[SCMP Column] Milk for Life

February 20, 2016

The advice of any Chinese mum with newlywed sons or daughters over the past three years will have been the same: avoid having a baby in the year of the Goat… but relax and have as many as you like in the year of the Monkey.

Combine this with the new Chinese “Two child” policy, and officials across the Mainland are predicting that between 1.5-2.0 million “extra” babies will be born in 2016 – about 10% more than the 16.5 million that would be expected in a “normal” year.

I have tried in vain to discover what is so awful about having a baby born in the year of the Goat. Everyone says it is the unluckiest of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, and that people born as goats are always unlucky through their lives. But beyond that the reasons become very sketchy.

One friend noted: “Remember, the Empress Dowager Cixi was born in the year of the Goat.” As if that explained everything. True, she presided over the catastrophic implosion of the once-powerful Qing dynasty, and took China to one its lowest points in history in terms of global power and influence or national pride and dignity. But all this due to being born in the year of the goat? My skeptical western brain thinks no. But who am I to contradict so many Chinese mothers and mothers-in-law? And remember the last Goat year was 2003 – the year of SARS. Say no more.

I’m skeptical too about the good fortune that is supposed to be associated with being born in the year of the Monkey – though I waver here, because one of my daughters is a Monkey, and of course I am very happy to be assured she has been blessed with luckiness. But skeptical or not, such beliefs have significant practical consequences. Many young couples in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Mainland last year delayed attempts to start a family until June last year, confident that their new-born would thank them for the rest of his or her life for having been born a Monkey. Beijing medical authorities reported a 21% jump in registration of pregnant women in July last year. The best of all years is of course the Year of the Dragon, but that is not going to roll around again until 2024, and we cannot reasonably ask prospective young parents to wait so long.

Frustratingly, when you try to test this family-planning theory against actual annual birth rates over the past decades, the numbers seem to show nothing. It is true that Mainland births in calendar 2015 were 2% down on the 2014 Horse year – to 16.55m from 16.87m. But we need to remember that births have been falling steadily in China since the 24m in 1990, influenced as much by the One Child policy as by superstition, and by other powerful forces like urbanization, the rising cost of living, rising numbers of women in the workforce, and women marrying at later ages.

It is this steady decline that is so worrying China’s population planners, and led to the eventual welcome removal of the One Child policy. So it is hardly surprising, as they try to boost the birth rate to slow the rapidly ageing profile of China’s population, that they have grasped zealously the idea of a Monkey year baby boom. The official hope is to boost birth rates by an average 2m a year for the next decade.
This all ought to be wonderful news to the baby care industries, both domestic and international. Of the 128 million babies born worldwide last year, 13% were born in China – making the market globally important for baby foods, baby diapers, baby goods, and the myriad services linked with babies.

China is of course hugely important for baby milk formula, accounting for sales worth $14.8bn in 2013 – three times bigger than the US market, and six times larger than Indonesia. Interestingly, Hong Kong has become the world’s fourth largest market for baby milk formula – not because of demand from Hong Kong mothers, but as a proxy for Mainland demand. Boosting China’s birth rate by 2m a year will only augment this huge demand.

But it is at this point that a little alarum goes off in my brain, triggered by fascinating research published recently in the medical journal The Lancet which shows that breastfeeding is better for babies and mothers than baby formula. It seems if China’s leaders not only want to breed more future workers, but to create healthy, smart ones, then these newly born babies should be encouraged to drink breast milk rather than the baby formula that Mainland visitors so regularly fight over in retail outlets across Hong Kong.

The research over three decades not only shows that worldwide, if all babies were breastfed, there would be 820,000 fewer child deaths a year, and 20,000 fewer deaths due to breast and ovarian cancer, but also that kids raised on formula are less healthy and less smart: “Breastfeeding is nutritionally, immunologically, neurologically, endocrinologically, economically and ecologically superior to breastmilk substitutes (BMS), and does not require quality control of manufacture, transport, storage, and feeding mechanisms,” the report says.
So in forging the workforce of the future, China’s leaders not only need to boost the birth rate. They need to get mums to prefer breastfeeding over milk formula. In 2014, fewer than 16 percent of urban Chinese women exclusively breastfed their babies through the World Health Organization’s recommended period of six months. In rural China, the rates were higher -- around 30 percent. But in both cases, they are shifting to formula. In Hong Kong, shockingly, just 2.3% of Hong Kong mums are still breastfeeding babies at six months. And in Singapore it is 1%.

It seems that if we are going to be the “superconnector” of the future global economy, then choosing to breastfeed might be a valuable investment. As the Lancet notes: “Breastfeeding is one of the most effective “immunisations” that a mother can give her newborn.” Our baby Monkeys deserve no less – and nor do our less fortune Goats.
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