Korean Post-partum Traditions

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I think I’ve been a bit of an arrogant asshole. My initial feelings of being the only person who knew how to take care of a baby conditioned me to believe that everything Koreans were saying were silly superstitions.

I have since changed the word superstition to tradition.

Especially regarding the recovering mother, if these traditions are important to her then they should be honored. Even if they are placebos, the relieve a Korean mother’s stress and aid in recovery. I have decided to only step in an contradict if I feel a practice would do more harm than good or if they directly conflict with my belief systems–as in, no one’s taking away Jian’s binky.

The new helper ajumma is here right now, and I’m hearing EJ laugh for the first time since giving birth. I haven’t talked to her yet about how she feels about this one, but she seems to know what to do better than the other one. She immediately heated a pad and gave EJ a proper breast massage. I assume it was proper because EJ was howling in the type of pain people get when going through Thai massages. She now coaching her on breastfeeding, and she’s showing techniques that I saw on You Tube how-to videos. So, so far, so good.

Here’s where I could use some help, and I’d like to make this post an ongoing conversation and a resource for other fathers with Korean wives. I’ve looked on the internet, and there’s not much out there that’s definitive, so let’s collect what we know into one place.

There’s a frequently quoted article by Yeoun Soo Kim-Godwin, Ph. D., MPH, RN, about non-Western beliefs and traditions about post-partum care (PDF here). It’s a good starting point, especially when she talks about her personal experiences giving birth in the U.S.

This is a concept I believe we should adopt as Americans. It’s not American bashing, which I get accused of sometimes for pointing out areas where we can improve. What I think is one of America’s strengths is its ability to adapt and improve itself based on the influences of its diverse cultures. And this is something that I think new mothers would love to become the norm.

Compared to a lot of South American and Eastern cultures, Americans put way more emphasis on the baby than on the recovering mother after childbirth. Where these cultures stress that a mother take up to a month to recover, American culture believes that a new mother can be “up-and-at-em” within a week–back to driving, carrying groceries and doing regular tasks that even modern science has discouraged.

In Korea, there are 21 days, samil-il, where a mother’s job is to just eat and rest. Her body is weak and broken. If she doesn’t recover fully she can have chronic issues in the future. Whether or not you believe this, it is the tradition. And it does make sense.

What I want to do here is collect the Korean traditional post-partum beliefs. I don’t want to judge them and label them as to how practical I think they are. But I will categorize them in whether they are current beliefs or have fallen out of favor in modern Korean society or are just questionable sources.

Current Modern Korean Traditions

  • 21-42 days of recovery for the mother
  • Eating Miyeok-guk (Seaweed Soup) at least three times a day
    • Belief: it cleans the blood and contracts the uterus
    • Considering the number of slim in-shape young mothers I have seen in Korea, who knows if this might actually have some truth to it?
  • Don’t eat hard or crunchy foods
    • Medical science shows that new mothers’ gums are tender after birth, so there is some truth to this
  • Mothers should stay warm
    • This is an old humors belief in hot and cold common in east Asia and other cultures. The blood is hot, and mothers lose this in childbirth, so they must always be kept excessively warm to recover this lost humor.
    • This includes not drinking cold liquids. They must be hot or at room temperature. And no ice cream!
    • Avoid cold drafts. The belief is that a woman’s bones are loose, and a draft can enter the joints and cause rheumatism or arthritis in old age.
    • Always wear socks and blankets
  • Mothers have a special caretaker
    • This is either an elder female in the family, a person hired to help or some time in a post-partum clinic, known as a sanhujoriwon
  • Mothers’ primary jobs are to eat and rest
    • No house chores
    • No driving
    • Don’t leave the house
    • This is another one that has some backing in medical studies
  • Proper breast massages
    • I don’t think this is strictly a Korean belief
    • Hot pads and hot towels on the breasts also help–and are also not strictly Korean practices

Outdated or Questionable Korean Traditions

  • People other than the parents can’t see the newborn for 100 days.
    • Korea used to have a high infant mortality rate, so babies were kept secret from the public until they reached 100 days old and had better survival chances. That’s the basis for the baekil 100-day ceremony.
  • Mothers should not take showers or wash their hair
    • It’s believed that this will make them cold, but this is starting to fall out of favor
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21 thoughts on “Korean Post-partum Traditions”

  1. Good post and PDF. We had our first baby in the States and I was aware of many of these practices. My wife didn’t choose to follow most, and hated the miukguk right away, but I tried to respect as many of the traditions as I could before she waved them off. The birth in Korea is a different story. The pull of tradition seems to be stronger. We’ll see what happens in the coming weeks, though she has already nixed miyukguk 🙂

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  2. We’ve had one baby in the States and one baby here in Seoul. The breast massage bit is probably the same; my wife couldn’t produce milk, but the near-militant attitude of the US nurses putting pressure on her to breastfeed despite not being physically capable was ridiculous. It was really upsetting to both of us, honestly. Anyway, here they were much cooler about having to bottle feed. Here we went to an OBGYN with a sanhujoriwon in the upstairs floors and a pediatrician on the first floor. They took good care of my wife and my daughter and weren’t pushy about any traditional stuff (her relatives were also pretty relaxed). They did give her the miyeokguk 3x daily and the room was a little too warm (mid-May but pretty much no ventilation in the place with the tiny tiny windows). Overall we got the same level of care, but much more low key. One thing though- God forbid there should have been any complications with our second baby; the facilities at the place here in Seoul were nowhere near equipped to handle anything more unusual than a c-section.

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  3. My wife is due in mid March and we’re having here in the states. Regardless, the collection of traditions you listed here totally shocked me and has set me up for some healthy preparations and important conversations that needed to happen. Thank you so much for posting this!

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  4. I’ve heard that miyeok-guk is also rich in folic acid – the no. 1 vitamin in pretty much all prenatal vitamins, said to reduce the risk of spinal chord defects while the baby is still in utero. Don’t Korean women generally eat this soup during pregnancies, too?nnAs for the breast massages, I could see that they may help with milk production, as well as reduce the risk of inflammation/mastitis, etc.nnI especially love the idea that women have a special caretaker after the birth. This belief is starting to (re)gain some popular currency in the West in the form of doulas, but it had largely fallen out of fashion for many decades. nnMany congrats on the new addition to your family, and another congrats as well, because you’ve made it to my list of “Hanguk blogs I’ve deemed worthy” over at http://kill4kalbi.blogspot.com/

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  5. Joe, my wife is Korean. We had both babies in the US. I got filled in on all the traditions by her family and our friends. My Mother-in-law lived with us for a month or so after each baby. My wife loves Miyeok-guk and as soon the first one was born she had some. Miyeok-guk is rich in iodine. After the second baby my wife ate so much Miyeok-guk that she had problems with her thyroid.

    The hot house I did have a problem with. Keep it warm no problem but so hot I start to sweat as soon as I walk in no way.

    One condition you should read up on is Jaundice. It is quite common amound white / asian mixed race babies. Both of mine had it. Catch it early give lots of sunlite and the baby will be ok. Yes lots of sunlight but because of the no draft thing all of the curtains get closed…..

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  6. Zen, I do agree with all the points u have mentioned here of Korean tradition, I think they are almost similar more or less, in all Asian countries.
    In India we do avoid public contact to babies for first 40 days, just to save baby from infection. Mother should rest for 40 days, no work, no cold shower.
    Baby and mom shall go under massage by trained woman for atleast 40 days.
    Mom is given special soup made of herbs and spices which helps body to regain strenth.
    She should not avoid hard and crunchy food as she might develop constipation also, she should take light food only as she wont be working.
    All cultures have some traditions depending on their living & working style so they all are practical and not wrong.

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    • Very timely that you wrote because I recently suggested making a curry, and EJ said that mothers can’t eat curry. I replied, “Well what do mothers in India do?”

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      • Zen, mom can eat curries but should take care not to use too much of chilley powder as it generates acid in stomach. She can avoid such food for first 1-2 week and then continue as she need some taste in food lol 😀 (she deserves too)

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  7. Congratulations to you and EJ! Baby is adorable. I’ve been reading for years and have never commented. I am so glad you’re posting here regularly again.
    I’m a gyopo and have lived in the US for just about all my life. My mom still made me follow most of those traditions, with the exception of not having a helper ajumma and not doing breast massages. I had three kids and had miyuk gook three times a day for weeks after the baby was born. My mom told me it would help with the milk production and it must have worked because I had tons. The one side effect of having so much miyuk gook was that it was really easy to go to the bathroom (BM) which is totally important because your down there is not quite right and having to strain to go to the bathroom totally painful.

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  8. I had a c-section and was released from the hospital on day 3. Was at the movies with baby on day 5. Took it easy, but still was able to cook and take care of baby without a helper. I think most of these points are tradition in Korea based upon the limited resources/care they had available years ago. Unless you have a health issue, none of those things are necessary. Some women also enjoy playing the weak victim role. Although it’s nice being pampered, much depends upon the woman. Having been a competitive athlete, I do think this plays a role in how well you deal with stress, having a baby etc. Having lived in Korea, I did also notice that women playing the weak, helpless role was and still is culturally accepted and encouraged. But things are beginning to change and a lot more Korean woman are falling out of tradition. However, their traditions should be accepted. In the end, it’s up to the woman and no one else.

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  9. I had my son here in Korea in 2008. My husband is Korean but not very traditional. That being said, we did find a lot of merit in a few things you mentioned:
    1. Miyeok-guk, 3 times a day! I had “liquid gold” breast milk as my sister put it. Strong supply, and it remained a thick golden yellow for 4 months until I went to Canada and stopped eating the soup everyday. Usually the milk changes to a thinner milky blue before 4mths.

    2. Doumi/helper ajumma! My MIL paid for her to come for 2 weeks, she has been with us 2.5 years now and will be with us for #2 due in April. She cooked, cleaned, gave breast massages, and supported me after my C-section so well! She is now “halmoni” to our son and we cannot be without her. I credit my good recovery to her excellent cooking and care.

    3. Breast massage! I had a hard time in the beginning, bad latch on my son’s part. But thankfully the doumi helped and gave me painful massages and hot packs to get the milk flowing so I was able to feed successfully for 13 months. So many other foreign mothers I know here quickly gave up breastfeeding and none of them had the support I did from the doumi. The breast massages rally helped get things flowing, clearing painful blockages and encouraging good milk production I thought.

    Thank you for this excellent post and information, I’m going to be sharing it with the Expat Parent’s site!

    Reply
  10. I don’t think you should call all those traditions “placebos.” Calling it a placebo implies to me that you don’t really believe they work or has any effects. Trust me, a lot of them are done like that for a specific reason. the baby should avoid meeting visitors to prevent likely chances of having infection (important for especially babies not getting breastfed because they don’t get as much antibodies from their mothers to ward off infection), and miyeokguk is a very nutritious at that too (seaweed has a lot of iodine and the broth itself is full of good nutrients).

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