The ins and outs of birth away from home
So you’re new in town, and have just found out you’re pregnant? Wait, no, that was me last year. I arrived in Beijing with three kids in tow and no plans for a fourth. When I noticed that familiar nauseous feeling, I wondered: Where in the heck could I get a pregnancy test? Soon, I had joined that not-so-elite group of foreigners who get to experience the ups and downs of pregnancy, delivery and all things post-partum in Beijing.
In the Beginning
When you’re pregnant, you can never have too much information. Unfortunately, most moms agree that they aren’t able to find pregnancy books here. If it’s your first pregnancy, borrow books from friends, buy books online, or subscribe to a site like BabyCenter.com, which sends you weekly updates on your pregnancy.
While you’re gathering information, your doctors will begin gathering their own information, through a seemingly never-ending series of tests, including blood work, urinalysis and ultrasound. “We follow what the Australian, English and American colleges recommend for screening tests,” says Warren Brooks, an obstetrician with Beijing United Family Hospital, or BJU. “We occasionally do different tests according to where the patient is from. For example, France and England have different requirements, so someone from France might want a different screening test than someone from England, and we can do that.”
Once you’re convinced that the baby is healthy, you’ll likely turn your attention to another important topic: What to wear for the next few months? The biggest complaint of moms with healthy pregnancies seems to be the dearth of maternity clothes in the city. Says Dibby Whale, who gave birth to son Lysander at BJU, “Most clothes are useless here. I took some maternity trousers of mine to the tailor and had copies made.” Maternity wear is available at high-end malls around town, but many moms ship clothes from home.
The Big Day
With around 500 babies delivered every year, BJU is the area powerhouse hospital – but you do have other options. First-time mom Elina Viitaniemi, a Finnish citizen who lives on the west side of Beijing, chose American-Sino Hospital because it was cheaper and closer to her house. “You end up going to the hospital a lot for checkups and tests, so convenience is a factor,” she explains. “When you finally start labor, you don’t want to spend hours stuck in traffic.” Because of the hospital’s smaller size, Viitaniemi has gotten to know the staff well.
Moms who choose to give birth at BJU give high marks to the hospital’s birthing suites and staff – most find the level of care comparable to that in Western countries, although different. “Nursing care wasn’t what I expected. I constantly had to ask for something to be done, which isn’t like me at all since I know what it’s like to have a demanding patient,” says Sharon Hill, a Canadian nurse who gave birth at BJU. “Plus, the nurse was very hesitant to let me shower after my delivery. My husband had to give me a bed bath. The next morning, I snuck into the shower like a criminal.”
Sarah Chandler, who gave birth here in May, points out that nurses in China serve a different role than in Western hospitals. “They aren’t really there as patient advocates,” says Chandler. “You need to ask for what you need after you have the baby. If you want an icepack, you have to ask. If you need a painkiller, you have to ask.”
The nurses generally speak English, but the stress of labor means there might be some hiccups in communication. Says Chandler, “Even though the nursing staff spoke excellent English, there was a communication barrier, partly because I was having a baby and not wholly in my right mind.” She found the epidural unnerving because she had difficulty understanding some instructions during the delicate procedure.
Expats who don’t speak either English or Chinese should ask in advance about interpreter services during birth. Beijing United has Spanish, Japanese and Russian interpreters on staff in patient services, and may be able to accommodate other language speakers, too. Sometimes, everything just falls into place. One Japanese mom went into labor six weeks early, and the OB on call was one she had never met before. To her surprise, the OB spoke Japanese, making the experience much easier.
For a smooth delivery, expectant mothers should make a birth plan with their doctor ahead of time and discuss such things as what painkillers are available and even what position to deliver in. Most women lie on their backs and hold their knees during delivery, but some, such as German Julia Schwendemann, choose less traditional positions. Schwendemann opted to kneel on the bed during delivery, and she also wanted her mother, who was visiting from Kenya, to join her in the delivery room.
Most women who choose to stay in Beijing to give birth aren’t first-time mothers. Says Chandler, “For a second child, it’s a wonderful experience, but first-time moms need to have an outside support system in place,” as they won’t be trained in baby care or breastfeeding by their nurses. Whale agrees. Her first son was born in the UK, where it’s typical for a nurse to visit new moms at home and teach them baby-care basics. In Beijing, says Whale, first-time moms “have to figure it all out themselves.”
Once you bring your baby home from the hospital, you might find it hard to leave the house. It’s normal for local women to stay home for the first month, so expect to be stopped and criticized by strangers who see you out and about with your newborn. Flora Jingya Miller, a Beijinger married to a Brit, says she took her son out for walks when he was just ten days old. When people stopped her on the street, she says, she just smiled and kept going. “Babies need fresh air,” says Miller, who is expecting her second child this month, “but I didn’t feel like explaining this to everyone.”
Chandler had a different coping strategy. “I wanted to go out and walk in order to recover, but in traditional Chinese culture you can’t do that. For the first 100 days, you shouldn’t take the baby out, so my husband tells everyone Will is 101 days old.” (Regardless of tradition, it’s imperative to get a passport and visa for your baby right away.)
You’ll probably want to resume normal life as quickly as possible. Just be prepared for comments from strangers once you decide to take the baby out for a stroll. Most people are well-intentioned; smile, thank them for their advice and keep doing what you need to do to feel like a good parent.
For most healthy women, the childbirth experience in Beijing will be both painful and miraculous – just as it would be back home. Though you might find some aspects of pregnancy and delivery to be different, rest assured you’ll be in good hands if you choose to give birth in Beijing. Says Whale, who is enjoying her time in Beijing with two young sons, “I’m already planning to do it again.”
Our Picks for Expectant Moms
By Jerry Chan, Donna Scaramastra Gorman and Katharina Schulz
No one craves information like expecting parents, so here’s a guide to some of the most helpful resources on pregnancy. Books are available at The Bookworm, Chaterhouse Books, and other stores around town.
What to Expect When You Are Expecting
by Heidi Murkoff
The new fourth edition of what is arguably the most famous English book on pregnancy is as exhaustive as it is thick. The 600-page tome discusses topics ranging from pregnancy tests and month-by-month fetal development to diet, illness symptoms and even sex during pregnancy.
The Expectant Father
by Brott Armin
This guide for dads-to-be comes with a month-by-month overview of pregnancy and explains the different hurdles – from physical to financial – that first-timers face.
A Guide to Effective Care in Pregnancy and Childbirth
by Murray Enkin
Expat mom Sharon Lee says this book is “great if you want a lot of statistics and evidence-based medicine to talk over with your doctor.” Used by medical professionals, the book steers parents through the stages of pregnancy.
Mummy’s Having a Baby
by Camille Liscinsky
Designed for toddlers, this book explains the changes that are about to happen to mom and the whole family, paying special attention to the first-born child. With space for drawing pictures, the book makes an ideal gift for big brothers and sisters.
Swap stories with savvy Beijing parents
A new site for foreign moms in Beijing
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