Underground industry serves moms who follow Chinese custom of ‘sitting the month’ after childbirth

January 16, 2017

By Douglas Quan, Vancouver Sun |

Five months ago, first-time mother Mandy Huo chose to follow the traditional Chinese practice of “sitting the month” after childbirth and agreed to pay $4,000 for a postpartum doula to come to her house six days a week to cook special meals and care for her baby.

But within hours of entering her home, the doula — a middle-aged woman whom Huo had spent less than an hour vetting at a coffee shop — said Huo was not producing enough breast milk and put pressure on the mother to give her baby formula milk.

“I was kind of surprised. She told me she supports a breastfed baby (at the coffee shop),” she said. “It was very discouraging.”

The mother relented and gave her son a small amount of donor milk that was stored in the fridge. But she fired the doula later that day.

Stories like this are prompting health experts and Chinese community groups to call for regulation of the “underground” industry that caters to immigrant mothers who follow the postpartum custom known as zuo yue zi.

“This is an important cultural practice that is central to the lives of many people in this country,” said Wendy Hall, a nursing professor at the University of British Columbia. “We need to figure out ways to protect families so that they are not subject to unreasonable practices by unlicensed care providers for large amounts of money.”

Mothers have to be careful in choosing the right helper, said Queenie Choo, CEO of B.C. immigrant services agency SUCCESS. “This is buyer beware.”

Though practices vary depending on whether you’re from southern China, northern China or Taiwan, the basic rationale is the same: after giving birth, a mother needs a month to allow her body to recover and to prevent long-term illness. This means staying indoors, following a restricted diet, avoiding or limiting bathing and washing of hair, and staying away from strenuous activity.

There is no consensus on how much of this is rooted in science. Still, in cities like Vancouver and Toronto with large Asian populations, there is now said to be a thriving industry catering to these mothers. Some service providers specialize in daily home delivery of special meals, typically consisting of ginger-based soups, pork dishes — including pig’s feet — and other meals intended to make the mother stronger and help her produce breast milk.

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