Life with a Newborn in Japan: Adopting Customs & Finding My Own Way

Life with a Newborn in Japan: Adopting Customs & Finding My Own Way

Categories: Breastfeeding Today

By RuthAnna Mather, Hokkaido, Japan

(Spanish version: La vida con un recién nacido en Japón: adoptando costumbres y encontrando mi propio camino)

In Japan, tradition has long been that women who gave birth were expected to be confined indoors with their babies for the first 100 days postpartum. Nowadays, however, mothers usually choose to stay indoors for just the first month. Similarly, it is customary for Japanese women to return to their mother’s home sometime during the last trimester, and then after giving birth at a hospital, to return to the mother’s home again for the first month postpartum. In this way, mothers can be cared for and receive baby care assistance. This is called 里帰り出産 (satogaeri shussan). Alternatively, sometimes a female family member will go stay with the new mother at her home—especially if help is needed with the care of older children.

I gave birth to all six of my children in Japan—the country where I was born and raised. Having lived in Japan all my life, I grew up seeing and hearing about Japanese customs relating to pregnancy, birth, the confinement month, breastfeeding and co-sleeping. However, my mother was born and raised in the USA, and she was not very familiar nor comfortable with traditional Japanese confinement customs. As a result of that upbringing, my thoughts and eventual choices became a blend of some of my mother’s USA customs as well as Japanese customs. I adopted only those customs that felt comfortable to me and that complemented my mothering instincts to attentively meet my children’s needs.

Child #1: Enjoying special care at my mother’s home (里帰り出産 — satogaeri shussan)

For the birth of my firstborn, two weeks prior to my due date I went to stay at my parents’ home. Their home was 90 kilometers north of the town where my husband and I lived at the time. I chose to do so because there were no birthing centers close to where I lived, and home birth was not an option due to restrictions set by the local health department. Traveling on slippery, snow-covered roads to reach the hospital once labor began might not be a safe nor a feasible option as roads are blocked when weather is bad.

My husband John came to visit when he could and once labor began, stayed with me during the delivery (a first for that hospital!). I remained in the hospital for six days as was customary. Since my husband came to see me every day, I was the envy of many of the other mothers on my hospital floor whose husbands did not or could not come as often. We stayed at my parents’ home for a few days and then headed back home with my mother who came to help me out for the first two weeks postpartum.

It was very helpful to have my mother taking care of meals, cleaning the house, washing and hanging up the laundry and my husband doing the shopping. It gave me plenty of time to rest and enjoy getting to know my little one. I also didn’t need to worry about frequent and/or long breastfeeding sessions as there was nothing requiring my attention other than the needs of my newborn.

Children #2-6: Forging my own path at my own home

With my other births, John and I decided that it wasn’t necessary for my mother to come and stay with us. He was prepared to take on the household chores, and I was very happy with this arrangement. Our older children and I did stay at my parents’ home though a couple of weeks prior to my due dates for the births in winter (four out of six of them occurred in the wintertime!) and for a couple days after leaving the hospital. As with our first, my husband came to join us when he could, for the labor and delivery, and my stay at the hospital with our newest addition to the family. He would bring the older children to visit us at the hospital once a day and then come again for quiet time to bond with our newborn. The older children and my parents enjoyed the extra time together, and I was happy they were having such a good time!

Responses to going outside cultural norms

On one occasion, a couple weeks after giving birth to our first child, the three of us went shopping together. I was stopped by an おばあちゃん(obaachan), which means “older woman”, and scolded for going out so soon after giving birth. I was then scolded once again by anotherおばあちゃんthe same day while shopping at the grocery store! Although this did not stop me from going out with the baby when the weather was nice, I will say I tended to look outside my door/window carefully first before venturing out, to see if any おばあちゃん were close by.

With my sixth child I remember one beautiful summer day, too nice to be staying indoors. My 2 week-old son and my daughters, 3 and 5 years old, all ventured out to a nearby park. Happy aboard a sling, my newborn son was contentedly nursing and sleeping the whole time. An おばあちゃん who happened to also be at the park spotted me, and looked inquisitively at the baby in my sling as if I had a strange looking bag on me (I was probably the first mother to use a sling in Wakkanai). She then proceeded to give me a scolding for going out too soon after birth!

Although I did not follow Japanese first-month postpartum confinement customs in the traditional sense, I do appreciate the rationale behind it—to honor the mother and newborn’s need for rest and bonding during that critical time, and to help establish the mother’s milk supply. Though some mothers—like myself—may choose to do a few light household chores, and find it nice to go outdoors once in a while for some fresh air, a walk, or a stroll with older siblings to either the park or a friend’s house. I also appreciate how Japanese mothers are not expected to do anything except care for their newborns during the first month.

RuthAnna Mather is mom to six breastfed children. She is a longtime La Leche League Leader and devoted member of Breastfeeding Today’s Editorial Review Board. RuthAnna and her busy family currently reside in Wakkanai, Hokkaido, Japan.

Baby RuthAnna on her mother’s back

RuthAnna at the hospital, holding her newborn daughter Sarah (fifth child), while the older children welcome their new sibling.