10 M2 of Love

By staff reporter NINA VICKERY

I remember clearly the first time I breastfed my baby in public in China. It was at a restaurant. Maneuvering the baby into position, it took a great deal of care not to knock plates and cutlery off the table before we were both comfortable. Much to my relief, the baby began eagerly drinking.

I had not given much thought to how public displays of breastfeeding might be received in modern Chinese society. The ins and outs of breastfeeding in public had recently been debated in the U.K., where I’m from, when a mother who was breastfeeding her baby while enjoying her own afternoon tea at London’s prestigious Claridge’s Hotel was handed a napkin and asked to “cover up” by a staff member. A representative from the hotel later quoted the company’s policy that asks nursing mothers to be “discreet.”I suddenly wondered whether I was going to be met with the same request here in China.

In fact, no one was really bothered. I received warm smiles from patrons and staff at the restaurant. It was no big deal. The reactions made me feel extremely happy for my baby and extremely comfortable with the society in which I was bringing him up.

Breastfeeding Boost

Since then, it feels like I have breastfed all over Beijing – from the Temple of Heaven to the Summer Palace, from Mutianyu’s Great Wall to Sanlitun’s Great Leap – and I have never encountered any objections. China, it seems, is breastfeeding friendly.

And yet, the number of Chinese women who breastfeed their babies to the gold standard of six months has dropped dramatically in the last 30 years. Before reform and opening-up, exclusive breastfeeding rates in China stood at 80 percent; today, the figure is just 28 percent. In cities, it is lower still at 17 percent. Considering the vast benefits of breastfeeding to the all-round health of both infant and mother, this is a worrying trend.

The figures prompted UNICEF to start a campaign to rekindle the flame of China’s breastfeeding culture. To coincide with National Children’s Day, on May 31, 2013, UNICEF, together with China’s National Center for Women’s and Children’s Health of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, launched the 10 m2 of Love campaign. This initiative aims to boost the falling rates of breastfeeding in China by establishing 10-square-meter rooms in the country’s public buildings exclusively for the purpose of breastfeeding. The campaign stresses the importance of providing public spaces where mothers can breastfeed their children, and also ensures that suitable rooms are located, registered, and certified, enabling employees and customers in public and office buildings to take advantage of the facility.

China’s Challenge and a Working Solution

I first heard about 10 m2 of Love via a WeChat group. Since I became a mother, WeChat has been like a best friend! It has proved to be a huge source of support and a great resource for foreign mums living in China. I belong to several groups, some of which have nearly 100 members, where people can share tips and ask questions on all things related to having and raising children. Beijing’s branch of the international breastfeeding support group La Leche League (LLL) has a huge following of both expat and Chinese mums in Beijing. One of the members and LLL leaders is Eileen Fang, UNICEF’s consultant to 10 m2 of Love.

This summer marks the second anniversary of the campaign and I met Ms. Fang to find out how it had been going since its launch. I first wanted to know why the number of Chinese women breastfeeding fell so dramatically after 1978. UNICEF identified two issues: deficiencies within hospitals and the short maternity leave provision for working mothers. Both points surprised me as they were contrary to what I had experienced here; my breastfeeding journey was fully supported from the moment my baby was born to my return to work, and over one year later, we are still going strong.

But it seems my good fortune could be partly attributed to the perks of being a foreigner working in China. I had my baby in a private hospital, in a private room, where I was constantly attended to by a team of at least four medical professionals. Among them were a number of experienced nurses who could teach me how to breastfeed, troubleshoot any problems, and encourage me to persevere. In an overcrowded public hospital, it’s a different story. According to Ms. Fang, maternity doctors and nurses are so stretched that they simply cannot deliver the best advice to everyone under their care, nor spend the time a new mother needs to get to grips with breastfeeding basics. One can understand how, faced with a lack of professional help, it’s all too easy for a desperate mother to open a tin of milk powder.

Compared with the U.K.’s maternity leave provision of up to 52 weeks, the 12 weeks I had from my employer was short. But the support I was given on my return to work made it easy for me to continue breastfeeding. I had access to a private room in which to pump breastmilk for my baby’s next day feeds, and time allowances to do so thanks to China’s Special Provisions on Labor Protection of Female Employees. According to the Special Provisions, employers must give one hour of work time each day to lactating female employees for breastfeeding in the first year. However, this law first came into effect in 2012. Prior to that, the combination of short maternity leave and inflexible working conditions for new mothers had a detrimental effect on their empowerment to continue breastfeeding after their return to work.

Pressured into Formula


Ms. Fang pointed out two further reasons for China’s stagnating breastfeeding culture. The first is the grip of formula companies on the Chinese market, which took hold as the country opened up. Gillian Mellsop, UNICEF’s representative to China, has a theory: “With the opening-up of the Chinese economy, the infant formula companies have seen this as a huge market and obviously, with the second largest number of children in the world, they spent lots of money on the promotion of infant formula.”

Despite the fact that advertising of breastmilk substitutes is limited by law in China, formula companies continue to market aggressively. As recently as 2013, China Central Television revealed that French company Danone, which markets its infant formula under the brand Dumex, gave kickbacks to medical staff at a hospital of obstetrics and gynecology in Tianjin to push its infant formula products. Sources suggest that this practice of bribing and brainwashing doctors and new parents is rife.

When formula first became available in China, it was often given as a gift to new parents from well-meaning but ill-informed friends and relatives. This factor is closely linked to a second additional reason for the decline in breastfeeding in China, namely, the influence of relatives, particularly the older generation. Some observers of the change in China’s breastfeeding tradition point out that doting grandparents who remember times of hardship and food shortages in China push parents into overfeeding their babies on formula, believing a chubby baby to be a healthy baby. Ms. Fang agrees with this theory and recalls that if you compare Western baby books with Chinese ones, the photos in the former depict babies of all shapes and sizes, whereas in the latter, the babies are invariably all hao pang–so chubby.

It can be said that since reform and opening-up, there is a whole generation in China who have been deprived knowledge of the benefits of breastfeeding because of these changes in the social and cultural conditions. In Ms. Fang’s view, this is a dangerous situation. “On China’s mainland there was more of a breastfeeding culture in the past, but as formula companies continue to gain ground, this could be the final chance for campaigners to advocate breastfeeding. If three or more generations stop breastfeeding, it will be harder and harder to encourage it in the next generation,” said Ms. Fang.


Thinking back to the first time my baby “dined out” and the contrasting Claridge’s controversy back at home, it is obvious that the more often mothers are seen nursing in public, the more normal it will become and the more empowered mothers will feel to do it themselves. With this in mind, I asked Ms. Fang whether she worried about any unintended consequences of what UNICEF is trying to accomplish by setting up specific spaces for women to breastfeed. What will the next generation think about breastfeeding if it is done behind closed doors?

“The goal of the campaign is not to suggest women should hide when breastfeeding. Women and babies have the privilege of having somewhere to feed,” explained Ms. Fang. “The point of the campaign is to give women and babies a choice. They can breastfeed anywhere, but if they want to have a room, there should be one available. Of course, young girls and boys need to see nursing mothers to know it’s natural and can be done anywhere.”

The slogan “Breast is best” was used by breastfeeding advocates for a long time; but such wording has come under scrutiny in recent years – breast is not best, it’s the biological norm.Therefore, today, the emphasis of breastfeeding campaigns is “Breastfeeding is natural.” As Ms. Fang pointed out, “We are mammals first.” In this respect, 10 m2 of Love is the first step in a wider campaign to promote breastfeeding in China, to make it the “default setting” of all new mothers when they think about feeding their babies.

Love on the Go

The 10 m2 of Love mobile app was launched in September 2013. It gives users not only information on their nearest breastfeeding room, but also access to a pool of resources on breastfeeding and the contact details of local breastfeeding counselors so that help is never far away.

Some companies that have joined the campaign have been creative with their breastfeeding spaces, proving that a little can go a long way – 10 square meters is not a rule. In Zhengzhou, a bus driver allocated one of the seats on his route for nursing mothers. At a theme park in Chengdu, there are two rooms under the campaign, one inside the park and one outside the gates so passers-by can also benefit.

So how has the campaign progressed in the two years it has been running? Ms. Fang is clear – it could be going better: “It is ok; we’re still working on it. There are now nearly 1,000 breastfeeding rooms under the campaign in China; that is not enough. Even in Beijing 1,000 rooms would not be enough, even in Chaoyang District, it’s not enough.”

In the first year, 350 rooms were set up as part of the campaign. By the second year, the figure had doubled. But while the momentum of the campaign has been good, the organizers are still convinced there could be more rooms. This is where the campaign relies on a team of volunteers to contact companies to join 10 m2 of Love. Aside from the direct approach, the volunteers hold monthly breastfeeding support meetings for families to encourage working parents to ask their employers to foster a family-friendly workplace by setting up breastfeeding rooms.

Today, 93 cities in China have joined the campaign, and high-profile companies such as H&M, IKEA, and Alibaba are flying the 10 m2 of Love flag. May 20 is China’s National Breastfeeding Day. The 10 m2 of Love volunteers help organize events for this occasion, including breastfeeding “flash mobs” in city centers and shopping malls. From Kunming to Fuzhou, these peaceful displays of motherly love attract a great deal of attention, which Ms. Fang views as positive for wider promotion of breastfeeding. Ultimately, 10 m2 of Love is not only about breastfeeding rooms, but also about breastfeeding support and the revival of China’s breastfeeding culture. It is a big step in the right direction to achieving just that.