Cultural Differences in Newborn Care – 5 things that make Westerners look really weird in Chinese people’s eyes

Newborn care is different from family to family, but it also varies from culture to culture. What’s normal for me might be a complete no-go in China. Here’s a list of 5 cultural differences between China and the West in newborn care:

1. Not feeding your baby water

differences in newborn care

Most Chinese people think having your baby exclusively drink breast milk is really weird. Whenever they see a baby crying and no matter the reason, the first thing they’ll suggest is feeding him water. Maybe this is related to the fact that a majority of Chinese women feed their babies milk formula (in which case you do sometimes feed water). Maybe it’s just a cultural difference. We didn’t feed our son water until we introduced solids, but he now happily slurps away water and will say “喝” (hē, drink) and point at a glass of water when he’s thirsty.

2. Having your baby wear diapers 24/7

differences in newborn care

A widespread believe in China is that having your baby wear diapers all the time is really bad for his private parts. Split pants are common baby wear (albeit at newborn age people will often still have baby wear diapers in public). One of the positive side-effects of split pants is that Chinese infants are usually potty-trained at a younger age than their Western counterparts. Another more obvious one is that it’s more environmentally friendly. We have used paper diapers for the first few months and do a combination of diapers/no diapers now (usually he wears diapers at night and goes without during the day).

3. Using a soother

Pacifiers are a controversial issue in the West. Most people are either strictly against them or for them. In China, the issue isn’t that controversial. The prevailing opinion is that soothers are bad for your baby. Most Chinese people are afraid that a pacifier carries germs. Of all the babies I’ve seen in China, I think I saw only one using a soother. We used a pacifier for a while when we were dealing with a colicky baby, but our son has since given up using it.

4. Not dressing your baby warm enough

cultural differences in newborn care

In many Chinese people’s eyes, Westerners don’t dress their babies warm enough. In China, having your baby wear split pants is encouraged, but dressing him anything less than a Michelin baby (especially in the colder months) is deemed too cold. Also, whenever the weather’s cold, people suggest covering the baby’s face. In our case, people don’t seem to comment as much if our son wears Chinese-style outdoor clothing instead of European-style one. So maybe it’s just a matter of perspective. In recent months a popular article was shared on WeChat about dressing babies too warm. It’s about a doctor stating that more babies get sick because they are dressed too warm than too cold.

5. Having only one person take care of baby

Tending to a newborn is a 24/7 job. In many Chinese families, taking care of baby is a collective effort. Grandparents often raise kids or help out with child rearing. Many Chinese can’t believe that it’s very common in Austria to have only one parent take care of the infant during the day.

Is there anything you’d add to the list? I’d love to read your comments.

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About

Hi, I'm Ruth, welcome to China Elevator Stories! I have been living in Kunming and Shenzhen in the past and am now staying in Northeast China with my Chinese husband and our baby and toddler son. Join us on our journey bridging worlds!

27 comments

  1. I’m not sure the Chinese are the only ones who dress the baby too warmly! Here in LA, I’ve seen moms wearing light sundresses and flip-flops pushing strollers with babies wearing sleepers, complete with footies. And a blanket.

    It kills me that the baby is dressed for a Scandinavian-style nap outside in the stroller!

  2. So true! My Chinese in-laws always thought I was crazy for not dressing my baby warm enough. We started whistle training him to go potty at four months or so. I thought my mother-in-law was crazy starting this process when he was so little, but with consistency he was potty trained much earlier than his peers in the states.

    I was also shocked to find out how involved my in laws wanted to be in taking care of my son at birth for 6 months!

    As for the split pants—when I was in Chengdu some baby peed on me at the grocery store. So we did not brave the split pants. . . But my motherinlaw definitely thought diapers were pretty awful for my little one even if we kept him dry.

    They always are afraid of him getting in the sun, and whether there is wind on him, if he is drinking cold water, but they have mellowed a bit since his birth…so have I. We have kind of come together on the cultural differences… Even if it’s hard sometimes to stretch your mind around doing a simple thing a new way.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience!

      Mine aren’t so much afraid of the sun (“why would you want him to put on a hat, it’s sunny outside”), but still very much of wind/the cold. I think finding balance is key. They’ve realised that having him wear too much doesn’t help, since he’s always quite hot and I try not to take him outside if it’s raining or there’s a lot of wind.

      Luckily, they also didn’t say much about the diapers. We only use split pants when our son is at home or at the in-laws’. We still have him wear diapers in public spaces. So far it works well enough.

      We have also kind of come together on the cultural differences, there’s just one thing that bothers me, which is them not letting him do anything on his own without interrupting. I hope this will also get better with time!

  3. robert

    The one thing I notice is that Chinese almost always seem to carry their babies in their arms. The pretty much never use those slings (as on the picture above) or baby-rucksacks or whatever you call them.
    I can understand why strollers suck, with the sidewalks in sorry states or parked full with scooters, but such a carrying harness seems more comfortable to me (ok, I’m not a dad yet, so I never tried).

    • Traditionally, babies used to be carried with a sling on the back when parents or grandparents were working on the fields, but those slings aren’t very popular anymore. People say they are bad for baby’s neck, since when baby falls asleep, the head will bend sideways almost 90 degree to the rest of the body. Many people here also think slings like the one I used are bad for baby’s posture. I’ve seen people here use baby rucksacks a lot, though, and there are also other things like a “seat” for your waist to carry around toddler (not for newborns). The slings surely aren’t as popular as in Austria and the one my husband uses (side sling for the shoulder) always gets a lot of oh’s and ah’s (“omg, there’s a baby inside!”).

      I think it depends on the harness you use, but I also think that especially when baby can’t walk yet and isn’t too heavy, carrying harnesses are a good alternative to strollers – which aren’t always that convenient in China or which your baby might not like too much (ours never stays in there for too long stretches, he hates everything with safety belts).

  4. Thank you for this post! Super valuable as we are expecting our first kid later this year. I have a feeling that I’m going to be a strange sight in our alleys!

    @robert, I’ve noticed the same thing and wonder how strong their arms are that they can carry their babies everywhere without s baby carrier etc. Good work out for sure.

    • I surely was a strange sight for most people around, but the good thing is that people here love babies and small kids. It helps to keep this in mind when people comment on everything you do with baby from A-Z.

      And believe me, no matter if you use a harness or not, you’ll definitely build a lot of muscles yourself once baby’s here!

  5. Cheryl

    Oh god, the last one. I have a 2 month old and I want to throw myself off a bridge somedays because my mother in law is so annoying. She thinks I need help changing a diaper! She’s gotten a lot better and realized that I don’t need/want help all the time so it’s not as bad now but they’re here for another three months and I may actually go crazy!

    • Just keep in mind that this is a cultural difference and she just wants to help, although her help might be overbearing at (all?) times. We had the same problem. We had her live with us when baby was around 3-5 months and it just didn’t work out very well. All 4 of us (including baby) didn’t get the rest we needed and were more exhausted than before. She wasn’t able to relax knowing that baby was around, always checking when he was sleeping, which made him wake up, me having to try to get him back to sleep of course making me exhausted, … To us, having them stay at their own place and having either her or me take care of baby (not both at the same time) has worked much better. But that’s probably not an option for you, since you seem to live in a different city than her?

      Also, have you tried let her take care of baby while you take some alone time (either just you or go on a date with your s.o.?). That’s what we sometimes did, it also helped a little.

  6. I was a huge fan of the baby carrier when our son was younger. I think they are becoming more popular although the styles in China are sometimes different from those that are popular in the west. Occasionally people would ask me if my son was uncomfortable when I used it, but it didn’t seem too “controversial.”

    The water thing was not up for debate. My husband and mother-in-law were very firm on their belief that the baby needed water from day one. I’m from the US and doctors warn against babies drinking anything but milk until they begin to wean (eat solid food). So my son has drank water since the day he was born and he is perfectly fine. I guess you just have to pick your battles!

    Ruth, I can’t believe your baby can already say “drink” in Chinese! That’s so cute. William still isn’t saying anything and he’s 14 months. 🙁

    • Yeah, actually I’ve seen young people here using them a lot in summer compared to the older generations, who seem to prefer carrying the babies on their arms.

      I’ve also gotten my share of “it’s uncomfortable for baby” comments (usually from older Chinese women) when using the sling, but reality proved them wrong. Baby always loved to be carried around in it and fell asleep easily.

      Have you ever tried showing them articles that would prove that your way of doing things would be perfectly okay too? If the water is good quality, I don’t think it will hurt baby (since everyone here seems to feed baby water from the start), it’s just cultural differences.

      I’m sure William will start talking when he’s ready. Every child takes steps at their own pace and I’m sure he can already understand a lot, even though he doesn’t talk yet. It is incredibly cute to hear them start babbling though!

      • Yes, I’ve tried showing them things that “prove” my way of thinking and I’m told that things are done different here and that I should “do as the Romans do.” I’ve had numerous discussions about how I don’t want him given antibiotics or taking so much medicine when he has a cold but I’ve been argued into submission pretty much every time. They argue that we’re in China and that he’s a (half) Chinese baby so he will react to things differently than a foreign baby or in a foreign country. It is very hard as the doctors here share in their mindset on most of the issues so I just come across as the silly foreigner. It’s actually really upsetting for me. 🙁

        • I’m sorry to hear that finding compromises is so hard in your family. I’m not saying one has to always stick to her own way of doing things, but finding compromises that work for everyone would make the situation easier for all the people involved.

          Have you tried looking for Chinese articles that would prove your point? Like for example in the matter of giving antibiotics or other medicine?

          I know it’s hard to change other people’s perspectives, I’m wondering if you have anyone in your family who could take your side and help you out in some of the issues that are really important to you.

          • I’m afraid it’s really not that easy, especially since my husband has already raised a child and the doctors here uphold this way of thinking. I think the situation will be different when we live in the US as I’ll be the one make more decisions about health care and other issues related to the kids. Time will tell. . . .

  7. I think I would have serious problems with #5. I am really bad at tolerating intromissions in my private life and I can only imagine how annoyed I would get if my parents or in-laws tried to tell me how to care for my own child.

    Besides that, I think all the other cultural differences you stated are relatively harmless.

    • Yeah, it’s not easy if the cultural expectations are really different in this regard. But if you do have the support of your husband, you should be able to find a way that works for all. We tried different methods and found one that kind of works (mainly the in-laws staying at their own place when taking care of our son and only having them take care of him when we don’t, not at the same time) and makes everyone happy (including our son).

  8. Oh I can just agree with you in these points. But as in other comments already mentioned it always depends on the people when it comes to dressing up the baby with much clothes. When Nathan was born he just got the body, socks, gloves and a hat to keep him warm, nothing else. The hopstial staff said that it is plenty especially as he was spending most of the time in the hospital with his mother 🙂

  9. I’ve been curious about the split pants for a while. I noticed my boyfriend’s niece wearing them all the time in China, but I didn’t understand their purpose till now. 😀

  10. I loved your post – it’s so (so) true, I recall a friend being admonished in the street by someone she did not know because her baby was not wearing enough clothes (on a very warm day). Thankyou for sharing.

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  12. Yikes…thanks for the warnings is all I can say. (I might be meeting baby-father’s mother in May) In Russia my mom was encouraged to give me and my younger sister water to drink because it will be better for stools, I think, but I won’t be doing that with my child. (Kind of argued about that.) Both mom and I agree about potty training the little one early (Russia had cloth diapers, and yes I was also potty trained early.) I didn’t know Chinese viewed soothers that way, my mom thinks to start using pacifiers from day one, while I read that its best to use pacifiers when one establishes a breast feeding pattern. For #4 I’ll have to see, although I don’t think the little one will be wearing winter things when its summer, although if its slightly cold in the spring, yeah, beware. For #5 it takes a village to raise a child, and due to some circumstances my parents will help me with some duties while the rest I’ll be on my own.

    • Yeah, in Austria we usually add water once we introduce solids.

      You can always try out different things to see what works for you and your family and adjust accordingly. We did that a lot, because sometimes you just can’t know beforehand how everything will work out. For example, our son used a pacifier from 2-3 months, but refused it afterwards. Which was fine with us.

      Don’t worry about it beforehand, you’ll be doing just fine.

  13. Lana

    I can’t believe it but my Taiwanese MIL does the exact opposite – I actually have to fight her at times which causes a lot of stress in the family. We live in Alaska and it is windy here, yet she insists on taking him outside without a jacket and a light hat ( 8 months old). He barely has any hair! She also likes to show him computer/videos on the phone and she wants him to be showered every single day even though he doesn’t like and it is cold/dry to the skin.

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