudsy shampoo into your hair and scalp!) This practice is supposed to prevent “wind” from entering the body, which is said to be the cause of joint problems in later years. By the way, the Chinese refer to confinement as ‘zhuo yue‘, which is literally translated into “sitting still for a month”.

Urut (massage) is also a must for a lady in confinement. Now this is the part that I like. Carrying a baby for nine months wreaks havoc on your posture and joints and there’s nothing like urut to fix all that. Urut is always done in three sessions, with the first session hurting the most, and the third session feeling the most relaxed. Mind you, the massage has an added element — something that involves ‘lifting’ your womb back up. I’m not sure if this thing really works but I’ve just gone along with it, despite it feeling a bit uncomfortable. Some people do the massage about a week after giving birth, then towards the end of the pantang. Some do it everyday. But the minimum is at least three sessions not too long after giving birth.

The massage can go hand in hand with bertungku — heating up a special large flat stone then using it to warm certain key points in your body. Sometimes they use special leaves to wrap the stone in before wrapping it in kain batik (batik cloth) before applying it on your body. This practice is supposed to help dispel wind. I don’t care what it actually does — I just know it feels good! Every woman who’s had hot stones treatment in a spa would surely agree with me on that ;)

Some herbs and spices are also traditionally taken during pantang. The herbs, called jamu, have already evolved into capsule form in the recent years and can cost up to hundreds of Ringgit for a whole month’s package. Doctors, however, strongly advise against taking jamu when the baby is  jaundiced. Many of these jamu preparations contain kunyit (tumeric) and may cause the baby to look yellower than ever. Spices like black pepper and ginger are said to be good for dispelling wind.

There are so many other details involved in the Malay practice of berpantang, such as tying up the hair very high and applying pilis (a mixture of cinnamon bark pounded with garlic) on to the forehead. There are herb-infused baths and washes, also something called param to apply all over the body after bathing — a mixture of rice flour, ginger, tumeric and black pepper.


Pilis for the forehead. Image from Chentaqiezahir.

In this modern day and age, lots of people (like me!) don’t know much about the proper way of berpantang and resort to hiring ladies who specialise in such matters. For a fee (not cheap, mind you!), those ladies would go to your house daily, massage you, do the bertungku thing, help you with your bengkung, bathe the baby, even cook for you. There are even special confinement houses now, very popular among the Chinese — you’d check in as you would into a hotel and stay there for the entire duration of your confinement. It’s not cheap (think: a few thousand Ringgit for the entire confinement) but for some people, when it comes to their health, the sky’s the limit.

A major difference among the Chinese and Malays is the consumption of  rice wine (with the alcohol “steamed” away) during confinement by the Chinese to help warm the body. The Malays, of course, cannot consume any alcohol in any amount. Click here for a detailed account of how the Chinese perform confinement.

The problem with pantang is how some of the information has been warped through the years. Some people go to extreme lengths, only allowing the new mother to eat steamed rice with ikan bilis (dried anchovies) cooked with black pepper! This just doesn’t make sense medically because it’s not a balanced diet AND it is sadly lacking in fiber, which is much needed in order to avoid constipation. Some people even limit their liquid intake to just one glass per meal — said to avoid bloating — which is utter nonsense, considering that a breastfeeding mother needs fluids for milk production. For ladies who are of Javanese descent, they can’t even lie down flat for the entire duration of their pantang — they have to sleep on pillows arranged at a 45-degree angle.

L'Occitane Huile Souplesse

L'Occitane Huile Souplesse

Personally, I follow the “house arrest” portion of pantang as much as possible and also take care of my food intake to some degree (e.g. I eat eggs, to the horror of some ladies) because I’ve noticed my babies responding adversely to certain types of food, eg the twins feverishly tossing and turning the whole night when they were babies after stubborn old me consumed a considerable amount of durian the day before. I also have urut and bertungku and use bengkung for as long and as often as my skin can tolerate it. I also use the icky kapur and lime juice mixture for my tummy as much as I can tolerate it (I skip it when it gets too itchy on certain days and resort to modern stuff like L’Occitane’s Huile Supplesse with almond oil — please don’t judge me!). I also drink lots of fluids to help me with my milk production.

Oh, and by the way, little Peanut wears his baby barut, as well. But it’s meant to keep his tummy warm hence it’s not bound as tightly as my bengkung.

barut baby

Baby Peanut's tummy wrapped warm and snug in a barut

If you have all the resources (household help/nanny, ladies to take care of you, etc), pantang can be a very relaxing time, an opportunity to be pampered even. But if you’re like most mothers like me (despite the fact that I have a maid and my mother is around to do stuff like do my grocery shopping and pick up/send the kids to/from school), pantang can be a very stressful time especially if you have other children already. Whatever the case, I believe pantang has its benefits and I strongly encourage younger people who scoff at it to at least follow the “house arrest” and rest portion . You may not feel any difference during your youth but you will definitely feel the difference as you start to get older.

For more information on how the three races in Malay practice confinement, click here to read an article by The Star newspaper on the subject.

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