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May 23, 2016

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China struggles to keep abreast of problems faced by new mothers

INSTEAD of going to hospital, many breastfeeding mothers in China turn to a masseuse when their breasts become inflamed. The price for a one-hour massage can be as high as 600 yuan (US$100), and the safety risk is high.

“Eight masseuses kind of ‘experimented’ with my sore breasts, before I finally found a skilled masseuse to help me out,” said Wang Chao, a mother from north China’s Hebei province.

After not managing to breastfeed her baby for a short spell, the milk inside Wang’s breasts deteriorated and they became painfully swollen. Antibiotics prescribed by a doctor at a local hospital did not work and she was told she might need surgery.

“If not for the masseuse, I could have been forced to stop breastfeeding a long time ago,” Wang said. But she is now confident about feeding her baby naturally for at least a year.

The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and continuous breastfeeding for two years or longer, for the sake of the baby’s health.

To raise awareness of the values of breastfeeding, China’s Health Ministry declared May 20 National Breastfeeding Day in 1990.

The latest available data from the ministry shows that only 30 percent of new Chinese mothers achieved exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months.

Among the explanations for this are cultural misperceptions about the superiority of baby formula, an inconvenient environment for breastfeeding outside the home, and forced termination after inadequate treatment for breast inflammation in hospitals.

That’s how breastfeeding massage became lucrative business across China. But the profession is not regulated. It has no standards or supervision, leaving room for low-skilled or even unscrupulous operators.

Most breastfeeding masseuses are middle-aged women with no higher education or medical training. They usually start distributing business cards to expectant mothers in hospitals once they finish a few courses and obtain a basic massage certificate.

They could solve the problem, or make things worse. There is no guarantee.

At the reputable end of the scale is Shi Guilan, 52, a masseuse based in Beijing. She has helped nearly 30,000 breastfeeding mothers over the past decade, and claims to have had 100 percent success rate.

“Many times, when other masseuses have made things worse and new mothers came to me, I have been able to fix it. But if I can’t, I never pretend; I suggest they go to the hospital immediately,” Shi said.

Shi is the founder and boss of a company comprising 300 breastfeeding masseuses and nannies. “My dream is to have massage studios for breastfeeding mothers across the country,” she said.

Born and raised in east China’s Shandong Province, Shi graduated from a local nursing school at 19 and worked as a midwife in a public hospital, until she had a second child, violating China’s family planning policy at the time. With the public institution under pressure to sack her as a penalty, Shi quit. Her family of four came to Beijing in search of new income.

As a temporary nursing assistant, Shi could not help noticing the problems that many breastfeeding mothers had.

She took a two-year massage course and, in 2005, became a self-employed breastfeeding masseuse.

With demand soaring, Shi started her own firm to train apprentices.

“My family members did not understand my job in the beginning. Now they are all employees of my company,” Shi said.

Shi said breastfeeding difficulties had become increasingly common for Chinese women, due to a greasy diet, and domestic and professional stress.

Demand for masseuses is huge, but clients remain suspicious, she said.


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