If you are only going to have a single child, as most Chinese couples do, then it is axiomatic that you want the very, very best for your one ewe lamb – and not only you, but your parents and in-laws want the same. This is one of the reasons behind the crazy situation where smugglers are bringing tins of foreign baby formula into China and selling it to anxious mums and dads (as though it were heroin or cocaine) for ever-increasing prices.
To understand why this is happening you have to know something about Chinese food scandals (and the hysteria they unleash) and about the way the growing Chinese middle class are desperate to be ‘modern’, ‘western’ etc.
I have talked to lots of women – new mums, pregnant women, newly weds etc, and to two women who are eminent obstetrician/gynaecologists here in Beijing, to get answers to some of my questions. What I have discovered, anecdotal though it may be, is this:
Young, educated, middle-class women believe that breast-feeding will make their boobs saggy (myth). They have listened to the prolific advertising for baby formula put out by manufacturers and buy into the belief that baby formula is better for babies than breast milk.
In 2008 there was a massive scandal about a few brands of Chinese manufactured baby formula. After thousands of babies became ill with serious kidney problems, and six babies died, it was discovered that these particular brands had been made from milk which had been adulterated with melamine. The bottom dropped out of the Chinese baby formula market overnight.
New legislation and rigorous testing was set in place, and all baby milk formula sold here now passes the new regulations. However public confidence in Chinese baby milk has not recovered, partly because the western manufacturers subtly play on parental fears, and because clever self-publicists such as Ai Wei Wei and others have used the scandal of four years ago to have a dig at the government, thus prolonging public anxiety.
Because of the scandal, western baby formulas were what every family wanted for their babies.
The manufacturers – such as Nestle, Danone, and SMA – amongst others – seized on the situation with glee. They have ramped up their advertising, handing out free samples in hospitals and clinics up and down the land. Some of their advertising gives serious pause for thought.
According to Buy Buy China, the prices of western baby formula are marked up to four times their level in the USA or Europe; this means that a single can of western baby formula costs between 200 -400 RMB ( UK £20-40) a humongous amount of money. Family members who are abroad have been roped in to buy cans and bring them back into China – some have been going from supermarket to supermarket buying up all the available formula and filling their suitcases with it. Sharp operators, keen to make money, have been quick off the mark doing the same thing.
Now the Hong Kong government has made it illegal for anyone to buy more than two cans of formula at any one time. Some UK shops are doing the same. Hysteria reigns supreme.
In all this brouhaha one thing seems to have been overlooked. Breast is best. All new mothers come equipped with two breasts which produce milk.
In the west, the middle and upper classes would not dream of feeding their newborns with formula, they know it is better for a baby (and a mother) if it is breastfed for at least the first few months of life. [Needless to say, there are some women who are unable to breast-feed for one reason or another and for them formula is a godsend.] On the whole it is the lower socio-economic group mothers who do not breast feed – the exact opposite of what is happening here in China. Those Chinese women who buck the trend and decide they will breast-feed are often ignorant about the value of colostreum, the ‘early’ milk which is produced by the human breast before the real milk kicks in,and which contains so many anti-bodies vital to the long-term health of the new-born infant. In those first two or three days the infant is usually fed with formula whilst the colostreum is discarded, and the baby has grown accustomed to bottle feeding,
In China the ignorance about the advantages of breast-feeding is overwhelming. Breast feeding is not discussed prior to the infant’s birth, there are few breast-feeding councellors, nurses and other hospital staff do not encourage it. Because of its long history of food shortages, many Chinese believe a fat baby is a healthier baby. At Chinese New Year, cards depicting fat babies are routinely sent to friends and acquaintances as a chubby infant symbolises a good year ahead. Many grandmothers -who are all important in this situation – believe that baby formula is better because they can feed the infant themselves, and give him/her extra if needed and the baby will be fatter and healthier as a result.
What China needs is the National Childbirth Trust or the equivalent thereof.