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The year of the breastfeeding flash mob in China – a father’s account

flash mob

This has been the year of the flash mob in China, the breastfeeding flash mob to be exact. In May, August and September of this year, Chinese mothers bared their breasts in public to help galvanize a tiny yet growing movement that encourages natural births over Caesarian sections and breastfeeding over infant formula.

The first flash mob event took place on May 20th, China’s Breastfeeding Day, a Ministry of Health sponsored event that began in 1996. Although the Ministry has stepped back from efforts to support breastfeeding, groups of mothers took the initiative and staged nurse-ins in several cities across China, including Nanjing, Hangzhou, Wuhan and Chengdu and garnered domestic attention and, more importantly, street-level exposure.

“We saw a picture of a flash mob in Manchester in 2011 and that really inspired us,” said Zhang Yushi, the organizer behind Chengdu’s Murumamajia Breastfeeding Support Group. “They had more than 100 mothers breastfeeding in a public mall, in a cafe, and the whole point is to have more people witness breastfeeding and realize that it is a very normal thing.”

On average, just under half of the births in China are via caesarian — the most in the world by a large margin —and infant formula is far more prevalent than breastfeeding. Hospitals in China are notorious for promoting C-sections as well as formula, and most Chinese mothers have little or no access to information regarding the benefits of natural births and breastfeeding. But this trend is slowly shifting — especially among middle class mothers — due in large part to the efforts of small, grassroots support groups and their willingness to go to the streets with their message.

The Ministry of Health once actively promoted breastfeeding — often in cooperation with Unicef and WHO — but recently grassroots organizations have sprouted up to spread the word. The struggle to inform mothers often takes place not in the halls of government, but in the hospitals, where doctors and administrators are financially rewarded for promoting and selling infant formula.

Zhang Yushi, the leader of the Chengdu-based breastfeeding support group, also happens to be my wife, and it was during and after the birth of our first child that she started getting involved with breastfeeding and birthing issues. Just minutes after our son was born, nurses at Chengdu’s No. 9 hospital pressed us to feed him formula (see my account of the birth here). Not only were we castigated for refusing to force-feed our newborn baby formula, but when we tried to explain the biological facts concerning breast milk — specifically colostrum and its vital role in nourishing and protecting babies — we were scoffed at for being uninformed.

We saw many mothers and their families give in under the pressure and feed their newborn babies milk powder. It was an eye-opening experience for both of us.

Since then, Yushi has made breastfeeding and mother-care her cause, organizing events, training to become a doula, establishing communities, and doing constant outreach. She is also the main organizer behind the Chengdu group that participated in all the recent flash mobs.

The first week of August is World Breastfeeding Week, which has been organized by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action for the past 20 years. The breastfeeding flash mobs for that week were picked up by Shanghaiist and the Telegraph. Together with a radio program by the BBC, inspired in part by a Danwei article on breastfeeding last March (also by me) – the breastfeeding movement in China has now managed to break into the international media and join the international breastfeeding community.

Later this month, Ivy Makelin, the Beijing representative for La Leche League, an international organization that provides mother-to-mother support, information and encouragement for breastfeeding, will give a presentation on Lactation in Emerging Economies at Michael Odent’s Mid-Pacific Conference on Birth and Primal Health Research in Hawaii. The conference brings together international childbirth experts for two days of discussion and this is the first time a Chinese breastfeeding expert is attending the conference.

The most recent flash mob event was the global Quintessence Foundation’s Breastfeeding Challenge held on September 29th. In previous years, Ms. Makelin was China’s sole representative in the challenge. This year 118 mothers from Chengdu, Shanghai, Ningbo, Beijing, Kunming, and Xiamen took the challenge, making China the third most-supported event behind Canada (2,826 people) and Ireland (518). Chengdu had the most participants in China with 39; Shanghai was second with 23.

“We never met before, but we seemed like friends and sisters,” wrote Zheng Xiang of the Ningbo 37C Mother Group in a statement to the Quintessence Foundation. “We did not shy away when breastfeeding, since it was such a natural feeling to our babies and, at that moment, there were only two people in the world: mom and child.”

Breastfeeding proponents are making headway in society and helping to influence Chinese law — recent changes include an extension of maternity leave and a ban on marketing formula to infants up to 6 months of age – but they also face stiff opposition, not only from within hospitals, but across society as well.

“Disgusting,” wrote Xiaochengcheng Yukazhang (小撑撑yukazhang) in reply to a photo of breastfeeding mothers in Shanghai posted to Sina Weibo:

Don’t have a satisfying sex life, so you go to the streets and take your clothes off? Your child is already so old and yet you still take him out to lose face?

Supporters often go head to head with people like Xiaochengcheng Yukazhang in Weibo-based flame-wars that rarely end in one side convincing the other of anything. Most of the social and educational work is done in living rooms and kitchens, as mothers and grandparents debate what’s best for their children.

It is very common for families to discuss whether or not new mothers have enough milk to feed their baby, or the nutritious value of infant formula versus breast milk. Grandparents dote so fiercely upon their single grandchild that any perceived risk — such as insufficient milk — is enough to make them reach for the latest foreign formula brand. Doctors are revered by the older generation; if a doctor states that formula is good or that a mother may not have enough milk, grandparents take it as gospel. Bringing the old guard around is extremely important, because grandparents wield extraordinary influence in the home and often spend the majority of their time with the child.

Convincing an extended Chinese family that the newborn in their midst is best served by breast milk is a painstaking, laborious process. But I have seen grandparents burst out in tears of gratitude after watching their little granddaughter nurse comfortably and then fall into a peaceful sleep. They truly believed that their daughter is too weak to feed the baby, or the pain of blocked ducts or swollen nipples is not worth it, or that refusing to use the best foreign formula on the market is depriving the child of a proper head start in life. When they discover otherwise, it is often an emotional moment.

But opposition to breastfeeding lies not only in hospitals or among the older generation. The Sanlu baby formula scandal of 2008, although a boon for breastfeeding advocates, has also helped foreign producers jump into the world’s largest and most lucrative infant formula market. Mead & Johnson and Danone lead the pack, but dozens of other foreign producers are entering a market projected to be worth USD20 billion by 2015.

Most foreign brands and dairy producers are betting that Chinese confidence in their products will drive growth for years to come. Domestic brands are also eager to promote new partnerships – such as Beingmate’s deal with Ireland’s Kerry Group – because linking up with a foreign firm is the quickest and most failsafe way to wiggle out from underneath the shadow of poor quality and toxic ingredients that continues to plague the entire Chinese dairy and infant formula industry (see here for the latest outrage).

When New Zealand’s Biopure Health announced plans to open a flagship store in Chengdu’s Jinniu Wanda Plaza this coming December, Yushi was prompted to respond recently on Chengdu Murumamajia’s Weibo account:

Chinese children drink every brand of formula in the world, deserting mankind’s most essential form of nourishment, breast milk. Not only are we losing at the starting line, but we are supporting foreign economies as well … How many more people will spend money hurting their own children? I am saddened by their loss, furious at their passivity!

But the quality of infant formula is not the point. For mothers involved in the flash mobs this year, and in the many online groups that spill over into real life, breastfeeding is not only a nutritional and philosophical choice, but also part of a national effort to improve the lives of Chinese children by re-introducing humanity into the child rearing process.

Links and sources
Legal Mirror: 法制日报 5.26 《立法保障女性享有体面背奶空间》
iFeng: 上海多位母亲集体哺乳倡导母乳喂养
Danwei: Breast feeding rebels in China, Breast milk: more than 400 nutrients but no melamine, Breastfeeding police officer promoted, Southern Daily: 9 out of 10 new mothers don’t have enough breast milk