In western countries, women take a shower immediately after childbirth. They have a regular diet, start walking around, and go out in the cold weather. On the other hand, Korean women are advised not to take a shower for a week or more. They are not allowed to put their hands in cold water. For the first three weeks after childbirth, getting out of the house is strictly forbidden unless you dare to sneak out and not get caught by your own mother. Last but not least, seaweed soup will show up on the table of every meal for months.
Saam-chil-il: 3 Weeks of Hard Core Recovery
When women are pregnant, the pelvic bones loosen up to make space for babies to grow in. This does not happen overnight. Such changes are gradually made over nine months as babies grow bigger. In labor, the pelvic bones extend at maximum so the babies can make their way down the birth canal. After babies abruptly leave, pelvic bones need some time to shrink to its pre-pregnancy size and adapt to the new bony structure. That is why “Saam(three)-chil(seven)-il(days),” the first three weeks after delivery are strongly emphasized in Korean postpartum care. During this period, new mothers should not be involved in any vigorous activities and try not to strain their loosened joints.
It does not mean staying in bed the whole day. As long as you start from mild exercise, early ambulation has been proven to be beneficial for new mothers. It decreases bladder complications, constipation, and blood clotting. Make sure you have an attendant when you get out of bed for the first time after delivery in case you faint.
During those three weeks, visitors are prohibited, and new mothers and newborns are not allowed to go out. This is to avoid contact with a possible source of infection as new mothers and newborns are immunologically vulnerable. This provides an excellent excuse for new mothers to courteously decline visitors including family-in-laws who are eager to see the newborns. New mothers are exhausted from breastfeeding and sleepless nights. Moreover they do not want people to see their bloated faces. New mothers must appreciate “Saam-chil-il” although they have to handle the desperate desire for fresh air.
Saan-hoo-poong: Avoiding the harmful postpartum wind
Korean women typically stay in a heated room after delivery. Even in the middle of the summer, you are not supposed to use an air-conditioner or fan. You cannot wear short sleeves. Your mother will yell at you if you walk around in bare feet. You can only drink warm water. Koreans firmly believe exposing your body to cold would result in “Saan-hoo-poong” which is unexplained joint pain and body ache after delivery. There are also western women who complain of unexplained body ache. In fact, it is medically groundless to say being exposed to cold is the cause. “Saan-hoo-poong” could be from strenuous housework and care of babies when women are not fully recovered from childbirth. However, it is noteworthy that keeping your body warm definitely helps you relax. Imagine being outside in the cold winter, how you hunch your shoulders and shiver. As long as it is not sweating hot, pleasant warmth helps new mothers’ restoration of energy.
Miyeok Guk All Day
New mothers in Korea have a large bowl of seaweed soup three times a day. They say seaweed cleanses blood, detoxifies the body, helps the womb contract and increases breast milk. Not all of them are medically correct, but it is true that seaweed is a nutritiously enriched food for new mothers. Seaweed contains a lot of calcium, fiber, and iron which are all necessary for postpartum women. First, breastfeeding women are required to take as much calcium as pregnant women. Second, fiber intake prevents constipation and helps the new mothers lose weight by its low calories. Third, new mothers are generally anemic from the delivery and need iron supplementation. One more great advantage of having seaweed soup is hydration. We all know we need to drink plenty of water to produce breast milk. It is not so easy unless you consciously measure how much you are drinking. Having seaweed soup is an easier way to get hydrated and it tastes better than plain water. Just be cautious not to take seaweed soup on every meal. Excessive amount of iodine in seaweed can result in thyroid dysfunction.
Some Modern Advances
The “no shower” tradition was probably because of the absence of proper shower systems in the past. It must have been influenced by the inconvenience of not readily accessing hot water and of course the absence of hair dryers could have been another factor. New mothers could have easily gotten a cold after a shower back then. Nowadays, taking a shower is not a big deal. As long as your hair is completely dried afterwards and the temperature of the shower room is warm enough, washing off sweat and blood is essential not only for hygiene and health, but also for refreshment after a long agony.
If you are a foreigner planning to deliver a baby in Korea, try Korean postpartum care. You may think some of them are unacceptable. Then, read through my column again and reassure yourself that it is at least not going to hurt you. It will be an exclusive experience and you will enjoy it. New mothers deserve extra care and attention. Korean postpartum care does its job. When in Korea, do as the Koreans do.
Lee Hye-Jun is a doctor at Maria Fertility Hospital in Seoul, Korea.