Breastfeeding in China

3 Jan

This afternoon, while my little son was sleeping, I had the rare pleasure of taking a midday bath with my four-year-old daughter, Clara. It was nice to spend some cozy alone time with her, soaking in our beautiful juniper tub. At one point, she paddled over and asked if she could have a taste of my milk.

“You don’t nurse anymore, silly. You’re a big girl!” I laughed.

“I just want to taste it,” she pleaded, looking forlorn.

“You drank my milk for almost 3 years,” I reminded her.

“But, Mommy, I can’t remember!” I pulled her close to me and let her suckle.

“Yummy,” she smiled. “It’s sweet!”

Breastfeeding my babies has been, and continues to be, one of my very favorite parts of motherhood. The intimacy and tenderness of the nursing relationship is truly indescribable. How heavenly to gaze into the eyes of a nursing baby, so perfectly nourished and fulfilled! I have often thought to myself, as I cradled a gorgeous baby in my arms, that it is LOVE that makes a child grow healthy and strong, and the flow of sweet milk from mother’s breast is certainly one of the purest forms of love.

I was blessed to give birth to both my children at home and nurse them without delay, as instructed and encouraged by my parents and midwives. Such a fantastic rush of joy and relief it is to have a newborn infant placed upon one’s breast, cord still pulsing, skin wrinkled and red, deep-blue eyes quietly alert and blinking in the soft light, tiny mouth latched onto the nipple! It is a timeless, weightless moment, that first greeting between mother and child, a sweet and unforgettable celebration of the bond formed within. That precious bond, so crucial for the health and well-being of mother and child, is what is nurtured most intensively by the nursing relationship.

The industrialization and modernization of human societies has dramatically affected many women’s understanding and experience of childbirth. Here in China, as elsewhere in the industrialized world, urban women almost invariably give birth in a hospital setting, frequently by Cesarean section. The World Health Organization reports that rates of Cesarean sections performed in urban China may be as high as 63%. The report goes on to say:

Many Chinese couples now opt for delivery by caesarean section to avoid pain. Apart from the clinical indications for caesarean section – breech presentation, dystocia and suspected fetal compromise – there is growing evidence that many women choose delivery by caesarean section for personal reasons, particularly in profit-motivated institutional settings that may provide implicit or explicit encouragement for such interventions.[1]

Not surprisingly, just as more and more women opt for expensive and potentially dangerous medical interventions in lieu of natural childbirth, fewer and fewer are choosing to breastfeed their babies.

During my time here in China over the past six years, when I have always been either pregnant or nursing, I’ve chatted with numerous Chinese mothers and gleaned from them the following impressions. The general perception seems to be that breastfeeding is old-fashioned and inconvenient for the modern career woman. Infant formula or cow’s milk are the preferred substitutes for breast milk. The sexual objectification of the female body by the media also seems to have played a role, making Chinese women fearful of losing their youthful figures by nursing their babies. There is also the widespread belief among mothers that they have no milk. How many times have I heard Chinese women say, “Wo mei you nai.” (I have no milk.) While low milk production (and various other circumstances) can certainly be a challenge for a small percentage of women, this issue more than likely arises from a general lack of knowledge and support from family, doctors, and the culture at large. Several women have also expressed to me the mistaken idea that breast milk becomes un-nutritious after the first six months.

When my kids play in our apartment compound, our Chinese neighbors regularly admire them and tell me how strong and healthy they look. “What do you feed them?” they ask, assuming that it must be lots of meat (of which we eat none). “Breast milk!” I say proudly, gazing down at my young son’s glowing pink cheeks. This surprises them and often precipitates a conversation with the older generation of onlookers, many of whom survived the Great Chinese Famine (1958-1961). Invariably, they recall their own years of nursing babies and confirm the benefits of breastfeeding. Sadly, that information seems to be largely forgotten or ignored, lost in the mad rush for socio-economic “progress”.

China is certainly not alone in this arena. The World Health Organization states that:

Despite the recommendation that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months, less than 40% of infants less than this age are exclusively breastfed worldwide. The overwhelming majority of American babies are not exclusively breastfed for this period – in 2005 under 12% of babies were breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months, with over 60% of babies of 2 months of age being fed formula and approximately one in four breastfed infants having infant formula feeding within two days of birth.[2]

 Alas, breastfeeding seems to be just one of many terrible casualties of modernism and capitalistic greed. The complexity of this subject far exceeds the scope of a blog entry, for sure, but being that it is so close to my heart, I thought it worth sharing some thoughts. I wonder how long it will be before the breastfeeding promotion programs forged elsewhere in the world spread to China and begin to make a difference in the lives of women and children.

While Clara may have forgotten the sweet taste of my milk, I know that she will never forget the sweetness of my love. She is of that love—it is in her heart, her blood, her bones. And I feel sure that when her time comes, she will not hesitate to draw her baby to her breast and share her own milk, that most sublime nourishment for body and soul.

Heidi is an American married to a Tibetan, living in Chengdu, China. She has two young children, ages 4 and 1.


[1] WHO: Delivery settings and caesarean section rates in China

[2] Wikipedia: Infant Formula

12 Responses to “Breastfeeding in China”

  1. Pascalinap January 3, 2012 at 9:40 pm #

    I have sent your post to a couple of friends who just had their babies and are already being presssured into dropping breastfeeding.
    It’s a pity that women who choose to breastfeed for a long time have to face so much criticism, strange looks when breastfeeding outside and even remarks from strangers.
    But truth to be told, breasfeeding is a personnal choice and i can understand that some women don’t have the patience or the proper work environnement that will allow them to pump and save their milk in order to exclusively breastfeed.

  2. Heidi Nevin January 4, 2012 at 1:43 am #

    Hi and thanks for your comment. Yes, while all women’s choices need to be respected and honored, sometimes I feel such great sadness about all of this! Thank you for sharing my post–let’s hope all those who do choose to breastfeed find ample love and support from those around them.

  3. natasha devalia January 4, 2012 at 9:05 am #

    I’ve met many women in China who have told me they don’t / didn’t have milk. Before I had my own children, I thought it was normal then, that most women couldn’t produce their own breast milk, and I worried about it when I was pregnant. My problem was an over-supply actually.

    And I have also met many women in China who told me they had C-sections because a natural birth would be too painful. These two comments seem to go across the board among my Chinese friends, as though they are a part of a propaganda of some sort?

    I put a lot of value on the quality of the breastmilk itself. At the NICU in Hong Kong (Queen Mary Hospital) where my children spent a few weeks, the doctors and nurses insisted that I express/pump milk, and they never once undermined the value of the milk. To them, the digestion problems that both my babies had(as one example) would be much reduced with breastmilk.

    I was lucky that the young female gynaecologist at the public hospital in HK (where I went for an emergency delivery) who I had never met before, encouraged me to deliver naturally, as opposed to my own older, male, gynaecologist of a private clinic. – who had planned a C-section.

    I believe in breast feeding, and breast milk, but I was not able to do it myself as well as I wished. (I fed both my babies breastmilk until they were 8 months old, but mainly pumped and fed by bottle.) I suffered guilt from not sharing the same closeness as other mothers such as my own did with their babies, and feared that my bond with my children was weaker for it.

    In truth, our bond is deepening and growing over time, and now I realise that even though breastfeeding is natural and a wonderful expression on love, it is not always possible, and not the only way.

    Thanks for your post Heidi, and I hope more mums who can breast feed opt to do it. There were a lot of advertisements in the HK hospital promoting breastfeeding by the way!

    • Heidi Nevin January 4, 2012 at 1:07 pm #

      Hi Natasha, thanks so much for your thoughtful reply. You know, it was a really hard post to write…and I put off writing it for weeks as I mulled over the difficulty of presenting the subject of breastfeeding without hurting other mothers–it is such a sensitive topic for so many reasons. You are truly amazing to have managed to feed your twins breastmilk for 8 whole months–I know how very difficult (and painful!) pumping can be, especially bringing in your own milk with a pump when your babies are too small or weak to nurse. It’s fantastic that the Hong Kong team was so supportive. You know, I think no matter how great a job we do as moms, we end up suffering guilt over one thing or another…if it’s not one thing, it’s another. Motherhood is definitely not for the faint of heart!!! It’s like being raked over the coals each and every day. As relentlessly exhausting and filled with worry as it is beautiful and joy-filled. I agree that Chinese concepts about birth and nursing seem like propaganda–they all repeat the same thing almost word for word. There seems to be no such thing as “parenting styles”–everyone seems to have the same exact approach. Yikes. Hugs and kisses to you and your family.

  4. catplatt January 12, 2012 at 5:13 am #

    I read this post with great interest as it echoes my own experiences here in China and also in the USA. I believe that China is going through a phase regarding breastfeeding and natural birth similar to what happened in the USA and other western countries in the 1960s and 70s, when a medicalised approach to childbirth was considered modern and progressive. Gradually attitudes changed and the medical establishment began to promote breastfeeding once again, and the natural birth movement gained popularity (although childbirth is still way over-managed in my opinion). This has happened in Hong Kong, where I even ten years ago most working women were opting not to breastfeed, but now it seems the public hospitals are encouraging it, and I believe it will happen in China too. I know there are young Chinese mothers out there who represent the forefront of this change. Here is an example: a post by an American father, Sascha, whose Chinese wife had to fight to be allowed to breasfeed their children exclusively when they were born here, but stood by her rights and succeeded.

    • Heidi Nevin January 12, 2012 at 7:17 am #

      Thank you so much for your comment. I, too, am confident that this trend is on its way out, and Mother Nature will regain her place of honor in women’s lives. So good to read the story of Sascha’s wife succeeding in nursing her children. Gosh, just crazy to think she had to fight to be “allowed”. Grrrrr. I personally cannot imagine raising children without breastfeeding–just last night, my 19-mo-old son had a scary episode of croup, and it was nursing that kept him calm while we sat in a room full of steam and waited for his breathing to return to normal. He was panicked and wailing until I offered the breast. How do women who don’t breastfeed handle that kind of thing?
      Best wishes, Heidi

      • natasha devalia January 16, 2012 at 7:14 am #


        My ayi is from Yunnan. She just told me that most of the women she knows there breast ffed/ feed their babies, whereas here in Chengdu they don’t. She went on to tell me that she herself gave birth here and had no milk at all for her baby. She tried for two months and then stopped.

        I don’t know what it’s like with women in the rest of China.

        • Heidi Nevin January 16, 2012 at 12:36 pm #

          Poor thing, two months of trying and no milk. That sounds so hard. Yes, I was careful to specify “urban” China in my post, because many of the minority populations and rural people do still breastfeed, as far as I’ve heard. My ayi, who is my age, breastfed her son for a year, and my Tibetan sister-in-law nursed both her kids. The Tibetan nomads have traditionally nursed their babies for 3-4 years. Not sure how much that is changing, but no doubt the trends affecting urban China are affecting them a little bit too.

  5. Renuka Venkataraman February 3, 2012 at 1:57 am #

    Loved your post. As a mother of two I remember how I enjoyed breastfeeding my babies, unfortunately for me both my son (now 3) and my daughter (9 months) did not want my milk for long. We moved here in September of 2011 and my daughter who was 5 months old then decided she did not want to feed from me anymore. My son refused to breastfeed when I returned back to work after my maternity leave. But I enjoyed every minute of the little time I had the opportunity to do it. It was my exclusive time with them, I would gaze at their faces forever while they were in my arms.
    One little word of advice for all those women who think they would lose their bodies when breastfeeding, I looked my best while I was breastfeeding. I dropped way lower than my regular weight when I was feeding them.It is the most natural process to shed the excess weight that we as women put on while we are pregnant. I was always hungry and ate constantly while was breastfeeding and the weight would dramatically shed. I know formula is an easier route to take especially if you a working mom and you do not find time to pump and preserve your milk but the benefits of breastfeeding go much beyond the few minutes of hours you might save by formula feeding. Finally as a mother I was more worried and aware of how many ounces my kids would drink out of a bottle and how much formula I was wasting after every feed, with breastfeeding you go by pure instinct you feed them when they ask for it and in this case ignorance ( in terms of ounces) is sheer bliss.

    • Heidi Nevin February 4, 2012 at 12:36 pm #

      Hi Renuka, thank you so much for your comment. Yes, I do hear of children who self-wean early like that and the sadness that ensues for the mother. I’m glad you have such sweet memories! You’re right that breastfeeding can really help balance the postpartum mother’s weight. In fact, the weight loss can become a concern for a mother who continues to breastfeed for months and years if she isn’t careful about proper caloric intake and nutrition. I think this is an area of women’s health that is definitely neglected. The combination of lactating for an extended period and being chronically sleep-deprived can present a real health challenge for new moms. Believe me, I’m feelin’ it!


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