The Chinese tradition for new mums that can now cost $37,000 a month

A postpartum nanny feeds Li Rui’s baby.
A postpartum nanny feeds Li Rui’s baby. Photo: Adam Dean for The New York Times

Wearing pyjamas and furry purple slippers, Li Rui relaxed on a couch in a plush suite where she had spent the last month without ever going outside after the birth of her son.

For more than AU$1250 a day, a personal nanny had taught her breastfeeding techniques. A chef had prepared six meals a day, intended to restore her physical constitution. And a moxibustion practitioner had wafted smoking sticks of mugwort over her body, part of the Chinese therapy sessions to help prevent disease.

Such opulent rest time is becoming the gold standard in postpartum recovery, inspired by a Chinese confinement custom known as "sitting the month", when new mothers must stay indoors to restore their energy.

Ms Li looks on as nurses bathe her baby at Red Wall Maternity Care Center.
Ms Li looks on as nurses bathe her baby at Red Wall Maternity Care Center. Photo: Adam Dean for The New York Times

For centuries, the confinement practice was done strictly at home under the stern glare of grandmothers and aunts who banned bathing, fresh air and certain foods. But these days, confinement has been rebranded, remodeled and outsourced into a huge state-certified industry of specially trained nannies and maternity-care centres that combine tradition with pampered medical expertise.

The rapidly growing business is catering to the swelling class of affluent Chinese women, who, like millions of new mothers across the country every year, continue to follow the practice prescribed by their ancestors. But decades of disposable income, busy careers and the rise of social media have loosened traditional attitudes, paving the way for an elite level of confinement care that is as much about status as recuperation.

"I haven't been bored for a second," Li, 31, said of her 29 days indoors, as her nanny draped a towel over her neck to ward off the air-conditioned chill. Li paid AU$37,590 for her month-long confinement at Red Wall Maternity Care Center. "Without this type of specialised care, I would never have been able to recuperate."

In major cities, wealthy families have access to a range of high-end services with spa-like features and fancy amenities. The number of maternity residences reached 700 in 2013 and generated an estimated AU$673 million in revenue, according to state media.

"Mothers don't want to do confinement the primitive way anymore," said Chen Chen, the manager at the Red Wall maternity center in Beijing. The center charges AU$15,000 to $37,590 for a month-long stay, depending on the services.

Companies are also appealing to more middle-class consumers, with a menu of a la carte options for at-home confinements. Red Wall charges up to AU$4176 a month for a special postpartum nanny, depending on whether she has obtained certificates in mother and baby care, lactation assistance and facial treatments.

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Changing societal norms have prompted a broader rethinking of the confinement tradition, with some Chinese mothers rejecting the practice entirely.

Wu Fei, 38, a musician from Beijing who gave birth to her second child last year, decided against confinement, describing it as a superstitious legacy of centuries past when childbirth was fraught with mortal peril. Horrified by the thought of spending a month unwashed and unable to go outside, Wu ate whatever she wanted, regularly took her children to a nearby Beijing park and returned to her yoga classes shortly after giving birth.

The tradition has also come under public scrutiny.

During a heat wave in September in Shanghai, a woman who was undergoing confinement at home died from heatstroke after bundling herself in blankets and refusing to turn on the air conditioning, the state media reported. "The woman deliberately trapped herself in extreme temperatures in the scorching summer heat to obey the advice of her elders," said an article by the state-owned China News Service, which reported that another new mother died in February during confinement "because she rejected physical exercise".

The practice, though, is still deeply ingrained. Cue the national shock in China in May when Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, emerged mere hours after giving birth to pose for the paparazzi with her newborn daughter. "Doesn't Duchess Kate do confinement?" asked a user on the Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo.

Confinement adherents warn of health problems later in life, like arthritis, that may result from forgoing the custom. Much of the allure of expensive maternity residences is the promise of round-the-clock care by an entourage of trained experts in a pampered setting.

At the higher end of the confinement industry are temporary luxury abodes like Red Wall and the Blessed Month Pavilion maternity residence in central Beijing.

Blessed Month, a gated, 75-room complex, includes a yoga studio, a gym, crafting workshops and a catered dining hall.

"Many celebrities come here," said Wei Hua, the marketing manager at Blessed Month, showing off a room filled with bassinets, each monitored by an overhead video camera that beams the live images to a screen in the mother's room.

Within, uniformed nurses gave acupressure massages to their tiny charges, while downstairs, a group of mothers, dressed in matching white robes and pink slippers, learned how to make artisanal soap.

Li Xipu, 33, a television news reporter, enjoyed her AU$40,000 VIP confinement so much that after her 28-day stay was up, she extended it.

"It's totally worth it," she said on her 40th day indoors, just after leaving a PowerPoint seminar on breastfeeding led by staff in white lab coats.