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Why Is China's Baby Care Industry Booming?


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep, with a mystery about China. This is a country with a one-child policy- controversial, but effective. It has held the fertility rate of the world's most populous country to an average of 1.6 births per woman. That is lower than Norway, lower than Sweden, lower than the United States. But here's mystery: Why, with a stable number of births each year, is China's baby care business booming? NPR's Frank Langfitt explains from Shanghai.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Chinese tradition dictates that new moms must spend their first month indoors. Older generations think this protects the health of the mother and child. Young moms often go stir crazy. Cao, a Shanghai accountant, just gave birth to a daughter. She ticks off the rules she's supposed to follow.

CAO: (Through translator) For instance, at home, the more traditional approach says you cannot bathe or wash your hair. And there are many things you can't eat, like raw fruit.

LANGFITT: Cao doesn't believe in this stuff, but she still shares a home with her parents. So after she gave birth, she and her daughter checked into Care Bay. It's essentially a full-service hotel for new moms and babies.

CAO: (Through translator) Here, there are no such limits. You can take a shower, wash your hair. If we spend the month at home, we may have conflicts with our parents. We young people prefer modern ways. Coming here gives us more freedom.

LANGFITT: And nice amenities. Rooms are equipped with king-size beds, flat-screen TVs and milk-bottle sterilizers.


LANGFITT: A screen lowers from the ceiling to provide privacy to a nursing mother.


LANGFITT: Downstairs is a baby spa with four small pools...


LANGFITT: ...where the staff bathes infants. Care Bay has two facilities in Shanghai and one in Beijing. The cheapest rooms here go for more than $12,000 a month. Athera Chao, the company's president, says there's lots of demand.

ATHERA CHAO: (Through translator) Here we have 33 rooms. Almost 80 to 90 percent of the rooms are booked. In August and September, there were too many clients. Some had to stay in hotels for a couple of days.

LANGFITT: Care Bay is an extreme example of a growing trend: Chinese families spending more and more on their babies. It's a result of growing incomes and the demographics of a one-child policy.

LIAM BUSSELL: What this leads to is something called a six-pocket syndrome.

LANGFITT: Liam Bussell is Asia-Pacific strategic marketing manager for Mintel, a research firm.

BUSSELL: You have two parents, and then four grandparents, essentially all buying for a single child.

LANGFITT: And increasingly willing to pay for quality and safety. Bussell says baby food sales jumped more than 400 percent between 1999 and 2009. The market is now worth more than $9 billion a year. One reason: many parents swore off cheaper Chinese baby food in 2008. That's when companies here were caught lacing milk and formula with melamine, an industrial chemical. Six children died.

BUSSELL: There are a lot of people buying the more expensive formulas, imported formulas, safe brands, what they consider safe.

CHRISTINE CHING: I'm Christine Ching, working for Huggies in China.

LANGFITT: Traditionally most Chinese children don't wear diapers. They wear pants that open so they can relieve themselves. Even on city sidewalks.

CHING: There's this product called split pants. Split pants, basically you have a hole in the middle so that the baby can pee anywhere, anytime.

LANGFITT: Ching, who works for Kimberley-Clark, says sales of disposable diapers are rising rapidly and still have room to grow. As families become more conscious of hygiene, Ching sees big opportunity.

CHING: This is, like, a huge market. And imagine, in China, we have 16 million newborns every year.

LANGFITT: The key: convincing more parents to shift from the old ways and invest in a modern convenience for themselves and their kids.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.