7 Pregnancy, Birth and Child Practices in China

With the approach of the Chinese New Year, it might be interesting to know how pregnancy and birth happen in China. As it turns out, there are a lot of differences between the practices and habits of mothers in China compared to what we do in the USA.

In this little article, we will describe 7 things mothers (and grandmothers) do in China during pregnancy and in the first few months after birth. Even though there are some significant differences, there are also a few similar practices.

As you may know, there was a strictly enforced one-child policy in China for many decades, starting in 1976. Recently, the government has changed that policy. Now families can have two children. Despite the policy change, old habits die hard and most families still have one child.

“One” is Not the Loneliest Number

Unless you see it for yourself, it is hard to appreciate the complete and utter focus the Chinese family has on that one child. That focus comes from all members of the extended family. In China, there is, at least, one set of grandparents actually living in the house with the husband, wife, and baby.

The grandparents are completely devoted to the baby. It is, in fact, the grandparents that usually walk the child to school every day when they get to that age. And it is the grandparents that wait outside the school at the end of the school day.

Starting at around 3:15, grandparents begin to show up at the front gate of schools all over the country. By four o’clock when school is let out, there are dozens of grandparents, maybe as many as a hundred, standing outside. Not talking to each other or moving about; just standing…looking….staring at the gate…waiting. As soon as the gate opens, it can be a bit of a push and shove contest to get through and onward to the classrooms. There can be a lot of jostling. Why the school does not open one of the other five gates or widen the existing gate, or ask for a line to be formed, is a bit of a mystery.

That is just one example. Here are seven other interesting practices in China.

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7 “Don’t Lose at the Starting Line”

There is a saying in Mandarin Chinese that goes不要让孩子输在起跑线上 (you can hear the phrase spoken here, click the X icon). The English translation takes the form “don’t let the children lose at the starting line.” The Chinese are firm believers that life is a competition. Not all will succeed and even though China is considered a collectivist society, the Chinese people are also very realistic. Add that to the fact that a less economically developed country will inherently have fewer opportunities for babies when they turn into adults, and this proverb’s significance becomes truly compounded.

Even though the Chinese people are well-known for their long-term perspective, often called “masters of the long game,” they see the importance of starting early. Those of us in Western cultures are a bit focused on the here-and-now and sometimes don’t appreciate the value of always having the distant future in the back of your mind. This is the Chinese way. Every decision, every moment is with the distant future in mind now.

That kind of balanced perspective, considering the future in the moment you are in, should be admired and is one reason why getting into preschools and kindergartens in China can be extremely difficult. Not only are there not enough, but the parents are very demanding about quality and will often switch kindergartens if displeased for nearly any reason at all.

6 Water Submersion Classes

One thing moms and dads would surely notice if visiting China is the unusual business of water submersion classes. Swimming pools are not so common in China and even today most families live in homes without bathtubs. Although parents in the U.S. will often enroll in baby swimming classes, the practice takes on a different form in China.

For example, instead of being held in a swimming pool, the classes are held in individual shallow tubs made just for the baby. The room will have a series of tubs built-in along a countertop. The tubs are just shallow enough so that the baby can float upright. They wear floats around their necks, with their heads above the water, but their feet are still not able to touch the bottom.

Also, instead of mom or dad handling their baby, it is a trained assistant that does the handling. First, the baby gets a quick massage. Massages in China are “not soft” and that goes for the baby massages as well. Surprisingly, most babies seem to endure this treatment far better than many adults would.

After the massage, the baby is placed in the tub for 15 minutes, where time alternates between moving freely in the water, to the assistant engaging the baby in specific movements and activities.

The only odd thing about this practice is that a lot of businesses will place the counter on a glass wall that also faces the very busy sidewalk outside. People passing by will often stop to watch. Everyone loves babies.

5 Womb Headphones

Yes, that is right. In China, it is not uncommon for parents to buy a set of specially designed headphones just for placement around the womb. Talk about starting early!

Although this might seem a bit odd, believe it or not, there is some hard science to add a little validity to this practice. As research has clearly demonstrated now for many years, babies in the womb can discern their mother’s voice from that of a stranger. There is something going on in there. Whether that something can result in a baby learning how to do algebra while in the third trimester has yet to be tested.

All this reminds me of one of the first scenes in the film “Superman.” After Krypton has exploded and the future Superman is zooming through space in a Tylenol-shaped capsule, he is being taught high-science by holograms.

If it is true that the unborn baby can learn while in the womb and become really smart, there’s going to be a lot of Chinese geniuses in the world real soon.

Believe it or not, it looks like this type of headphone has come to America as well.

4 Soothe the Crying Baby

Every mom and dad wants to know what to do with a crying baby that won’t fall asleep. There are two sides on this issue and they both make good points. On the one hand, some say you should let the baby cry itself to sleep or learn how to calm itself enough to sleep on its own. On the other hand, some make the point that the under-developed nervous system of the baby needs help, so the crying baby should be picked-up and swayed to sleep in mom’s arms.

What do the Chinese do? As it turns out, there is a difference between what parents say they know is right and what they actually do. In my informal survey of various moms while in China for 7 years, each and every mom said the same thing. They believe that they should let the baby learn to sleep for itself, but….

Most Chinese moms just cannot bear to hear the sound of their baby in distress. It is too painful and they just cannot take it. Those are the words directly from the moms themselves. And so the answer to the question of where do Chinese parents fall on this matter, is that they fall squarely in the middle. 

3 Watch What You Eat, Say, and Feel

Each of these three is a little different from each other. “Watch what you eat” not only refers to basic nutrition but also concerns about how food will affect the personality of the unborn baby. For example, if the pregnant mom eats food that is uncut or hastily prepared, the personality of the child will be careless and unfocused. For this reason, grandmothers will take great care when preparing food and pay extra attention to how everything is cleaned and cut.

In a similar vein, many Chinese believe that an expecting mom should be careful not to speak afoul of others or make negative comments in general. It is believed that if the mother makes disparaging remarks about another person, then the child will actually grow up to have those same characteristics.

Likewise, moms are advised to just avoid feeling anything negative at all. Any unpleasant thinking or stressful events should be avoided. Moms are encouraged to relax and have calm thoughts as much as possible. Many moms will spend time every day gazing at pleasing pictures in books, listen to soft music, and even browse photos of really cute babies

2 No Bathing for You

For at least a month after birth, the mother should not bathe, and keep very warm. If the grandmother of the house has her way, and she will, our new mom will lay on the couch wrapped in 1-3 blankets. Extra attention will be paid to the extremities such as the feet, hands, and head.

The feet will be covered in two pairs of socks and wrapped in a blanket. The hands will be mostly inside the blanket, and the head will be kept shielded from any cold drafts. All windows in the home will be closed and the mom will not be allowed to move about or exit the house at any time. The entire list of strict rules is extensive.

1 Maternity Leave for You

Although this might not really be the biggest difference between practices in China and the U.S., it is quite significant. Generally speaking, maternity leave for mothers in China is, at least, 3-months at full salary. In some cities like Beijing and Shanghai, fathers can also get a little time off after the birth, from 3-15 days. China is a big country and there is a lot of variation among industries and cities, but this is pretty much the minimum policy.

In addition to maternity leave, approximately 80-90 percent of hospital expenses are covered by either the government or company insurance. Typically speaking, that bill is very, very small compared to the U.S. For example, a natural birth and a 3-5 day stay in a hospital in China, with no complications, will run from $ 5,000-7,000 CNY. That’s right around $ 1,000 USD.

So there you have it: seven pregnancy, birth, and child practices in China. Some are different, some the same, but all are interesting.

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