Imagine giving birth, then relaxing while someone else does all the hard work. Staying indoors for the whole first month is a tradition for Chinese mums, but now hiring supermums is big business and taking it to a whole new level.
Tuesday, September 22, 2015 - 21:30

“In the morning I actually feed him myself, but at night, because they need to ensure my night’s sleep… they feed the baby for me,” new mum Tracy tells reporter Aela Callan.

Tracy Chen, husband Ryan and baby Ethan are spending the month at the luxurious Cheerful Postnatal Care Centre in Shanghai, where pictures of celebrities line the walls and a stay can cost close to AU$12,000.

A fleet of masked nurses care for the newborns 24/7, and when parents don’t want close-up contact, they can watch through a soundproofed glass wall.

“If I miss him, he can come over whenever,” Tracy says.

While a private nutritionist – at around AU$14,000 for the month – prepares exactly the right food for mums to regain their strength, and figure.

“We are not so experienced, so the professional people here can help us have some hands-on experience,” says dad Ryan, who returned from living in Australia to take advantage of the extra care available in China.

And confinement, as it’s known, is a serious business – the month-long ritual is embedded in the country’s culture, and is seen as vital to the future health of both mum and child.

Even those who can’t afford luxury accommodation stay indoors at home for a month, helped by professional live-in supermums, or confinement ladies as they’re traditionally known.

“You only get to sleep three to four hours a day,” says supermum Wen Xiaowei. “It’s not like you get a full stretch of sleep."

She’s been caring for mums and their newborns for around seven years and she has a long waiting list.

Ms Wen takes care of all the shopping, cooking, feeding and bathing for the babies, while new mums like Zhang Shasha recover from giving birth.

The rules are strict – drinking cold water is forbidden as it may overwork the kidneys, showering or washing may lead to catching a chill, and there must be absolutely no going outdoors.

“Do you miss being outside?” Aela asks Shasha. “Yes,” she replies.

Do you have what it takes to be a new mum in China? Play our interactive quiz to find out.

Traditionally mothers-in-law took on the caring duties, but modern mums are keen for a more professional – and independent – approach.

“Our parents took care of babies almost 30 years ago,” Shasha says. “It’s been a long time and they only have experience with one child. Living conditions and ideas of that time were different from nowadays.”

Ms Wen charges over AU$3,500 for the month – several times the average salary in Beijing.

The one-child policy has been relaxed in recent years, but for many having a child is still a once in a lifetime experience and worth the extra expense.

But does it just delay the realities of parenthood? After Aela’s visit, Shasha decides to hire Ms Wen for another month.

“Eventually you have to take responsibility yourself,” mum Tracy says as she prepares to leave the Cheerful Centre in Shanghai with her new family. “You can’t live here forever… I wish I could though.”

See the full story of China’s Supermums at the top of the page. Unfortunately this story is only available to view in Australia for copyright reasons, but you can read the full transcript below.

Apologies, but this story is no longer available for copyright reasons - you can however read the transcript below.


How having a baby means rest and relaxation
Aela Callan thought the idea of having to spend the first month after childbirth indoors was an outrage – until she went to China for Dateline’s story and saw this ancient tradition in action.


In downtown Shanghai the stage is being set, the team needs to work quickly, the client is fussy if he misses lunch. Today Baby Ian is one-month-old and he is about to be presented to the outside world. He's quite used to the fuss. He's been cared for in an exclusive hotel for babies and mothers since the day he was born. Soon he will go home with his parents for the first time. Every lock of hair is kept as a memento of this special occasion. It's all quite exhausting. Welcome to the world of luxury postnatal care in China, where tradition is carried out in style.

Nearly 1.4 billion people live in China, but the birth rate is surprisingly low, only 12.3 babies are born for every 1,000 people. Having a baby is a big deal, usually a once-in-a-lifetime event, but you won't see mothers here showing off their newborns for at least a month. A strict practice known as confinement means they are expected to stay indoors.

REPORTER: Hi, hello, how are you doing? What's your name?

LEILA: Leila!

REPORTER: Leila! Nice to meet you Leila.

This is Kitty Bu and her family. She is our assistant producer. She's not your typical Chinese mum. She has two children and a third on the way

REPORTER: Do you think it's a boy or another girl?

KITTY BU: I think it's another girl.


KITTY BU: I think, yeah.

China’s strict one-child policy was relaxed a couple of years ago, you can officially have two kids if you are an only child yourself. In Kitty's case it doesn't apply because her husband is foreign.

REPORTER: Can you see the baby?

LEILA: Daddy, look!

KITTY BU: The growth is good.

Kitty's family aren't sticklers for tradition, but her mum says she never questioned the need for women to do confinement after giving birth.

KITTY’S MUM (Translation): This was passed down to me by my mum and my mum’s mum… the first month after giving birth is a really big event.

Zuoyuezi literally means 'sitting the month'. It's deeply embedded in Chinese culture. As well as staying inside, women are expected to follow a strict set of rules including eating special food, but Kitty refused.

KITTY’S MUM (Translation): I was thinking about what to make her eat, donkey-hide jelly, sea cucumbers, all this stuff I prepared for confinement. She was just out of hospital for three days and I couldn’t find her! Where did she go? She went out!

Kitty is an anomaly. Even today most women in China do confinement. They believe their health will suffer if they don't and a growing industry is devoted to answering their every need. We've come to the far outskirts of Beijing to see what confinement is like. It took Kitty a long time to persuade anyone to meet us.

KITTY BU: It's very sensitive you know, they protect the baby from anything potentially harmful.

REPORTER: We have to put masks on, take our shoes off.

KITTY BU: Shoes off.

Wen Xiaowei is a confinement lady, or, as I like to call her, a professional supermum. She's hired to help new mothers do this properly and has barely left this two-room flat for 28 days. She's busy preparing breakfast for the new mum.

KITTY BU (Translation): So what's for breakfast?

WEN XIAOWEI, CONFINEMENT LADY (Translation): There's a mix of three different kinds of vegetables. Chicken breast chopped and made into meatballs plus an egg. Also she'll have some steamed buns.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, a mother's Qi, or 'energy force' is badly depleted after childbirth and certain foods help to restore it.

KITTY BU (Translation): What soup is cooking in these two pots?

WEN XIAOWEI (Translation): One pot has pork spine bone soup, the other one is Shanyao soup. Shanyao restores the qi and the blood in a woman.

KITTY BU (Translation): What about the pork spine?

WEN XIAOWEI (Translation): That's to ensure the intake of protein.

It's not only about food. Cold water is off limits.

WEN XIAOWEI (Translation): New mothers, especially those who give births naturally, shouldn't touch or drink cold water. It will affect their health because it's not good for digestion and will be a burden on their kidneys.

I have trouble following all the different confinement rules - there are so many - but the important thing to know is they are taken very seriously.

WEN XIAOWEI (Translation): Many mothers, when looking back on their confinement, realise they didn't pay attention to it, that's why they get sick later, like pain in the legs and joints, stomach trouble, and kidney disease.

Zhang Shasha is the new mother. Even though it's a warm spring day, she's wearing thick clothes and a woollen hat. The belief is that getting a chill could lead to joint problems when she's older.

ZHANG SHASHA, NEW MOTHER (Translation): Hey, it's alright, baby.

Traditionally Shasha's mother-in-law would have moved in to help her with confinement, but this generation of Chinese mothers don't want to live with their parents.

ZHANG SHASHA (Translation): I think the confinement lady is professional. Our parents took care of babies almost 30 years ago. It's been a long time and they only have experience with one child. Living conditions and ideas of that time were different from nowadays.

Shasha relies on Ms Wen to help her with everything, even getting up in the night.

WEN XIAOWEI (Translation): You might think confinement ladies have easy jobs, but this is a really, really hard job, especially the first 10-15 days. You only get to sleep 3-4 hours a day and it's not like you get a full stretch of sleep.

KITTY BU: She cooks three meals a day. She doesn't have to worry about the shopping, but she does all the bathing, the feeding, also the medication for the baby. When the sun is out, she has to bring the baby to the sun, hand-washing the cloth diapers, cleaning up the kitchen, doing the mopping.

REPORTER: She sleeps with them, too?

KITTY BU: She does. So she gets up in the middle of the night for each and every feed. When the mother needed any help she will be bringing water, changing diapers, if there’s dirty clothes, she will have to change the baby.

Despite all the pampering, Shasha hasn't been outside for almost a month and it's starting to get to her.

ZHANG SHASHA: I am looking outside through the window every day.

REPORTER: But you can't go out.

ZHANG SHASHA: Next week I can go out. Next week.

REPORTER: Next week. Do you miss being outside?


That's not the worst of it. During confinement women are not supposed to shower, wash their hair or brush their teeth. Shasha admits she's only followed those rules for ten days.

ZHANG SHASHA (Translation): I think these rules are based on the living conditions of the old days. In the past, in China, when it was cold there was no heating or hot water, and the new mother was weak. She might get sick if she took a bath or washed her hair. New mothers are really weak.

While I chat with Shasha, Kitty is getting the lowdown from Ms Wen.

KITTY BU (Translation): Do you have your own children?

WEN XIAOWEI (Translation): Yes.

KITTY BU (Translation): How many?

WEN XIAOWEI (Translation): Two, one boy and one girl.

KITTY BU (Translation): That's wonderful. How old are they?

WEN XIAOWEI (Translation): My oldest one is already married.

KITTY BU (Translation): Do they have kids?

WEN XIAOWEI (Translation): Yes.

KITTY BU (Translation): Didn't you watch your grandchild?

WEN XIAOWEI (Translation): I did, for 2-3 months.

KITTY BU (Translation): It must be wonderful to be your daughter.

WEN XIAOWEI (Translation): I only had two months before my client in Beijing went into labour, then I had to come back. So now her in laws are watching the grandchild. She's really unhappy with her mother-in-law. Of course, she's not as professional as I am.

ZHANG SHASHA (Translation): Shut the door so I can take my hat off. It's hot.

WEN XIAOWEI (Translation): Coming, coming, I’m coming baby.

Shasha and her husband pay Ms Wen the equivalent of US$2,600 for the month. That's two-and-a-half times the average salary in Beijing. Good confinement ladies are in high demand and Ms Wen has a really long waiting list.

WEN XIAOWEI (Translation): These are the photos of some of the kids I took care of over the past years.

REPORTER: Wow, a lot of babies.

WEN XIAOWEI (Translation): All of these babies were cared for by me. When I started in Beijing I felt really upset when I had to leave the family. Although now I'm more used to it, it's hard for me with every single baby. Some kids are now 6 or 7 years old and their parents are still in contact. I miss them so much.

It's time for us to leave. It seems Kitty has been won over by Ms Wen and the benefits of a confinement lady.

REPORTER: What do you think now? Do you want one?

KITTY BU: I do, I do. I didn't want one before but I think after today I will ask her - are you available?

REPORTER: To have someone doing all that for you, it's just easier, right?

KITTY BU: yeah, it's just easier. You know, also you meet someone like this and you realise she's been properly trained and she really plans your day which means you get the biggest luxury as a new mother, which is that you don't have to worry.

Kitty might be convinced but if having someone move into your home is not your thing, some women choose to sit the month as only China's newly rich can. Shanghai is at the centre of a growing trend - luxury hotels for women doing confinement.

TERESA NIU: Good morning Aela. Welcome to our post natal care centre.

Teresa Niu is the marketing manager of Cheerful Post Natal Care Centre.

TERESA NIU: This is to make sure that everyone comes in as not having a fever to potentially harm the mothers and child.

For any mum who's wished to prolong her stay in the security of a maternity ward, look no further. A fleet of nurses are on standby to care for the babies 24/7 behind a sound-proofed glass wall.

TERESA NIU: See the blue one, the one with blue sticker are boys and the pink one is a girl. And they'll all wearing uniform. Cheerful! The cheerful one. Uh huh..

REPORTER: So how many babies at the moment? 3, 6, 9, 12...

TERESA NIU: This is about half.


All are treated to daily massage and yoga.

TERESA NIU: This is olive oil, edible. That means even if the skin the skin absorb the olive oil it's perfectly healthy.

REPORTER: So it's really, like, these babies are looked after by the nurses?


REPORTER: And then the mothers get a break.


REPORTER: Can I ask you how much parents pay?

TERESA NIU: Yes. Currently it's about 36,000 RMB, or up to 50,000 RMB.

REPORTER: Okay, so between 6,000 - 8,500 US dollars. Hi, Tracy, congratulations.

Tracy has been here for 19 days after having her baby boy. Her husband Ryan emigrated to Australia but they came back to China mostly because they can get so much help here.

REPORTER: What's his name?



While baby Ethan rests, Tracy and Ryan take us on a tour of their room. Home for 30 days, great! It's like an apartment.

RYAN CHEN: Yes, like a hotel room, home for 30 days.

REPORTER: Please sit down, you must be tired.

RYAN CHEN: We are not so experienced, we don’t know how to take care of a baby and the professional people here can give us the knowledge and also help us have some hands-on experience before we can take over ourselves.

Both Tracy and Ryan were the only child in their families and this is their first experience with a baby.

KITTY BU (Translation): So what type of communication do you have with your child?

TRACY CHEN (Translation): If I miss him, he can come any time.

KITTY BU (Translation): So he comes over to play with you?

TRACY CHEN (Translation): For breastfeeding. Here's the situation - in the morning I actually feed him myself, but at night because they need to ensure my night's sleep - after all, it's the first month and I think confinement is extremely important - so I pump my milk and give it to the nurses. They feed the baby for me.

KITTY BU (Translation): So your sleep is guaranteed?

TRACY CHEN (Translation): Yes, it is.

This gives Tracy time for other stuff like getting back into shape. There's a term used in China - 'La Ma' - which means 'Spicy Mum' or Hot Mamma. It refers to women who slim down as quickly as possible after having children. Cheerful offers a quick fix for this as well.

NURSE (Translation): Pay attention to tightening your stomach muscles.

TERESA NIU: Now the Chief Nurse is going to demonstrate how Tracy can do some light exercise.

REPORTER: She's going to roll that on her?


NURSE (Translation): Just like this, just like this, just like this.

REPORTER: And so a lot of women come here especially for this reason?

TERESA NIU: Yes, yes, part of the reason, not only the baby, but also the mother themselves. They want to restore themselves figure and lead a healthier life.

NURSE (Translation): Pull as much as you can. Now this is going to bring out the curves around your breast area. So pretty, your curves, like this, here Daddy help, the armpits yes! Our exercises are great. You really have to do this when you go home. It's the exercise of love.

And it wouldn't be a proper confinement without the proper food. Guanghetang delivers meals to new mothers, including those at Cheerful. This is the most traditional dish for mothers during confinement - pig's feet soup. It's said to stimulate milk production. Dr Frank Chung is famous for helping celebrity mothers get back into shape after giving birth.

KITTY BU: So the broth they use is a special base, a special broth base, a soup base. So these are based on some theory that will help you to digest quickly so that you can eat a lot and still keep slim.

Dr Frank's kitchens in Shanghai and Beijing carefully measure the calories needed during confinement based on principles of Chinese medicine.

DR FRANK CHUNG, FOOD SPECIALIST (Translation): You already start with a rich meal in the morning.

KITTY BU: See how they eat during breakfast?

REPORTER: Goose liver for breakfast. Wow.

The average meal plan is US$4,500 for the month. But the luxury menu - including abalone, lobster and a private nutritionist - costs up to $10,000 a month. Dr Frank says it's all based on science.

KITTY BU: So his idea is through eating these things they help the organs go back to their old place, so you don't need extra fat to support the organs. But how do you eat to make sure the organs go back?

DR FRANK CHUNG (Translation): So now you've already had two babies, right? Normally it takes six months, with exercises, for the organs to get back into their old positions, but if you eat confinement meals they help the uterus and the organs to get back to the right places. Then you'll not gain extra fat.

I'm not so sure, but he has a long list of famous clients who say it works. Back at Cheerful, Tracy and Ryan are preparing for baby Ethan's swimming lesson.

NURSE (Translation): Move your hands, let's do some exercise. Exercise, stretch! Let's exercise, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 - are you happy? Let's stretch a little. Here we go, going into the water now, slowly. You have to relax, relax. Are you moving yourself? Are you kicking? You're here to swim. You can try to push the water around. He's very relaxed.

The new parents will have to start learning how to bathe and feed Ethan. They will need to do it themselves when they check out in just over a week.

REPORTER: So do you feel ready to take him home?

RYAN CHEN: I guess so. We can have a try.

TRACY CHEN (Translation): The postnatal centre is a place for you to have some rest and to learn, but eventually you have to take responsibility yourself. You can't live here forever. I wish I could, though.

For the final week Tracy will keep Ethan in her room much more often and she will have no shortage of help from her mother and mother-in-law.

GRANDMOTHER (Translation): You must be careful You must be careful about the head. Oh, he's hungry. Oh, he's hungry again? Why don't you go sit? Go sit down.

TRACY CHEN (Translation): Mummy will hold you. What do you want to do? He wants to eat. Look at him, his mouth is open. He wants milk.

GRANDMOTHER (Translation): Make sure you hold him properly. Pat the baby.

TRACY CHEN (Translation): Don't cry, don't cry. Oh, he wants to eat.

KITTY BU: I wonder what it's like for them when to take the baby home and all of a sudden this whole army of people is gone.

REPORTER: Mmm. It's like delayed onset parenthood.


KITTY BU: It really is a Disneyland I think for parents. They come here and in a way they don't get in contact quickly with reality, having a new addition to the family, cause everything is taken care of.

REPORTER: But this isn't the experience of the majority of women in China.

KITTY BU: I think in first-tier cities it's becoming more and more. I mean, I obviously wouldn't say that it's the majority of people’s choice, but it's becoming more and more common. Somehow taking care of the baby is related always to money now, whereas in old days it's you putting in time and effort. But now it's like, I need other people, I need help, I need money to be able to do this well.

As families adapt confinement to suit modern China, tradition seems to be giving way to rampant consumerism. Kitty's doctor is an obstetrician in one of Beijing's top hospitals. I ask her which of the confinement rules makes sense for mothers today.

DR ELLEN ZHAO, OBSTETRICIAN: No exercise, I accept that, this one is from the science. The uterus after the baby comes out is bigger. We want it to become smaller and smaller with time, but if you exercise, that makes the uterus come down. We call this a prolapse. Also, in ancient times, they said you cannot shower, don't brush. That's just before, because before the building, the room was not so warmer. They wanted to keep women warmer.

REPORTER: What about pig's feet soup?


REPORTER: The pig feet soup?

DR ELLEN ZHAO: Okay, I had the soup every day, fish soup, pig feet soup. I have no choice. The family cook it for you, they just give you soup, we believe it can help. Is it truth? Maybe not truth.

Before leaving China, I go back to meet Shasha for a coffee. She's finally allowed outside.

ZHANG SHASHA (Translation): I was really happy to get out on the first day. The air felt fresh and it looks pretty outside, but there is one big difference compared to before – now I am always reminded of the fact that I have a little one at home so I can't stay out for too long. I'm always worried about him - if he's hungry, if he's crying. So the feeling is different.

Shasha wasn't ready to let her confinement lady, Ms Wen, leave yet. She asked her to stay another month.

REPORTER: Do you think it will be hard when she leaves?

ZHANG SHASHA (Translation): I think so, because you get used to having a lot of people around you to help you.

Staying indoors, skipping showers and pig's feet soup might not be everyone's cup of tea, but confinement also means that mothers in China can expect full-time support for at least a month after childbirth and that sounds like one tradition that's worth keeping.


22nd September 2015