Confinement Nannies: What Are They and Do You Need One?

I grew up in Canada but now I’m an expat living in Hong Kong. I’ve been here for the better part of a decade now. I am also currently preparing for the arrival of my baby boy. Given this background, I like to think that I have the authority to make the following two generalisations:

  • Parental leave is very generous in Canada and it’s just okay in Hong Kong
  • Culture and tradition is somewhat lacking in Canada and it permeates every day life in Hong Kong
toronto-skyline-dusk

O Canada, our home and native land…

Please don’t be offended if you’re Canadian. Or if you’re from Hong Kong for that matter. And stick with me because I promise I’ll relate this back to confinement nannies soon.

Canada is a relatively young country. We celebrate our birthday on the anniversary of July 1, 1867 which is the day that Canada was effectively formed.  Canadian culture is melting pot culture. We welcome people from all walks of life and you’ll find people from all corners of the globe in a city like Toronto. Not long after they’ve immigrated though, everybody seems to adopt a “Canadian” way of life. Tim Horton’s double-doubles and 6am hockey practice become their new traditions.  This is part of the reason why Canada as a whole doesn’t have deep culture or traditions. It’s constantly evolving and changing.

Hong Kong’s been around for awhile…

Hong Kong and Cantonese culture, on the other hand, has been around for much longer. Traditions have been passed down for generations.  For example, Chinese medicine is based on more than 3,500 years of history. Cantonese culture dates back to 200 BC. This is a long time.

hong kong market birds eye view wide lense

So it’s no surprise that there are plenty of people in Hong Kong that are really into feng shui, herbal medicine, and yeet hay (that’s when your air gets hot after you’ve eaten too much fried food) etc. Their parents and their parent’s parents and their parent’s parent’s parents have been telling them that fried food causes canker sores since they were little kids. And to drink cool teas to become leurng if they’ve got too much yeet hay. Or to not put their bed underneath a low hanging ceiling lest it impede their progress in life. And to drink a gum mo cha when they feel a cold coming on. Today’s millennials don’t know why they follow these rules but we subconsciously do everyday because we’ve been told since we were kids. It’s just part of our culture and traditions. 

Maternity Leave – Canada vs. Hong Kong

As for maternity leave, it’s really amazing how Canada supports their new parents. In Ontario specifically, mothers get 17 weeks of pregnancy leave (e.g. before delivery) and up to 63 weeks of parental leave after delivery. Same goes for dad. That’s insane!  In Hong Kong the legal minimum for maternity leave is 14 weeks beginning 2-4 weeks before your expected due date. Paternity leave is a measly 5 days. And given the work culture in Hong Kong, you’ll be hard pressed to find a company that is willing to provide any more than the absolute minimum.

Clash of Cultures

If you’re still with me after that long winded introduction I hope it’s clear now why I found the concept of a confinement nanny (pui yuet in Cantonese) to be very odd. The culture and traditions hadn’t been ingrained in me and I always knew maternity leave was very generous in Canada.

But imagine for a second hiring a lady to live with your family after your wife gives birth in Canada. Her only job is to take care of mom for 1-3 months. She will cook traditional Chinese foods, soups, and medicines that have healing properties according to traditional Chinese teachings.  And take care of the newborn baby and housework so mom can rest. She will also scold mom if she does something that is unhealthy for herself and hinders her healing like turn on the air conditioning or drink cold water.

kids playing hockey on a pond in canada with mountains in background

This would NEVER happen in Canada.  First of all, in Hong Kong, after the first 3 months postpartum, a HK mom would already be getting ready to go back to work. A Canadian mom still has the option to take 49 more weeks of leave!  That’s 49 extra weeks to heal up.

And imagine if you told a Canadian woman not to shower or leave the house for a month. And to drink some special soup so that her body can heal better.  You’d be reported for witchcraft!  Canadians haven’t been brought up with all these traditions and would find them extremely odd.

But I’m no longer in Canada. I am Chinese and I live in Hong Kong now. Pui yuets are widely used here so I’d be doing my family a disservice if I didn’t at least look into it. And being the curious person that I am, I really wanted to dive deeper into the pui yuet concept.  Does it really make sense for today’s expecting millennial parents to have a pui yuet?  Should mom cho yuet or confine themselves for a month? Should I even have an opinion because none of this really has to do with dad? Let’s talk about that.

What is a confinement nanny and what do they do

At its very core, a pui yuet is necessary because a new mother must focus on recovery after child birth. Cooking, cleaning and even caring for the baby take second priority and should be handled by someone else.  A pui yuet specializes in taking care of these things for mom.  Let’s review some of the common tasks and responsibilities of a pui yuet.

Be your guide in traditional Chinese customs

Child birth can be traumatic for the body and involve lots of blood loss. According to Chinese medicine, this puts the body in an imbalanced state.  Mom is now more “cold” than “hot” and is more susceptible to falling ill. The pui yuet will be there to guide you in how to avoid being cold and making yourself more hot (haha)

They might advise you to not shower or wash your hair. Doing so and not drying yourself immediately and you’ll run the risk of catching a chill and getting sick. Or they might prevent you from sitting in front of a fan or air conditioner. Instead of showering, a pui yuet will prepare warm water that’s been boiled with ginger. Mom will use this to bathe herself.

Pui yuets also go through intensive training. Almost 6 weeks of classes, 8 hours a day. It’s no joke. With 3500 years of customs being passed from generation to generation, some things are bound to get lost in translation. It’s like a game of broken telephone. So it’s kind of cool to have an expert around like a pui yuet. She’s almost like an encyclopedia of Chinese culture.

books sitting on a shelf

However, you have to strike a balance. You should really examine if you’re hellbent on following traditions or if you could go either way. Some of the teachings are downright wacky, at least from my perspective. If you lean more towards being laissez-faire, then a pui yuet might get really annoying really fast. But on the other hand, it’s sad to see traditions die if more and more families choose practicality over history and sidestep the pui yuet.

Prepare traditional food and advise on what to avoid

“Cold” foods, both in temperature and in the traditional Chinese sense, should be avoided.  Things like ice cream, cold water, bananas, and watermelon should not be consumed.  Since your body is supposedly already in an imbalanced state, additional “cold” foods will just push you further out of balance. It’s the concept of yin and yang. What you will need to regain balance are traditional Chinese soups prepared by the pui yuet.

chinese medicine ingredients organized on a table

These healthy soups are chock full of nutrients so that mom can recuperate. Some say they even aid in the production of breast milk.  Pig’s trotters boiled in ginger and vinegar, for example, is often made by the pui yuet. This may not be appealing to everyone but there are many traditional recipes that a pui yuet can prepare depending on tastes. But no matter how nutritious a soup is, it’s useless if mom doesn’t want to eat it. It’s important to find a pui yuet that will listen to your preferences and prepare dishes accordingly. 

Enforce the Confinement

The English term “confinement nanny” comes from the belief that a new mom should not leave home for the first month after childbirth. In Cantonese it’s called cho yuet or to sit the month.  This relates again to the imbalance and “cold” state that mom’s body is in. Mom needs to rest because she’s more vulnerable to falling ill. Going outside exposes her to cold and germs that her body might not be able to fight at this point.

Nowadays, people rarely confine themselves for the full month.  It’s not very practical. A week might be more realistic as child birth really is an event that requires a bit of R&R.

black and white jail block with doors open

In fact, modern thinking actually encourages moms to get out of the house for some fresh air.  Getting out can help prevent the onset of post-partum depression since you won’t feel so isolated. You can interact with some people other than your baby and it might give your spirits a boost. It’s best to speak with your pui yuet to ensure you’re on the same page. Maybe even ask during the interview if you can arrange one. If you want her to be strict and enforce the traditional rules, then let her know. If you don’t want strict enforcement and she barricades you inside your apartment, you’re going to have a bad time. A new mom and newborn baby really don’t need this type of stress.

Help take care of the baby

New moms are probably very reluctant to have someone else care for their newborn.  They’ve put in a lot of work carrying the little guy for 9 months. Nobody would blame them for being a little possessive. Since healing is the mom’s number one priority at this point, having a pui yuet around to take care of night feedings can be incredibly helpful.  This allows mom to sleep for longer uninterrupted periods of time which will promote healing and recovery.

The pui yuet can also help with ancillary baby tasks since heavy lifting is strongly discouraged. Although holding a 7-9 lbs baby shouldn’t be physically taxing for most mothers but anything requiring more exertion should be avoided.  Lifting of car seats, moving of baby furniture etc. can all be handled by the pui yuet.

So where do I find a pui yuet and when do I need to book?

If you want to know about some of Hong Kong’s best things, it’s best to hear it from word of mouth. Or from this amazing blog. Confinement nannies are no different.  Some of the more popular confinement nannies do not need to advertise because they have a line up of expecting mothers vying for their services. Friends tells their friends who tell their mothers and daughters who work as an old school marketing network to build up a client base.

Your first and best option for finding a pui yuet would be to ask around.  Do you have any friends or colleagues that have recently given birth?  Check with them to see what pui yuet they used.  These pui yuets can be very popular though and you may need to book as soon as you know your due date.

If you’ve just arrived in Hong Kong and feel like a pui yuet would be right for you but you don’t have any friends, the government offers a pui yuet matching service that is free of charge.  You can find the website here at Employees Retraining Board (ERB) under Post-Natal Care Services.  ERB is a statutory body in Hong Kong and they offer free courses to women so they can re-enter the work force as confinement nannies. It’s very simple to create a job posting. Just specify your expected due date and duration of service required. You can also request a specific experience level for your confinement nanny.  I posted a job 4-5 months before our due date and I was matched with a pui yuet within 2-3 weeks.

Finally, you can use an agency service.  This is not something I have personally tried but it does provide a professional middleman that can act as an intermediary in case there are issues that need to be resolved. Some agents that I’ve heard of include E-Mother and The Nanny Experts

What if I want post-natal help but not a pui yuet? Are there other options?

Some people, like myself, find the food preparation side of a pui yuet very appealing. The dishes and soups are usually rich in nutrients and actually do promote healing. However, I honestly don’t care for the traditions as much and find a lot of them quite cumbersome. For someone like me, there are companies like Terreform Plus that provide packaged meals delivered to you daily. You can prepare these at home yourself or with the help of a live-in helper or family.

Speaking of family, if they’re around, they can be a great source of support and help. Obviously the degree which they help depends on their willingness and your relationship with them. However, every little bit counts. Whether they want to give you a few hour break each week by taking the baby off your hands or are willing to cook 3 meals a day for you. It’s best to just ask and see how much help you can expect.

Finally, a live-in helper can provide some of the very basic services that a pui yuet would provide.  Live-in helpers are very common in Hong Kong. They typically come from Indonesia or the Philippines and move into Hong Kong homes to help with childcare, cleaning, and cooking.  If you simply require someone to help with these tasks during the postpartum period and you don’t really believe in the other more traditional elements of a pui yuet, a live-in maid could be just fine. Combine this with a meal delivery service and it could be a millennial’s hack for a pui yuet!

arguing couple silhouette

Some final considerations when making your decision

  • Language could be an issue.  Pui yuets are typically local Hong Kong women that have limited English language ability.  I am Chinese and so is my wife, but expats may find it difficult to communicate with a pui yuet
  • As with any environment, if you’re in close quarters and in constant contact with someone, it can be a breeding ground for conflict. Personalities really make a difference so its imperative to do proper due diligence and ensure that you and your pui yuet are on the same page. I’ve heard horror stories of moms and pui yuets that just don’t get along and this just adds stress at a time when it’s really not needed.  They can also get into fights with your live-in helper which is something you probably don’t need to be thinking about.
  • Confinement nannies do not come cheap.  Depending on whether they live with you or just come for 40-50 hours a week, costs can range from HK$15,000 – HK$40,000 a month. If you’ve delivered in a private Hong Kong hospital and already stocked up on all the best gear, your wallet may have already taken a huge hit

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