Showering After Labor, an Old Wives Tale?

Ever hear the one warning against showering after labor?

Of course that’s probably the first thing you’ll want to do after hours of sweating through a stiff hospital gown, being prodded by strangers, and cozying up against a vernix-crusted kid. Even on the hospital tour, a shy woman raised her hand and asked, “How soon can I shower afterward?”

The Advice Started Early

In the weeks that followed my pregnancy announcement, people descended from the hills to offer their advice. No exaggeration. I got a call from a great aunt I hadn’t seen since I was small enough to fit on Santa’s lap, and my partner’s small family quickly expanded into a network of aunts and cousins, ready to take me in their arms and rub my belly.

Take ginger for the morning sickness, they said. Make sure you use cocoa butter to prevent stretch marks. Or, better yet, use coconut oil. And if you still have to itch, scratch against the grain, side to side, not up and down.

Skipping the shower after labor wasn’t even the weirdest one. An astronomer casually relayed that going out on a new moon was believed to give the baby a cleft palate. A classmate from college said to avoid wearing scarves or necklaces to prevent the umbilical cord from wrapping around the neck. And as for my explosive rosacea? It was because I was having a girl and she had taken all my prettiness for herself.

Why risk it, right?

Each fable, presented with the best intentions, was based on the same underlying premise: whether it made sense or not, if it didn’t hurt to follow the superstition, why risk it?

And really, that’s the same precautionary logic I folded to when I stopped SCUBA diving and started asking my partner to cook the steaks through. Even if there isn’t a whole lot of peer-reviewed literature on the effect diving has on the human fetus, why risk it?

Before she was married, my mother-in-law was a midwife in the rural Filipino province of Bicol, so I made sure to pay particular attention to her advice.

“When you want to eat something, you should eat it,” she said moving the bowl of mangos closer to me. “Otherwise when the baby is born, she might be born missing something.”

Did she just encourage me to eat as many pimento-stuffed olives and slices of cheesecake as I felt the urge to? Wonderful! But this was soon followed with a forewarning, weighted down with the graveness of a condolence.

But don’t shower?

“After you give birth, make sure you don’t shower right away,” she warned. “They used to not even let you, but when I gave birth in the hospital, they said I could, and I said ‘no, I don’t want.’ You can wipe yourself off with a washcloth, but don’t shower shower for at least the first day.”

When she tried to explain why, she couldn’t quite translate it out of Bicolano. My father-in-law and my partner and his brother nodded their heads when she switched back to the music of her mother tongue, but none of them could quite unravel it in English.

The closest they came was that if you submerged yourself in water too soon after labor, then you would get a certain kind of painful illness in old age.

Waving his hands through the air, my partner guessed that the superstition might have some connection to healthy bacteria that if washed away, could dampen the immune system. Even at that, my own brother laughed because, “The consequence are just far off and vague enough so that you’d completely forget about it, until it hits.”

Dr. Google will know!

I repeated this story to as many people as I could, trying to find out more about this mysterious sickness, but even those who told me to avoid the jungle at night found it perplexing. Finally, I asked one of the midwives I was seeing, figuring that working at a hospital that delivers 5,000 newborns a year, she would have heard it all. Instead she shook her head and said the two words you never want to hear from a medical professional: Google it.

Begrudgingly—because I had Googled every other damn thing you could think of—I asked the all-knowing Internet if it was familiar with this mythos, and that’s how I got to China.

Zuo Yue Zi (坐月子) is a month-long post-partum ritual made by mothers in China. Translating to “sitting the month,” this ritual entails strict bed rest and an emphasis on keeping warm which means wrapping up in blankets, avoiding “cool” foods, slurping a whole lot of soup, and not showering.

For a whole month.

For NPR, Louisa Lim reported that Chinese medicine believes this rest prevents illness and joint pain in old age. Documenting her own period of aquatic abstinence, blogger Taiwan Xifu said she was told the practice would prevent strong headaches in old age.

Given the proximity of the Philippines to China—the former which was probably peopled by the later tens of thousands of years ago—it doesn’t seem that strange. Throughout the last millennia, oceanic trade continued between China and the Philippines so much so that it wouldn’t be odd if Zuo Yue Zi—or other traditions and foods—did pass into parts of the Philippines. If that is where this comes from, then this practice has been in my partner’s family for longer than anyone can remember—whether it was carried over by a long lost Chinese grandmother, or simply added onto a trade deal between fishermen.

May as well stick with tradition.

My family, like all families, has a few practices of its own that we continue to honor simply because they are tradition, and I have been looking forward to passing these onto my child(ren). Just as you get genes from your parents, you should also get high expectations and a list of beautifully inconvenient customs.

So, chalk it up to pregnancy brain and sentimentality, but I’ve been thinking I just might wait a few more hours to shower. Not because I’m afraid of that decades-away illness or because the precautionary principle dictates better safe than sorry, but because this is a priceless and intangible gift, an idea, a meme given to me by the family of my daughter’s father, and that seems worth carrying on.

Besides, I’d like to have something to look forward to in old age, and what could better than getting to tell these old wives tales?

Topics:Birth
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11 Comments

  • I live in Ecuador and they also follow this same custom (I’m a Canadian so I don’t understand exactly why, but it’s something about preventing illness in the mother and baby). My American friend recently had a baby there and was shocked to find even educated, modern women telling her that she and the baby shouldn’t leave the house for the first month, should always stay wrapped up warmly and the mother isn’t supposed to shower the whole time.

  • I’m first generation ABC (American born Chinese) as is my husband. My parents and in-laws immigrated from China(Canton province). From my understanding, the reason for not showering during “sitting the month” is because your body is more susceptible to catching a cold. During this time, cold air can penetrate your pores more easily and later on manifests as bone pain aka arthritis and headaches later on in life. As your skin touches water, including your digestive tract as it is basically one big skin lining, your pores can absorb the cold. So I was told to not drink or eat anything cold either. My MIL kind of scolded me for washing my hands with cold water after using the restroom, since we have a tankless water heater and that takes forever for our water to get hot. I couldn’t stand not showering or washing my hair for a whole month so my mother in law saved a bunch of sundried ginger peel for me to shower and wash my hair with, as ginger is known to “remove air,” basically get rid of the cold air or gas that your body absorbs when you shower. I also used the hottest water I could stand when I showered and washed my hair. I tried to go as long as I could without showering, basically a week at a time, but I did shower before leaving the hospital. There was no way I was leaving the hospital still all bloody. The ginger peel my mother in-law saved up was from making me this pig feet, ginger, dark vinegar soup. It’s tradition for Chinese women to be eating this stuff postpartum because it’s supposed to heal the body and also remove air/gas from the body. I ate so much of it, I’m pretty sick of it. Loved it for the first month though. I still have so much left over (I’m 4.5 months PP, this stuff is well preserved because of the vinegar). However, I think if you eat too much of it, your body can become too hot, and if you breastfeed, it can maybe affect your baby too? My mom said that it can give the baby acne, but it’s only a temporary thing.

  • I’m Filipino and I’ve done much googling about this too… you’re right about the link with China’s traditional practices (keeping warm and avoiding being exposed or taking in anything cool/cold)… look up the Malaysian postnatal care as well… it’s quite elaborate and includes prescribed diet and herbs for at least a month (must mention the effective belly wrap!)… They even claim that it prevents postpartum depression and contrasts it with its being more common in the West. The Filipino practices are not well documented or probably faded away because of “western” influences. But with the little that was left, I was able to avail of a “traditional” midwife’s care in my last pregnancy and the difference in recovery was remarkable. Even my OB was surprised how fast I recovered. And yes, all that I’ve read about it mentioned that it will prevent problems in old age. 😉

  • Kids #1 & 2 born in the US, Kid #3 overseas: I was not allowed to shower for 2 days [!!] after Kid #1 with a vague “it’s not good for you” [it may have actually had something to do with the 2-day IV full of anti-stroke drugs for preeclampsia.] Kid #2, was at least 24 hours, maybe longer. Kid #3, overseas, though… I was in the shower almost immediately after birth, as in once the baby had nursed, was weighed/tested/dressed/etc., the baby was handed off to Daddy and that midwife marched me to the shower! I was shocked but complied. I’ll have to look out for illness in old age!
    Ditto with the washing the babies, though: the first 2 in the US hospital were sent home with strict orders for sponge-baths only until the umbilical chord fell off; Kid #3 overseas? submerged the very next morning after birth by the nurses at the hospital.

  • I have a friend from High school who is a first-generation American. Her parents immigrated from china. After she had her baby, her mom didn’t let her wash her hair for two weeks. She wanted her daughter to go for the month but broke down after her daughter’s repeated pleas.

  • I was advised not to shower as apparently it can wash off the smell the newborn associates with their mother and make breastfeeding harder as a result. No idea if it’s true or not! From a European source.

    • Agreed. My daughter didn’t recognize me & refused to nurse for a short time when I showered 2 days after labor that ended in a c-section. She also did not get a proper bath for almost 24 hours either (busy night in the delivery room). We did lots of skin to skin in that time as well. I’ve heard some babies are more sensitive to moms smell than others.

      • This is SO true! When my 8th child was born I was not feeling well enough to shower until about 24 hours after birth. Breastfeeding was going well, but when I put the baby to my breast after my shower, she seemed confused and I had to express a little breast milk so she would latch on. I ddn’t smell the same and she didn’t know it was me!

  • Interesting! I had not heard of this before. I ended up not showering for at least one day postpartum. I vomited between contractions, did skin to skin with my vernix covered newborn who promptly peed on me, and I was so sweaty. But I didn’t even think of showering. Possibly because I was too exhausted to stand for that long but also because I just wanted to hold and stare at my daughter. Everything else seemed a low priority 🙂

  • Thanks for sharing your experience. The issue with washing in the Chinese postpartum (zuo yuezi) is about catching a cold. If you have a warm/climate controlled house this is not an issue (nor is it an issue in most luxury confinement centres). Washing your hair is slightly more problematic as hair takes longer to dry – especially long hair on many Chinese ladies. So this is why most new mothers are advised not to wash their hair.

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