MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Imagine not being allowed to go outside or take a shower or even drink cold water for an entire month. It might sound like a kind of house arrest, but every year, tens of millions of Chinese women submit to this willingly. It is the traditional practice of confinement during the month after childbirth.

For the latest in our series Beginnings, NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Beijing on a modern twist to this age-old custom.

(Soundbite of crying baby)

LOUISA LIM: Baby Momo fusses, as his parents try to figure out what's wrong. He and his mother, Wu Lili, haven't left the three rooms of this apartment for 29 days now. It's the last day of their traditional 30-day confinement period. This is literally called Sitting the Month in Chinese, as new mothers are pretty much expected to just sit around in pajamas for a month, to recover from childbirth. But there are a lot of rules.

Ms. WU LILI: (Through Translator) I really want to eat fruit and other things I'm not supposed to eat, like snacks.

LIM: She's also not allowed to bathe or shower. No coffee, no raw food, no cold drinks - even water. This is aimed at restoring balance to the new mother's body after childbirth. And although she's into the very last day, Wu Lili is struggling with those rules.

Ms. WU: (Through Translator) It's really the hardest thing to bear, the fact that you can't wash, that the food is so bland. But you really have to persist and it's very difficult.

LIM: Her feet, she says, are boiling, as she plods around in thick woolen socks and padded slippers. But she must guard against getting a chill; Chinese doctors warn that could lead to joint problems or illness later on.

Sitting the Month is deeply embedded in Chinese culture. It was even mentioned in the 2,000-year-old "Book of Changes," or "I-ching," according to Zhao Zixiang, her doctor of traditional Chinese medicine.

Dr. ZHAO ZIXIANG: (Through Translator) Chinese people are most concerned about balancing yin and yang in all things. If the yin and yang in your body are balanced, you won't get sick. If they're out of balance, it's easy to get sick.

(Soundbite of crying baby)

LIM: As little Momo wails, a nurse swoops in to take control, wheeling the baby off to another room. Wu Lili is Sitting the Month as only China's newly rich can. Instead of being at home, she went straight from hospital to a super-luxury confinement centre. She's paying around $500 a day. That buys peace of mind - 24-hour supervision from trained nurses, a nutritionist, doctors on call to diagnose every baby sniffle, and someone ensuring you follow the rules at all times. And not just you, but your extended family, too.

Ms. WU: (Through Translator) My mom thinks it's a pity that she can't come every day to cuddle my baby. But cuddling too much isn't good for the development of the baby's bones. If he's held too much, he might become too dependent. I pretty much only hold him when I nurse him.

LIM: For nursing mothers, diet is key. Their six meals a day are prepared off-site. Here, the cooks are singeing pigs' feet over a flame, ready to turn into a soup with peanuts. That, and a host of other special soups, are supposed to increase new mothers' milk supply.

Postpartum centers are popping up in cities across China. But the founder of this centre, Ren Weige says it's as high-end as they go.

Ms. REN WEIGE: (Through Translator) Nothing could be more luxurious than this. My caregivers are all trained nurses. From the software to the hardware, this is already the best that it can be.

(Soundbite of water)

LIM: That even means hand-washing new mothers, who aren't supposed to take a bath or shower for 30 days.

Ms. ZHANG XUEFU: (Chinese language spoken)

LIM: That's nice, says Zhang Xuefu. She's being wiped down by two nurses using washcloths steeped in Chinese medicine. This is only her third sponge bath in three weeks. This is one way the strictures of traditional confinement are being bent to the needs of modern women. And this new generation of Chinese moms - who've not got younger brothers or sisters - need help more than ever before, according to the center's pediatrician, Zhang Jianna.

Dr. ZHANG JIANNA (Pediatrician): (Through Translator) They're kids themselves. They don't really know how to look after kids. They're just happy that someone knows what to do.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in Chinese language)

LIM: A nurse is even teaching Wu Lili how to sing lullabies to little Momo.

(Soundbite of singing)

LIM: Though halfway through, the new mom gives up. It may be paid help, not grandmas or aunties showing the new mothers what to do. And maybe some of the stricter rules have been tweaked. But despite China's warp speed modernization, the age-old practice of Sitting the Month is still flourishing among its young.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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