Newborn Raeshman Ray Sundran is all fragile limbs and tender flesh, but Devi Siva handles him effortlessly and confidently as she rubs gingelly oil all over his tiny body. She deftly massages him, cooing to him as she crosses his arms and legs. Raeshman is content as Devi soothes him with her warm and sure touches.
“The massage improves blood circulation and helps baby sleep better. It’s best to use homemade coconut oil or gingelly oil that contain no preservatives. Plus, it’s gentle on baby’s skin,” says Devi, as she gently strokes the bridge of Raeshman’s nose, in the belief it will give him a higher nasal bridge.
Devi’s skills are honed from decades of tending to new mothers and their newborns. She specialises in Indian postnatal care, and is known colloquially as a confinement lady as the postnatal period is usually referred to as the confinement period. She is a postpartum helper, also called a doula in some cultures.
For a month or so after delivery, women are expected to rest at home to recuperate from the rigours of giving birth. All the ethnic groups in Malaysia believe in the importance of observing the dos and don’ts of confinement for a woman’s long-term health benefits.
The Malays’ confinement period is a 44-day pantang (abstinence) when traditional practices such as stomach binding, postnatal massages and drinking jamu (herbal concoctions) are carried out for the mother’s well-being.
The Chinese call the confinement period, zuo yuezi and practices dating back 2,000 years to the Han Dynasty are still observed. The focus is on the body’s yin and yang energy, and new mothers are fed wholesome food and herbal tonics to warm their body and replenish their strength.
Indian postnatal care is based on ancient Ayurverdic methods. Herbal baths, postnatal massage, nourishing herbal-based diet and belly binding are part of the Indian postpartum care.
Interestingly, most modern mothers – who usually opt for Western healthcare – still believe in traditional postnatal care. Some methods may be frowned upon by modern medical practitioners, such as certain dietary restrictions or practices that are not backed by science, but most new mothers generally adhere to traditional postnatal dos and don’ts passed down through the generations. Lecturer Meera Eswaran, 36, observes confinement rituals, seeing it as a cultural practice.
“Recovery after childbirth is not treating an illness. We still take the medicines prescribed by doctors, such as antibiotics for those who have undergone Caesarian section.
“Like confinement ladies, some doctors also recommend taking fenugreek and other natural ingredients to increase milk supply. They also suggest types of food to consume and avoid during confinement.”
Meera engaged Devi’s postnatal care services after the birth of her three sons, Nameelan Jay Sundran and Himeshan Dev Sundran, now seven and four respectively, and newborn Raeshman.
“I felt comfortable with Aunty Devi from day one. She is very hand-on and focused on helping me regain my strength. She also taught my mum how to cook nutritious meals and soups for me, and told us the type of foods and drinks to avoid when I was breastfeeding.”
Meera also turned to Devi for support when she was battling exhaustion and mood swings.
“Every day, she would ask me how I was doing. It’s nice having someone lend a listening ear, especially when it concerns my baby and health. It is an excellent way of preventing postpartum depression,” adds Meera who found Devi’s deep knowledge of postnatal care comforting as she could rely on her for advice and solutions.
In the olden days, it was usually mothers or mothers-in-law who took on the duties of postpartum care. But these days, not many have the knowledge and skills to care for the mother and newborn, and so families engage the service of confinement ladies like Devi. Some confinement women stay with the family throughout the month, but Devi prefers to do home visits.
In a day, Devi visits two to four mothers, and their newborn babies, at home.
One of her most important tasks is giving the newborn a massage, followed by a herbal bath.
Instead of store-bought herb mixes, Devi brings along her homemade herbal mixes for meals and bath. They are made of ingredients such as kasturi manjal (wild turmeric), poolankilangu (white turmeric root) and payatham paruppu (green gram).
“The herbal mixes are prepared by a friend. The ingredients are washed, dried and blended, and then mixed accordingly. This way, I am assured of the mixture’s quality, freshness and cleanliness. Babies’ skin is sensitive and no harsh products should be used on their delicate skin,” explains the grandmother-of-four, who learnt the art of Indian postpartum care from her mother and an elderly relative.
She starts by massaging the baby with gingelly oil before his bath.
To bathe the baby, Devi straddles him on her legs rather than place him in the bathtub.
“Babies rest comfortably on my legs. This way, I can also control the amount of water being poured on the baby. This is much safer than putting him in the bathtub as one mistake could cause the baby to slip under the water,” says Devi, who uses rice starch water to bathe the baby as she believes the starch can help soothe tired muscles.
There are certain rituals that Devi follow after the baby’s bath. She blows into the baby’s ears, head and navel to make sure these parts are completely dry. The baby is then wiped and warmed over an incense burner with sambrani (incense) so that he would not catch a cold easily.
“I treat all babies like they are my grandchildren. Newborns are very sensitive. It’s important for mothers to understand their newborns’ needs,” says Devi who has a close rapport with the babies under her care. Her most challenging task was caring for a set of triplets, born weighing between 500g and 1.2kg.
Theresa Lok admits being slightly apprehensive about Devi’s rigorous oil massages for her newborn daughter, Sonia YiRui Joel Vethamani. But she was quickly reassured when she saw how soundly her daughter slept after her bath.
“At first, I was not used to her methods as I’m used to seeing babies bathing in tubs instead of on someone’s stretched out limbs. But I was intrigued by how it helped ease my daughter,” says Lok, whose husband is Indian.
“A good friend recommended Aunty Devi’s services and my husband encouraged me to try it out. The Indian confinement methods help mothers through stomach binding, herbal baths and scrubs, as well as healthy meals. Indian food contain more spices, which adds flavour,” says Lok, who booked Devi’s services several months in advance as the confinement lady’s calender tends to fill up quickly.
Lok is glad to have Devi looking after her because she also loved the confinement lady’s herbal baths and scrubs.
During the confinement period, Devi gives the new mothers various baths and scrubs to rejuvenate and improve their blood circulation.
There’s herbal sauna bath (using boiled herbal leaves), omom bath (using ajwain seeds), salt bath, fruit bath (apples, papaya, banana and pear mixed with honey and yoghurt) and gingelly oil bath (with cumin, fenugreek and betel leaves).
Devi also binds the new mother’s stomach.
“For the belly binding, grated old ginger is rubbed over the stomach and bound for six to eight hours. Ginger helps to shrink the stomach muscles faster. Plus, it is warm and comforting,” says the mother-of-four.
During their postpartum month, Devi also instructs mothers to wear socks all the time and take herbal drinks.
Devi also serves Meera and Lok pathiya samayal (nutritious dishes made using a mix of 21 herbs and spices like coriander, cumin and black pepper) to boost their immunity, increase breast milk production and encourage quicker healing.
She prepares meals for the mothers with chicken and shark meat as the main source of protein. All the ingredients used are to nourish the body, promote healing and strengthen the immune system.
Devi also treats the mothers to desserts, one of which is made from roasted split black urad dhal flour, almonds, milk powder, sugar and raisins.
“Urad dhal is rich in protein, folic acid and iron. Raisins boost memory power. Almonds and cashew nuts are rich in vitamins,” Devi explains.
Devi also discourages mothers in confinement from eating vegetables that cause flatulence such as cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli. They also have to abstain from fried food and certain seafood as they can cause indigestion.
“I didn’t mind following rituals and adhering to the many dos and don’ts. These traditions help with my overall health as well as my son, Raeshman. Aunty Devi explains the properties of each ingredient, so I trust her to look after me during my confinement period. She is also very hands-on and quick to help me with concerns, be it dealing with Raeshman’s colic problems or suggesting oils and herbs to use when my baby is down with flu,” says Meera.
Besides specialising in postpartum care, Devi also prepares special meals for the elderly and patients recovering from cancer and surgery.
“Essentially, it’s all about helping those in need. In life, we do what we can to assist others, especially those recovering from surgery or delivery,” she says.