FOR Wang Pandi, a 75-year-old Chinese woman, the delivery of three children during the poverty-stricken late 1950s was a miserable experience. The nation was in a wretched condition following the disaster of the "Great Leap Forward".
"All of my three children were born at home, delivered by the same midwife who lived near my home," she recalled. "Few people could afford to go to hospital for delivery. When my youngest son was born, I paid 2 yuan (US$0.24) for my midwife."
Wang's two daughters both gave birth to their babies in hospitals during the 1980s. By then, this kind of delivery was commonly accepted in urban areas, along with regular examinations for pregnant women. Hospital delivery of babies is generally acknowledged as the only safe and reliable birthing procedure in China, because the conditions for medical treatment and technology have improved significantly.
A considerable number of mothers-to-be have shown increased dependence on advanced medical technology in hospitals to ensure a healthy pregnancy.
"I had about 15 examinations before delivery. Through these checks, I was able to ensure the health of the foetus," said Li Xiaofang, a mother with two sons. Her experiences and thoughts are common among urban pregnant women. What pushes them to especially care for the foetus is that they can only have one child or two at most, under the family planning policy.
"Of course, I had to make sure my only child was healthy from the very beginning," said Tian Xiuzhen, a white collar in Shanghai who gave birth to her son in 2003. Like many other mothers-to-be, she waited in lines to receive routine examinations every month and did what doctors told her to do when she was pregnant.
"But sometimes I thought perhaps we had too much dependence on medical technology and doctors and even lost our own judgment," said Li. "Even when I felt nothing unusual, I still kept receiving checks and then felt reassured. And so did my friends."
For most Chinese pregnant women, the first time is also the last time to give birth. They have no experiences and thus largely rely on hospitals with their medical technology. They are also paying more attention to their everyday actions to protect their foetus from jeopardy.
Although increasing numbers of women have given up the traditional way of delivery at home, the Chinese custom of confinement after childbirth (zuo yue zi) is still observed by most young mothers.
"I did not leave home in the month following delivery. I did not do any exercise, did not watch TV or read books which are not allowed by the old tradition," said Li. "Instead, I slept with my baby most of the time during the day and ate restorative meals the rest of the time."
This traditional confinement, which lasts for a month, aims to replenish the new mothers' strength, depleted in the delivery process.
According to Wang, confinement after childbirth is significant for a woman's whole life. There are strictly established requirements for the confinement, for example, women should be kept away from cold water and cold air and they are not allowed to have baths or wear slippers. Few women strictly adhere to these customs now, but many still choose to spend an entire month resting and eating for recuperation.
"The traditional customs and elders' sayings always have their reasons," said Tian.
As for Sarah Zhao, a Chinese consultant who gave birth in the US, her delivery process was relatively relaxing and she did not undergo confinement afterward. "The whole environment of my delivery room and medical apparatus was quite clean and satisfactory," she said. "There are also no confinement customs similar to China's in the US and the style of treatment after delivery there is different and more natural. There is not much worry you will meet any safety problems after delivery."
Many Chinese obstetricians believe that Chinese traditional confinement is not out of date and has its own virtues. "A constitutional difference exists between Chinese and Westerners due to their different dietary habits. And there is still a gap between China's current medical condition and that in the West," said obstetrician Gao Qin.
Her view was echoed by another doctor, Chen Daning, of the International Peace Maternity & Child Care Hospital.
"Many Westerners can choose to give birth at home, assisted by their personal experienced midwife. However, this alternative would have brought a terrible disaster in China if it was allowed," she said. "The level of medical treatment in China's communities still lags behind that of Western countries and the number of professional midwives is far from sufficient. "