Breast feeding rebels in China

Chengdu, China — A peaceful parental counter-movement is growing that is beginning to question the popular reliance in China on medically assisted births and infant formula, as well as the Tiger Mom ethos that puts children through the educational grinder.

They meet during chats online before slowly moving from the virtual world — often maintaining their online monikers — to form groups of friends who struggle against a tide of traditional thought, institutional stagnation and downright ignorance of how the female body works.

The power of these online groups was evident last month when the Wuhan Evening News published a story on February 9 under the title, “Young mother nurses 6-month baby into cerebral palsy” ([小心]一味追求母乳 妈妈把宝宝喂成“脑瘫”). Groups of mothers and breastfeeding advocates from Chengdu to Shanghai to Beijing took to the web to protest the article and to demand a retraction.

After two days of furious action on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo and other forums, including posts from officials within the National Ministry of Health, the newspaper redacted the story and published another one with interviews from breastfeeding advocates.

“Their new story wasn’t much better than the old one,” said Xiaowazi, in an interview at her home. The informal leader of a Chengdu mothers group, The Breastfeeding Mothers Union, Xiaowazi helped lead the protest. “Turns out the journalist had heard a rumor about a mother who had nursed a baby into cerebral palsy and then sent a few questions to a doctor. You really can’t trust the media at all.”

Chinese mothers have learned not to trust anything anymore, even themselves in many ways. Groups like these educate women about motherhood, facilitate purchases of foreign baby care products and above all provide a support network in a society that still favors caesarean sections and formula above natural birth and breast milk.

Chinese women are more likely to have caesarean births than any other nationality in the world (46% of births are c-section; Vietnam is second with 35%). Doctors and hospitals can make more money performing c-sections and they are much more predictable than natural births. Commonly, women undergo surgery, use the c-section as an excuse to not breastfeed and then hand the baby over to grandparents so they can continue living their lives.

But for many women, choosing breast milk over formula is a choice that influences every aspect of parenting.

“I don’t want my daughter going to kindergarten with children who grew up drinking formula instead of breast milk, because that is unnatural,” said a member of the Chengdu baby group named Weimima at a meeting.
“Parents who make the choice to use formula instead of breastfeed will make other parenting decisions that will not agree with my philosophy.”

These new moms, although still a small minority, have already made an impact on Chinese society.

The La Leche League is an international non profit group that promotes breastfeeding. Several La Leche groups exist across China and many other informal groups – unaffiliated with LLL – are currently restructuring themselves into social enterprises. Together, the LLL groups and the many informal mother groups form a web of support and information for local mothers. China raised the number of breastfeeding mothers from less than 15% to 27% in the last 15 years, partly through grassroots education and top-down government enforcement of WHO and UN recommendations. The international median is just under 30%.

On December 4 2011, a new regulation was put forth by the Ministry of Health for public review. The regulation would prohibit formula companies from marketing in hospitals to parents of children less than six months of age. This regulation is one of the draft laws that could be approved during the current “Two Meetings” of China’s National People’s Congress. But whether the bill passes or not, enforcement, especially in smaller cities and rural areas, will be difficult to track.

“We love the ban, we support the ban,” said Dr. Robert Scherpbier, Chief of Health, Nutrition & WES UNICEF China, in an email interview. “But we would like to see the ban extended to children of two years of age, not just six months.”

However, resources for breastfeeding mothers are still scarce in a society dominated by infant formula and caesarean births. Even with the scandals that rocked the infant formula industry in 2005 and 2008, most Chinese mothers still regard formula as the best option — especially foreign formula.

Meanwhile, infant formula companies are revving up for a bonanza in China. The market for formula is expected to skyrocket over the next five to ten years as all of the babies born in 2012 – the Year of the Dragon – enter the toddler years. The market, currently more than USD11 billion, is projected to reach USD20 billion by 2015.

Market leaders Mead Johnson and France’s Danone hold a bit more than 20% or the market, with domestic producers Hangzhou Beingmate and Inner Mongolia’s Yili grabbing up just under 20%. The rest of the market is split among a variety of producers — reflecting the myriad ways in which mothers get their hands on infant formula. Buying online is by far the most popular route, and — China’s version of Ebay — is the most familiar portal. More than 6,000 Taobao stores are online at any given moment, offering formula from Europe, New Zealand, the Americans and even Japan and Taiwan.

Taobao’s highest-rated seller — of any product — is Duoduoyun, which specializes in foreign baby clothes, domestic and foreign infant formula and foreign supplements. The online store claims to have sold more than 4 million products since 2004.

At the one-year anniversary of the Chengdu breastfeeding baby group’s founding, more than 200 people turned up at a park on the outskirts of the city and turned their children loose. It was a free-flowing atmosphere with children wrestling over toys and passing out, exhausted from play, in tents.

But even here, conversations seemed tense. Most revolved around what to do with the little ones when they hit kindergarten age, how to deal with family members who worry that breastmilk won’t provide enough for the babies and horror stories of state hospitals and schools.

Xiaowazi sat with her five-month old on one hip and spoke to one father about breastfeeding. He had come specifically to meet up with the group because he and his wife wanted to breastfeed their two-month old baby, but they had started with formula at the urging of older family members and doctors.

“People here are desperate for information and support,” she said. “Even if the information is readily available, people still want to talk to a real person, to someone who is dealing with the same issues.”

The man told of how the two of them felt alone, how they struggled against everyone and were called idiots and bad parents for it. When Xiaowazi told him that it was fully possible to replace formula with breast milk, he broke down and cried.

See also Danwei Q&A with Yanhong Wheeler, bestselling author of Chinese books about child rearing, fierce advocate of breast feeding, and the Beijing representative of La Leche League: Breast milk: more than 400 nutrients but no melamine (2008).

Links and sources
Weibo: Sharing of Wuhan “breastmilk causes cerebral palsy” story, reactions to story: 1, 2, 3
Wuhan Evening News: 一味追求“纯母乳” 年轻妈妈把半岁宝宝喂成“脑瘫 (Young mother nurses 6-month baby into cerebral palsy)
People’s Daily (English website): Baby milk powder to be pushed from view under new regulations
Global Times: 30 nursing mothers stage a feed-in to call for better public facilities

Author Sascha Matuszak is a German-American writer based out of China for the past 10 years.

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