One of the most interesting things behind the whole horrible scandal involving tainted baby formula is that breastfeeding is not that popular in China. So far four babies have died and more than 6,000 have been sickened by milk powder that was spiked with the chemical melamine -- which makes the milk seem like it contains more protein than it really does.
You'd think breastfeeding would be widespread in a society that retains the appearance of being close to its agricultural roots, in a society that literally worships human milk. There's a Chinese expression: ren nai zhi bai bing (Human milk cures 100 illnesses.) During the biblical floods in southern China in '98, China's Central Television ran footage of wet nurses dispatched to the barricades to offer their milk to Chinese soliders. The CCTV footage showed one Chinese GI rubbing the stuff into his hair.
But scratch the surface and China seems to have turned away from breastfeeding just as we in the United States have embraced it. In the '40s and '50s American women were inveigled to abandon the breast and replace it with formula. Science! in the form of milk powder and super nutrients would make baby strong! After a few decades, we'd junked those ideas and now in the 21st century we've re-embraced the breast. Just the opposite with the Chinese. In the '40s and '50s, breastfeeding was universal in China. The country was too poor to afford formula.
But as China grew richer in the '70s and '80s, its women turned away from breastfeeding. Now, according to the All-China Women's Federation, only 47 percent of Chinese women breastfeed and most specialists think that the numbers are actually lower. One study noted that breastfeeding rates around Beijing were as low as 13.6 percent at four months in the 1990s down from more than 80 percent in early 1950s.
Despite a nationwide campaign to encourage breastfeeding, the same call -- Science! -- has convinced many to do away with the breast pump and embrace formula. In addition, the structure of the Chinese family -- more working mothers, the babies raised by grandparents -- makes the use of formula so much more convenient. And in this case so much more harmful to the poor children who drank the tainted brew from the Sanlu milk company.
China's turn away from breastfeeding is another sign that the Chinese are junking their traditions. Another example, when it comes to toddlers, is the kai dang ku -- the pants with a split in the crotch that allows babies to pee and poop at will. In place of the kai dang ku? Diapers. Diaper sales in China are, like those of milk formula, skyrocketing. Yearly sales are well over $200 million the official China Daily reported.
While obviously there are health implications of random peeing and pooping babies, there are other consequences, too. For one, Chinese kids used to be toilet trained -- during waking hours -- at around six months and could go by themselves at 14 months. Now, like Western kids, the process is stretching into their 2s and 3s.