Tag Archives: WHO

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.

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

[2] Wikipedia: Infant Formula