For most mothers of Asian descent, leaving the hospital with their newborns often means reporting to “mum jail,”
as some observers have dubbed it. The age-old tradition of confinement sees mothers limit themselves to the boundaries of their homes — and in some extreme cases, bed — for the next 30 days following delivery. Depending on one’s adherence to tradition, air conditioning, watching television and surfing the internet can all be verboten.
The practice is strict because the time immediately after delivery is seen as a “golden opportunity” — to use the words of one of Taiwan’s first female traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) physicians, Shuqi Zhuang — for a woman to recover after childbirth.
But the tradition is not without its critics. A 2009 study by Josephine Wong and Jane Fisher posits that aspects of the confinement period can “contribute to or fail to protect” against postpartum depression. One anonymous writer who penned an op-ed in Canadian magazine Today’s Parent said that confinement was “a key factor in [her] postpartum misery.”
“I watched life pass us by outside and yearned to feel the vibrant buzz of summer,” wrote the mother, who described how stifled she felt by the constant hovering and oft- unwelcome interventions by her parents and in-laws. “I had nowhere to escape.”
In Asia, confinement facilities have sprung up to address the need. Sanhujoriwons first appeared in Korea in the 1990s as a way for mothers to carry out their confinement periods under the care of healthcare professionals — and away from prying in-laws and parents. More luxurious facilities have also emerged, all lending credence to the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child.”
At Singapore’s first luxury confinement facility, Kai Suites, the old adage is taken quite literally: With 18 private suites and a staff strength of 60 people — made up of a legion of former maternity ward nurses, restaurant-trained chefs and Traditional Chinese Medicine experts — new mothers are promised a wealth of expert advice and assistance to help them through the early days with their new child.
The nursery is staffed around-the-clock by experienced nurses that were formerly from nursing wards. Each cot is also equipped with a CCTV so parents can keep an eye on their newborn.
The facility’s co-founder Kevin Kwee might not have experienced a confinement period personally, but as a father of four, he is intimately acquainted with the process. “The first few weeks after delivery can be a highly sensitive period [for mothers], having undergone drastic physical and emotional changes,” he says. “There may be conflicts in the expectations of how confinement should be carried out, so family dynamics may be affected. So I fully understand the importance of recuperation in an environment where the mother can fully rest and be well taken care of together with her newborn.”
How Kai Suites works is simple: After completing her delivery, the mother, her baby and her partner are whisked to Kai Suites’ quiet Dunearn Road facility by a dedicated limousine service, where she will reside for a period of time of her choosing. A 14-day stay at Kai Suites’ plush, Japanese-inspired facility costs S$14,500, a 28-day stay costs S$25,000, while a 42-day stay costs S$36,500. Included in the price are three customised meals and three customised snacks a day, including around-the-clock care for both mum and baby; post-natal massages and aesthetic treatments at the in-house clinic run by Dr Felix Li come at an additional cost.
All 18 of Kai Suites’ private rooms are equipped with king-sized beds fitted with 600 thread count Egyptian cotton linen. Bedsides feature call buttons that summon a nurse and a well-stocked pillow menu. Newborns are housed in the purpose-built nursery, and are kept under the watchful eye of former maternity ward nurses around the clock. Each cot is equipped with a surveillance camera that is tied to their respective parents’ phones; and the babies can also be moved into the suites upon request.
Meals at Kai Suites are meticulously prepared and overseen by culinary advisor David Yip, a veteran chef, restaurateur and food writer of some two decades. Yip says they gathered some “600 to 700 recipes” while they were planning for Kai Suites’ menu, knowing that food was a vital part in a mother’s postpartum recovery.
“We spoke to many elderly people, including our friends’ mothers and grandmothers,” says Yip. “The same dishes kept coming up — braised black vinegar pork trotters, sesame chicken with yellow wine... we collected over 600 to 700 recipes, so dishes are rarely repeated throughout a stay with us.”
The meal below includes a bowl of Cantonese fish soup made with fish maw and homemade garlic ginger oil, which is meant to promote healing.
their delivery method, and their physical condition as determined by Kai Suites’ in-house TCM expert; Yip says that meals are planned together with a nutritionist and a TCM practitioner. “We are guided by TCM principles, and the process of healing, detoxification, restoration and nourishment,” says Yip. “For example, in the first week postpartum, there’s a greater focus on wound recovery and improving appetite, so we use a lot of braising and steaming, with a focus on soups and soup-based dishes.” Meals are also thoughtfully planned based on cultural background and preferences to impart a sense of familiarity and comfort.
Where Kai Suites aims to separate itself from its foreign counterparts is in the additional offerings built into the three-storey facility. Numerous social spaces are located throughout the building to facilitate social interactions: The aptly-named Private Mother’s Lounge serves as a place for Kai Suites’ guests to gather and bond over optional daily activities; it also serves as a function room for talks with the facility’s resident experts on topics like breast engorgement, food nutrition and mental health. A guest lounge and restaurant on the ground floor is where mothers can receive visitors: Guests — except fathers — are forbidden from going up to the suites themselves, a rule ostensibly to keep eager visitors from overstaying their welcome.
The aforementioned aesthetics clinic features a wide range of services, including body contouring, scar and pigmentation reduction, and pelvic floor muscle strengthening, to help mothers regain some semblance of their pre-delivery bodies, should they wish.
Guests are only allowed in the first floor lounge (ostensibly to prevent them from overstaying their welcome.)
Kwee says that this is all to help allay the effects of postpartum depression. Giving them avenues to speak to people — including fellow mothers fresh from the delivery room — can help them feel like they are not alone in the struggles they face. And providing them with a full-service aesthetics clinic can alleviate some of the body image issues they might have following childbirth.
“Postpartum depression is a very real issue, and apparent in most mothers but to varying degrees,” says Kwee. “So in addition to caring for the mother’s physical wellbeing, we are also mindful of [her] mental and emotional state during this vulnerable period of recovery.”Kai Suites’ lead maternity nurse Teresa Cordeiro is a big proponent of the confinement facility model, not least because of the various medical experts that are on hand to assist mothers with whatever issues they might have. Cordeiro says that in confinement facilities, mothers can feel like they are able to disconnect from life back home — and focus solely on recovering and caring for their newborn.
“Besides my own personal experience, I’ve seen what the initial recovery process is like for mothers just after delivery, and how physically drained and vulnerable they can feel,” says the veteran labour and delivery nurse of some 40 years. “At a confinement facility, the mother has a team of experts caring for her and her baby around the clock, as opposed to just one nanny. Plus, at home, a mother may feel the need to fulfil her usual responsibilities, carry out her daily activities, or split her time and attention with her other children.”
Cordeiro says that mothers may also display “nesting behaviour” after delivering — the need to take control of one’s environment to ensure a safe space for the new baby. Having a confinement nanny — who is usually a stranger — in their homes may “limit her rest and increase unnecessary anxiety.”
“Labour itself is already very challenging for a mother,” says Cordeiro. “And while she is taking care of herself, she needs to get used to being a new mum, learn how to handle her baby, and cope with her emotional changes.”
A stay at Kai Suites is undoubtedly an extravagance that not all mothers can afford. But mothers and observers say that their focus on holistic care for a mother — with nods to tradition — are a step in the right direction.
“I personally believe the whole experience was worth the price,” says a mother who stayed at Kai Suites. “The nursing team recorded every single detail about my baby, and they also accompanied us for every single check-up. It may be pricey, but I felt I was able to recover better compared to my first delivery. It really is a once in a lifetime experience.”
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