In January of 2012, I gave birth to my first child, Echo. I had done my homework about birthing and arrived at Mary’s Hospital for Women and Infants with strong contractions and a four-page bilingual birth plan held tightly against my chest. I wanted an intervention-free birth, and with planning and support, you too can have a natural birth in Beijing.
When you’re planning your baby’s birth, there is no greater act of
empowerment than being informed. Beijing is home to many expats with extraordinary expertise. One in particular, Anne Hemsley, a UK-trained midwife and beijingkids board member, offers childbirth education classes. She explains that people are often confused by the meaning of “natural birth,” as some Chinese hospitals delegate this term to any kind of birth that is not a C-section. Any non-C-section birth that includes an epidural or another type of pain relief should be deemed a “vaginal birth,” but not necessarily a “natural” one.
Robyn Wexler, an American-born bilingual doula in Beijing, agrees. Regarding the role of a doula, Wexler explains: “A birth doula offers continuous physical, emotional and informational support to a woman during childbirth.” They also offer support to women during pregnancy and post-partum, as well as support to new fathers. Doulas like Wexler, who are fluent in both Mandarin and English, are especially crucial for those tricky translation moments. At the recent natural birth of a 4kg baby, she says, “It was beautiful to witness that level of clarity and awareness as [the mother]welcomed her baby. [Mothers need] commitment [and]support in the belief that [natural birth]is possible.”
In early August of 2012, Katja Becker’s son, Anton Konstantin Sliwa, was born at Beijing United Family Hospital. Having chosen a natural birth, she cites the importance of having a strong team. While she didn’t engage a doula, she stresses how important it was to have her partner, Sascha Sliwa, by her side. For example, he could advocate on her behalf, consistently repeating their birth plan to the rotation of staff who came and went as shifts changed.
“The hardest part was the constant interruptions,” Katja explains, emphasizing atmosphere and comfort level as paramount. It wasn’t until they requested to be left alone rather than monitored every two hours that she was able to make consistent progress with her labor, not to mention get some slow dancing in with her sweetie.
“Knowing what you want and being able to stand up for yourself is so important,” she says. “The hospitals kept offering pain relief and we had to ask them to stop. I told them if I wanted it, I’d ask for it.” In a Beijing hospital environment, pain relief is the assumption rather than the exception.
“By and large, recovering from a vaginal birth is much easier than
following a Caesarean,” says Wexler. For infants, The American Pregnancy Association states that research on the effects of epidurals is ambiguous, but some mothers become lethargic and have trouble getting into position for delivery. It also may cause respiratory depression and decreased fetal heart rate. Also, babies who naturally travel via the birth canal are more likely to latch onto their mother’s breasts quickly. The interval between birth and the first breastfeeding in C-section mothers is generally longer. Finally, sometimes it takes longer for a mother’s milk to come in after a C-section. If you’re planning to breastfeed regardless of how your child is born, keep this mind when fending off the formula peddlers!
Water and At-Home Births
In China, there is no infrastructure in place for a legal home birth. Despite this, foreigners like Carla Khalsa have been able to organize home births by inviting internationally trained midwives to attend their births in Beijing (off the books). Khalsa is a mother of two herself; her latest child was born on April 30, a natural birth she describes as “perfect.”
“It’s really about what makes a woman most comfortable,” she says. She purchased a tub from the US for her at home water birth. “Whether [it will]be a natural birth or a scheduled C-section, women need to be assertive about what their [birthing]choices and expectations are.”
Water birthing in Chinese hospitals is still fairly new. A few local hospitals offer it, such as Beijing Antai Maternity Hospital. Keep in mind that these tubs are for laboring only, not the final birthing stage.
Breastfeeding doesn’t always happen quickly, much to the frustration of new moms who have crossed the finish line of birth. We quickly learn that it’s really the starting line!
The push to use formula is often fuelled by corporate ties. Don’t be surprised if you are repeatedly asked whether you want to breastfeed or use formula even after the question has long been answered. Employees at Chinese hospitals will also repeatedly ask you if your milk supply is adequate. The answer is: Of course, a new mom’s breasts are not glass bottles with volume line markers!
It is possible to hold your ground, while taking the first three to five days to learn how to breastfeed effectively. Beijing has many resources to help you do just that. La Leche League’s (LLL) breastfeeding support group offers monthly sessions in both English and Chinese. International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and Chinese-American Ivy Makelin is the host of the LLL sessions in Chinese. She is also available for private phone or email consultation to new mothers.
Anne Hemsley is a practicing postpartum breastfeeding coach and
offers home visits. She also hosts Baby Cafe each week, where moms help other moms get through these and other tough times.
Finally, the Yahoo group Beijing Mamas, which was founded by
breastfeeding and organic food advocate Liora Pearlman, is an excellent community resource. Pearlman is also poised to start up the BBB or “Better Birth Beijing” group again this fall.
If All Else Fails, You Didn’t
Thanks to medical advancements, many infants or mothers can now safely make the journey of birth. We have all heard stories of women who were in labor for three days only to need an emergency C-section; sometimes, a natural birth is just not in the cards.
What’s more, our natural birth plans sometimes close in on us when our physical and emotional limits have been reached. At the 36th hour of a 43-hour labor to birth my daughter, who was in a posterior position, I myself ended up choosing an epidural. As Khalsa says: “Don’t feel bad about knowing what you need.”
Even as a natural birthing advocate, I am forever grateful for the three hours of rest and rejuvenation that the epidural provided me. Every birth is different; we just never know.
We should never consider ourselves failures as birthing mothers if, at the last moment, our ideals for a natural birth are not realized. Ultimately, the goal is to meet our children for the first time. When we finally do, it is already a miracle.
- The American Pregnancy Association
- Anne Hemsley
A childbirth educator, UK-registered midwife. She offers childbirth preparation classes for parents, as well as postnatal support. Hemsley also runs weekly Baby Cafe meetings where parents discuss any breastfeeding issues. Meetings are free of charge, but are by email invitation only. (email@example.com)
- Ivy Makelin
LLL leader and IBCLC, available for phone and email consultations. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- La Leche League (LLL)
LLL is a breastfeeding support group offered on a monthly basis in both Chinese and English. Hosted at Beijing United Family Hospital. www.llli.org, www.muruhui.org (Chinese-only)
- Liora Pearlman
Pearlman is a volunteer coordinator for the LLL meetings, founder and moderator of Beijing Mamas and Beijing Organic Consumers. (139 1030 6022, email@example.com) groups.yahoo.com/group/Beijing_Mamas
- Robyn Wexler
Wexler completed her doula training in 2003 in her hometown of San Francisco. She is also the co-founder and director of Yoga Yard, which offers pre- and postnatal yoga, as well as other types of yoga classes. (firstname.lastname@example.org)