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December 22, 2010

After Birth Confinement in Borneo

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian, Borneo – In the Sarawak Malay world, the mother is usually confined to the kampung house for about 40 days. (interesting how that number keeps coming up).


Just after delivery, the placenta is washed and prepared for burial. (See a previous column). The mother of the baby rests in bed for the first few days.


Traditional herbs and medicines are given to the mother to consume. My mother-in-law mixed 13 different herbs and spices. They include cinnamon, coriander, anise, cloves and fennel to name a few. (Contact me for the complete list but, unfortunately, some are in the Sarawak Malay language and I cannot translate). Seaweed that has blown onto pine trees along the seaside is added to the mixture. This is used to help break wind and remove poisonous gases. (Think about this one.)


There are many different effects on the body. These include helping blood circulation, to get rid of the toxics from the body system, reduce the smell and get rid of the post delivery discharge, to help the uterus return to its original size and to keep the vagina fit. In this society and in perceived Islam, it is very important to satisfy the sexual needs of the husband.


The mother is supposed to cover the head and the feet. The theory is that because of the loss of blood during delivery, the mother will lose heat from the body.


The mom then puts on binding around the tummy. This is to shrink the uterus and to maintain the tummy so it won’t go flabby. Capor, a mixture of finely crushed clam shells and lime juice, is mixed into a paste and applied to the tummy area before binding. This helps to shrink the swollen uterus.


Three, seven, 15 and 40 days after giving birth, a mild massage is given. The binding is also checked and the result will be a slender body. To get back to the old shape is the target of the confinement period.


Mom can eat fish, but not shell fish because it can cause allergies. Mom consumes fish, beef and chicken, more than in a normal diet. Vegetables and fruits that cause gas, and citrus bananas and pineapple cannot be consumed. Papaya and other fruits are eaten.


A bath, drawn after three days, with water that is treated with tepus meroyan serai wangi. The water smells a bit like a strong mint and removes the bad wind from the body through the skin.


After confinement, serbuk irup (a coffee-smelling herb) mixed with water, is consumed to get rid of the smell of the vaginal blood. The drink helps blood circulation and dries up the blood flow.


The mothers are encouraged to breast feed. The nipples and breast are wiped with warm water dipped and massaged slowly to promote milk. Moms drink plenty of warm water to also encourage milk production.


In my case, modernity entered the picture. My wife wore a tortuous blue binding contraption that bound her like a tight hug with Velcro. She was obviously uncomfortable with her stomach crushed and I told her to take it off. I kissed her and lovingly told her I would love her if she was flabby or not.


We would go on a diet together as I have not yet shed the 5 kilos I gained from my trip to the states and that would help return her body to its previous shape. That’s seemed to allay her fears.


I was also afraid of the potions from the kampung as was our modern doctor. Although the intentions were good, we weren’t sure where the water came from, tainted river or well. That stuff went out as soon as the relatives left.


I saw no harm in blending some of the old ways with modern medicine. A compromise between the forces of modernity and the ancient traditions of the kampung can and should coexist.


The information is from interviews with my wife and mid-wife mother-in-law as they came and went into our modern condo. The translation is mine.


 . . . life is good . . . . .


Visits Tom’s website and blog at also on Facebook Borneo Tom


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