Even before I moved to Beijing, I was planning to have a baby during our time here. Sure enough, a few months after we arrived and settled in, I became pregnant. My friends at home thought I was so brave to give birth (twice!) in China, but if they knew the realities of my situation – world-class hospitals and staff, the option of private suites, and household help – I am not sure they would still be quite so awed.
Shortly after arriving in Beijing, Shannon Byers returned to the US to give birth to her first child – because she was scared. “I felt sick and had no friends yet to ask for help, so I opted to return home to have the baby.” Now, after having spent more a year in Beijing, Byers doesn’t think returning home to give birth is necessary. She has developed a good network with lots of friends who have had children in Beijing – in fact, she’s the only one among them who didn’t have her baby here. Pregnancy is always a daunting experience, but like anything else, with the right information, it’s perfectly manageable in our city.
Choosing a Provider
Raquel Harvey, a long-term resident of China and mother of two, notes, “There are many options to have a baby in Beijing – more than people realize.” In addition to Beijing United Family Hospital (BJU), the most popular option, there is UPMG American-Sino, Am-Care, and niche options like a waterbirth at Beijing Antai Maternity Hospital or a homebirth with a midwife. Harvey recommends that expat women find a hospital that’s the right fit for them, even if it means shopping around. “I think the most important thing is to choose a doctor you know and trust,” she says, “and to check whether your philosophies line up” in regards to care, delivery and options such as labor induction.
Other mothers who have given birth in Beijing agree that finding the right doctor makes all the difference. Jilu George, an Indian national and mother of two, gave birth to her son at American-Sino and delivered her daughter at BJU. George found her doctor at American-Sino, Dr. Gai, to be very comforting and reassuring. “If not for her, I don’t think I would have continued breastfeeding, because it was painful and I thought I couldn’t do it,” George says. After she relocated to the Lido area and became pregnant for the second time, it was much more convenient to deliver at BJU; though her experience there was also positive, she did not develop the same type of close connection with her second doctor.
Catherine Hyunh, who had given birth to a daughter in her native France, had a positive experience giving birth abroad when she had her son at American-Sino (also with Dr. Gai), but she felt that the experience could have been improved by better communication. “In France, my doctor took a lot of care to explain things above and beyond what I needed to know,” Hyunh says. Here, she felt the explanations were not always detailed enough; she recommends having other resources – such as a doctor in your home country whom you can call for further clarification if necessary. A doctor may come highly recommended, but your experience may vary based on the rapport you establish with them, and what you expect from them.
Dr. Warren Brooks, an experienced Australian obstetrician at BJU, recommends choosing someone who makes you feel comfortable. “We can’t be everything to everyone. There are different ways people relate to each other,” he says. In his own practice, Dr. Brooks strives to provide reassurance to every expecting mother that by staying vigilant, potential problems can be addressed before they develop.
Preparing: Prenatal Care and Research
It’s common knowledge that eating right, staying fit and healthy, and monitoring the pregnancy with one’s obstetrician are the keys to a trouble-free pregnancy. First-time mothers, though, will always want more information. Aside from asking their doctors all the questions they can think of, new moms can educate themselves and assuage their fears by taking childbirth preparation courses, such as those offered through BJU or American-Sino, as well as doing research online. Sites such as Babycenter.com and Americanbaby.com offer upbeat updates on how your unborn child is developing inside you, week by week. Locally, Chaterhouse Books carries pregnancy books in their Health section, as well as books on baby care and motherhood in general. One should try not to overload on unnecessary information, though. Dr. Brooks notes, “There is no need to know about everything that could go wrong.” Harvey recommends that new moms read only what they can handle, and to avoid getting overwhelmed with things to worry about.
According to Dr. Brooks, the most important part of pre-natal (or post-natal) care is detecting problems before they happen and ensuring that they don’t develop into anything serious. “The great majority of pregnancies are normal. Ninety percent of women won’t have any problems, but the other ten percent that do may have potentially serious problems. We can cope with any problem as it arises, and as China advances, more and more hospitals will be able to do the same.”
When preparing for the birth, it is important to know what facilities are available in case complications arise. For example, BJU has a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) on site. Other hospitals will transfer mothers and babies to an NICU facility like the Military General Hospital of Beijing.
Developing a birth plan is another preparation tool that pregnant women can use to clearly manage expectations, feel in control, and clearly communicate with healthcare providers. That said, the birth plan is merely a guideline. “Be prepared to roll with the punches and go with the flow,” says Harvey, who had an emergency C-section for her first child but was able to have a VBAC (vaginal birth after Caesarean) for her second, both at BJU. “Things may not go according to your plan. Even with the best doctor, be prepared that things may change,” she warns.
Because childbirth is such a sensitive and emotional undertaking where so many elements are outside of the woman’s control, it’s important for expecting mothers to be their own health advocates and create a support network. Carolyn Wu Kurtzig, an American mother of two, had both of her children at BJU; like Harvey, she also had a VBAC for her second child. “Taking the pre-natal classes helped me realize that it is very important to be an informed patient. You can push back on the medical staff, and it is important to ask questions for the reasons behind procedures,” she says.
The Big Day and Beyond
No matter where you have your baby, in Beijing or in your home country, each pregnancy and each birth is its own unique experience. Ask any mother about her birth story and you will get a practiced tale of excitement and adventure, complete with missteps and red herrings, that miraculously results in a new and precious life.
Kurtzig felt very fortunate to have the drug-free, natural delivery she had wanted. “I am not sure we would have the same experience in the US,” she says, since VBACs are less common now in the US due to fear of malpractice lawsuits, and there is less support for drug-free VBAC deliveries.
After delivery, most mothers agree that their Beijing nursing care experience has been very positive, although this is also where cultural differences are more apparent. “Even though English is spoken [in many hospitals], and they do their best to make you comfortable, there may be differences in care with your home country. You have to ask for things like ice packs after delivery,” says Harvey. “Be sure to ask your girlfriends what they needed, so you know what to ask for!” she advises. For example, to make post-partum sitting more comfortable, BJU offers not only ice packs and painkillers but also a semi-inflated donut-shaped cushion – an item that a new mother may not even realize is an option.
New mothers are also encouraged to take full advantage of the breastfeeding and infant care resources available. “The post-nursing care here was better than in Paris. The nurses are very careful,” Hyunh says. Rooming-in (sleeping in the same room as your baby) and insisting on observing the baby-care nurses perform (or even better, taking care of your baby while they are watching) can also give first-time mothers confidence in their own baby-care abilities.
In Beijing, a new mother may find the challenge of breastfeeding to be compounded by the language barrier. “As natural as it is, it is a learned process and doesn’t come as easily as you might think,” says Jennifer Lecleir, an American Women’s Health Educator at BJU, and soon-to-be mother of three. “A lot of mothers think they don’t have enough milk and need to give formula, but they don’t need to do this,” Lecleir says. “To breastfeed successfully, you need to give it a fair chance, stay motivated and have enough confidence that you are doing the right thing for your baby.” As part of her educational duties, Lecleir tries to visit all new mothers at BJU, answering questions and showing them how the baby should latch on. No matter where you give birth, you should talk to your obstetrician and your baby’s pediatrician about any concerns or problems with breastfeeding you may have.
Other resources include childbirth preparation class teachers who usually will come to visit you post-partum, listen to your birth story, and assist with breastfeeding. The La Leche League is an international breastfeeding support group with English, Chinese and French chapters that meet in Beijing. The English-language group meets on the fourth Friday of every month at 1pm at the Yurt in BJU. Not only can these peers assist with breastfeeding questions and problems, but La Leche meetings also serve as a way to meet other mothers with children of similar ages. Lecleir also recommends Kellymom.com, a parenting website. “Kellymom.com helps women troubleshoot common breastfeeding and parenting problems. It answers a lot of questions about breastfeeding, such as what medications are safe,” she says.
Overall, expat women’s childbirth experiences in Beijing are very positive. George says, “There is no need to go back [to your home country to give birth], especially since you can have help with the older children and around the house.” Hyunh remarks that she was able to enjoy her pregnancy here more, especially since she was not working and could do activities like pre-natal yoga at the Yoga Yard, where she met other foreigners who were planning to give birth in Beijing. “It would be a hassle to go back to France to have the baby. I would be alone for several months and alone for delivery; it would be a different experience.
Even Byers, who returned to Beijing when her daughter was three months old, says she hopes to have her next child here where she can have an ayi to help with the household and her support network of her friends to help with everything else.
As for my own experience, I feel very fortunate to have had my babies here. For both deliveries, I thought my care was exceptional; I had luxuries, such as a longer hospital stay, that I wouldn’t have had back home in the US.
Pregnancy and childbirth are never anything less than amazing rites of passage, and expectant mothers should feel reassured that choosing to give birth in Beijing doesn’t mean compromising on care. Just be sure to be your own health advocate, develop a support network and utilize the many resources available to make your experience what you want it to be.