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Birth Around the Globe: Korea


By Jane S. Park


Sucking on ice chips during labor. Relying on a steady rotation of ice packs in your underwear to speed recovery after childbirth. Resuming your daily activities as soon as possible, which might include taking your little one outside for a stroll or hitting the gym for your first post-baby workout. In the United States, all of these activities are typical of the labor and postpartum experience. But among Koreans, every one of them is a major no-no.

From practicing home confinement to chowing down on seaweed soup at every meal for weeks, the post-pregnancy traditions in Korea—many of which are shared by other countries in East Asia—may seem extreme. However, they reflect a point of view that’s often overlooked in the West: Caring for a new mother’s health and well-being is believed to be just as critical as tending to a newborn’s needs. Here’s a look at what postpartum life is like in Korea.

Say No to Cold

Once a woman goes into labor, “Keep the body warm” becomes her most important mantra for the next couple of months. This means avoiding everything that is cold: iced drinks, chilled foods (like salads and raw veggies straight from the fridge) and cool air, whether it’s a biting winter breeze or blasts from an air conditioner in the summer. Koreans believe that exposing the body to cold can cause saan-hoo-poong, or post-delivery body ache and joint pain. So instead of nibbling on ice chips during labor, Korean women quench their thirst with sips of warm water. Maternity ward hospital rooms are heated to a comfortable temperature. Rather than applying ice packs after a vaginal birth, the area is treated with steam baths that are thought to facilitate healing and help the body expel lochia, the bloody discharge from the uterus after childbirth. Always wearing socks to keep feet toasty, both in the hospital and at home, is absolutely essential.

Stay Indoors

New mothers and their babies observe a period of home confinement known as saam-chil-il, which refers to the first 21 days after giving birth. Although it sounds like cruel captivity, think of it instead as a state of relaxed seclusion. During this time, women are expected to take it easy, get plenty of sleep and steer clear of any strenuous physical activities in order to give the loosened pelvic joints time to strengthen without risking strain. Visitors—with the exception of the woman’s mother, who will often stay in her daughter’s home to cook, clean and care for her—are prohibited in an effort to prevent contact with a source of possible infection. Then there’s the all-important mi-yeok-guk, or seaweed soup (pictured above), one of the hallmarks of the postpartum experience in Korea. The recovering mother eats a steaming bowl of the soup (find the recipe here), which is usually made with beef broth, three times a day, everyday. Rich in calcium, fiber and iron, seaweed soup is believed to help remedy post-delivery anemia, detoxify the blood, promote uterine contraction and hydrate to boost breast milk production. While recent studies have shown that excessive consumption of brown seaweed could result in high iodine levels in the blood and put breastfeeding babies at risk for thyroid dysfunction, these findings don’t apply to green seaweed, which contain less iodine and is the type commonly used in mi-yeok-guk.

Recover in Luxury

In affluent areas like the Gangnam District in Seoul, tradition is getting a modern twist, thanks to the soaring popularity of super-posh postpartum care centers called san-hu-jori-won. Instead of going home after being discharged from the hospital, women are spending their saam-chil-il stage in resort-like facilities that boast organic meals and snacks (seaweed soup is on the menu, of course), face and body spa treatments and one-on-one maternity classes. Nurses on staff provide 24/7 care for newborns, bringing them to their mothers for feedings. It’s no wonder that increasing numbers of well-heeled new moms from Japan, China and even the Middle East are choosing to recover in Seoul. As expected, such lavish postpartum pampering comes with a hefty price tag: Depending on where the center is located, a typical two-week stay can cost anywhere between $3,000 and $10,000.

Get the recipe for mi-yeok-guk, Korean seaweed soup, here.

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