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Dragon year baby boom leads to spike in demand for professional helpers for new mums

Reporter: Nectar Gan

As Hong Kong braces for a Dragon year baby boom, private hospitals reported in February that they were already fully booked until October.

The dragon is an auspicious creature in Chinese culture and the symbol of the emperor. So the Year of the Dragon is considered a lucky year to give birth, as those born in dragon years are believed to enjoy good fortune.

The boom in births has not just created a high demand for maternity beds, it has also led to expectant parents scrambling for the services of specialist post-partum helpers, or doulas.

Postnatal care has long been emphasised in Chinese families. In the first month after giving birth, new mothers are considered to require special care. That is where peiyue (literally month companions) or doulas come in. These were traditionally women in the family but increasingly, Hong Kong families are hiring professional doulas.

Today, it costs between $7,300 and $10,500 to hire a doula for a month, depending on the hours worked which can be up to a maximum of six days a week and eight hours a day.

Traditional doulas’ duties include basic postnatal care, feeding and bathing newborns, changing nappies, washing babies’ clothes, as well as preparing special meals, soups and tonics for the new mothers to help them recover.

Nowadays, doulas are also expected to provide emotional support, and more importantly, teach the mothers how to take care of their infants.

Rainbow Tang Choi-hung, social enterprise project coordinator of the Kwun Tong Methodist Social Service, introduced the first doulas training course in Hong Kong in 1999. Tang says she first thought of training doulas after the financial crisis of 1997 when many men lost their jobs and women who had been homemakers started to look for work. Tang noticed that as many families now lived as nuclear family units, young parents did not have as much support from their families as before. She thought they could benefit from the help of trained doulas.

Her idea proved popular. “Demand has outstripped supply in recent years,” says Tang. “We can only accept one third of the applications [from parents for the services of the doulas].” After she got the programme up and running, Tang says the doulas took over the operation themselves and formed a social enterprise called Healthy Mothers-to-be Association Limited. They now have 90 doulas and have been helping 500 to 600 parents every year since 2005.

For first-time parents without experience of taking care of newborns, the reasons for hiring a doula are obvious.

Winny Chow gave birth to her first baby in October 2011 and hired a doula for two months. Chow says she had no experience of taking care of infants at all. “I’ve read about how to take care of babies. But when there is really a baby at home, you just don’t know what to do,” says Chow. “It is better to have someone experienced [to help out].”

Chow’s mother lives far away while her mother-in-law does not live in Hong Kong, so they were unable to offer her much help. “It is essential to hire a doula when your mum can’t help you,” she says.

Chow and her husband say they learnt skills such as how to bathe and dress their baby from their doula.

Or Chow-hung, a 52-year-old mother of two grown-up children, has worked as a doula through the Healthy Mothers-to-be Association Limited since 2003. After helping dozens of families, Or has noticed that a lot of parents are “completely blank” when it comes to taking care of infants.

Many of the parents Or has helped are couples who have just had their first baby. Most have not looked after babies until they have their own. Any contact they had with children in the past was probably limited to playing with them rather than taking care of their daily needs.

It takes time for new parents to adjust to life with a newborn. They get nervous and panic easily. “They don’t know what to do when they hear their babies crying, and just wonder whether they are sick,” says Or adding that doulas always have to explain things to parents in order to calm them down.

It is not just new mothers who are unable to take care of babies, but the grandparents too. “Some grandmas call us to hire a doula for their daughter-in-laws, [because] they don’t know how to take care of them,” says Akiko Cheng, assistant supervisor of the Yan Oi Tong Jockey Club Training Centre which provides training and referral services for doulas.

Hui Yuet-chun, a 50-year-old mother of two, has been one of the centre’s referral doulas since 2006. “Some grandpas and grandmas are very young. They don’t know how to take care of babies either,” Hui says.

In the old days, new mums and babies were taken care of by family members, usually the mother’s mother or mother-in-law. That is no longer necessarily the case.

Chow Lai-ying, a 22-year-old mother, hired a doula for a month after she gave birth to her first baby in December 2011. Even though Chow also asked her mother and mother-in-law for advice on how to take care of the baby, she decided from the start that she wanted a doula. “We as the younger generation may not accept the traditional methods,” Chow says.

Chow thinks contemporary doulas can provide more reliable care than traditional ones. “Things are more advanced now, like the old generations are still using only hot water to wash the feeding bottles [and no washing-up liquid].”

After watching her parents raise her younger siblings, Chow thinks the doula she hired for her baby provided better care than her parents did.

Judy Lai Wing-yee, a 30-year-old senior development specialist in the banking industry, also hired a doula for a month after her first baby was born in March 2011. Lai lived with her mother-in-law during the postnatal care period, but she still wanted to hire a doula to help.

The doula ended up acting as a buffer between Lai and her mother-in-law. “My mother-in-law may not agree with the new information that I learn from the Internet,” says Lai. “To have a third person [a doula] who is professional and experienced to say something for me can reduce the conflict between her and me.”

In the beginning, Lai’s mother-in-law did not approve of the methods and products used by the doula, like using washing-up liquid to clean feeding bottles. “They resist or don’t know how to use [these new products] because they have never used them before,” Lai says. It was only after the doula demonstrated it in front of Lai’s mother-in-law and showed her that it was safe, that she started to accept the new method.

Pioneering doula trainer Rainbow Tang Choi-hung thinks it is normal for young mothers to tend to believe in doulas rather than grandparents, since some of the older generations have misguided ideas about traditional methods and food. Some of these can be harmful to health.

For instance, it is believed that wood ear fungus can replenish the blood. But it has been shown that if new mothers eat it right after giving birth, it can lead to excessive bleeding.

Tang says new mothers these days do not blindly follow traditions but instead ask for scientific reasons. “Mums from the new generation won’t just follow what they are told, they also ask why,” says Tang. “Therefore you have to give them a logical reason to get them to trust you.”

Apart from the pursuit of professional care, Tang believes another reason for new mums to hire doulas is that they get less support from grandparents. “Many grandparents now have their own social networks. They may go to elderly centres and have their own lives,” she says.

While some grandparents may want to have their own lives, others may simply not be able to help. Many of the grandparents doula Or Chow-hung has met were relatively old. “[The grandparents] want to help but they are not able to,” says Or. “They just come to see the grandchildren, but they won’t help much.” Or says most of her clients got married and had their first baby after the age of 30. They are middle class and have regular jobs.

Akiko Cheng of the Yan Oi Tong Jockey Club Training Centre says mothers with a high economic status are more willing to hire doulas. “Those of a higher education level plan to spend a certain amount of money anyway, so they would be nice to themselves and hire a doula for better recovery,” she says.

Lau Siu-lun, a sociologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says the increasing tendency to hire doulas is the result of the way modern society has developed.

“In the old days, our world or our parents used wisdom passed from generation to generation to help the new mums and newborns get through the first month,” Lau says.

This traditional and folk wisdom is seldom passed down by parents nowadays. Since the new mothers do not live with their mother or mother-in-law anymore, they get fewer chances to learn how to take care of infants. As a result, they hire professional doulas.

This coincides with a tendency in modern society for people to emphasise their own happiness. Grandparents generally do not mind helping the new mums sometimes but they do not want their lives to be taken over by the tiring duties. They want to attend classes or go climbing. They want to have fun too.

Lau believes that professional doulas are a sign of the rising status of women in society. “Forty years ago, new mothers would not have maternity leave, and 100 years ago, new mothers would return to the field and work three days after giving birth to their children,” says Lau. “But we don’t expect women to be tough nowadays. We want to protect them.”

“The larger picture is that babies and new mothers should receive special care, so there is a feeling that there should be professional postnatal services,” Lau says.

Lau is not sure whether this reliance on professionalism is a wise development. “Nowadays people try to understand the world in a scientific way. They then try to repudiate much of the wisdom from traditional society,” he says.

“It [old wisdom] may not be that scientific, but after a long period of time of practice, [we] found it helpful.”

Lau wants to preserve the value of old wisdom and thinks people should strike a balance. “We have to ask whether our science really works that well, to the extent that we obliterate the old wisdom,” Lau says.