Until recently, I didn’t know where to begin writing about giving birth in Taipei.

I’m not Serena Williams, who won the 2017 Australian Open while pregnant then survived a traumatic birth experience. I’m not Janet Hsieh either. She’s the Taiwanese-American celebrity who shared her recent pregnancy in such detailed posts on her Facebook and Instagram that it’s possible I knew more about her pregnancy than my own. Who am I to attempt writing about this complex and timeless topic? I’ve only been a mum for about four months!

But then I had my first episode of spontaneous mother’s rage.

A couple of weeks back, there was a 20-something guy smoking at the entrance of my local baby shop. The sight of this idiot puffing his stupid cigarette literally one step away from the sliding door made me lash out almost as a reflex action. With my baby girl strapped to my chest, I shouted in Mandarin, “WHY ARE YOU SMOKING HERE? IN FRONT OF A CHILDREN’S STORE?” My outburst shoo-ed the guy away like a rat slinking back to its sewer. Then baby and I exchanged knowing looks before we went inside to buy something extremely urgent. Probably wet wipes.

That brief incident unlocked just enough confidence in me to share my casual observations and first-timer’s tips with you here. So what’s it like being pregnant and giving birth in Taipei? Let’s recap.

How *not* to pick a clinic or hospital in Taipei

Most Taiwanese people will tell you to go with a big hospital in case anything goes wrong and you need access to other medical departments. It’s sound advice, isn’t it? Well, naturally we didn’t do that. Around the two-month mark, I took my national insurance card and we walked into Dianthus, the new birth clinic we had passed by hundreds of times because it was next door to our local Wellcome supermarket. That’s right, we picked our birth clinic because it was a five-minute stroll from our apartment.

Our laziness worked out great for us. After asking around, we learned that Dianthus is a private clinic that’s highly rated with cutting-edge equipment and a very modern (you could say Western) approach to pregnancy and childbirth. Our first appointment went smoothly, and we liked that they have an app where we could book ahead of time and download ultrasound images and test results.

How to pick a doctor

Taiwanese people will say you should pick a doctor who’s “famous”, or who studied overseas, or who went to NTU, or who’s related to them so you’ll get special treatment. Again, we didn’t do that. Not knowing anything about Dianthus, we simply booked our first appointment with the on-call doctor.

We were told early on that all the Dianthus doctors share patient histories and information, so unless you schedule your delivery (which a lot of local families do so their baby is born on a “lucky” date) you won’t know which doctor will be on-call when you go into labor. This was okay with me, since I’m not the type who gets attached even though I heard it’s common practice in the US and Australia — and maybe other clinics in Taiwan, who knows — to have your own doctor during delivery.

Our spin-the-wheel method meant we saw two doctors at Dianthus during the course of my pregnancy. One was a woman, the other a man. Both were in their late 40s I think, they were helpful, competent and low-key. (You can probably tell I don’t even know their Chinese names*) Maybe we lucked out, or maybe that’s how all the doctors at Dianthus are.

Just to play devil’s advocate, we went to another recommended clinic around the seventh month of my pregnancy. Our appointment there felt like a really bad first date. During the ultrasound the doctor, who was wearing a jade pinkie ring (this should have been a sign) said my baby’s head was very large “for a girl” and recommended I stop eating cheese, seafood and red meat to slow down its growth. How is that even medical advice? And was this doctor negging my baby?! He also recommended inducing birth or scheduling a C-section solely because of her head size. No thanks. I walked out of that place totally anxious.

At our next appointment at Dianthus, I asked our doctor about the large head issue. He laughed and said babies aren’t made in factories to specification. I wanted to hug him.

*For the record, my doctors’ names were 吳濬明 and 沈可欣. I’m not a complete sociopath.

What baby checkups are like

We had maybe a dozen appointments at Dianthus during my pregnancy. The routine went like this:

We checked in at the front desk with my national insurance card. Then we sat until my name was called for the blood pressure test, urine test and weight measurement. (Yep, I was weighed every time which I was pretty self-conscious about.) After that, I had the appointment with my doctor and we’d finish with an ultrasound scan where we’d said hi to the little blob in my belly while the doctor logged the baby’s measurements. Then we paid fees at the front desk (ultrasound scans not subsidized or covered by health insurance were 500TWD a session), we’d schedule the next appointment with the receptionist, and the three of us would walk home. Ta-da.

Important to note: If you don’t speak fluent Chinese and prefer to communicate in English, Dianthus does charge extra for a translator. Definitely ask about it before you commit to Dianthus.

Midway through my pregnancy, I learned that ultrasounds aren’t supposed to be so frequent. In fact, having unnecessary ultrasounds is a little controversial because the effects aren’t fully known. (There’s a lot of info online about this.) I also heard from my cousin who gave birth in Copenhagen that she only had three ultrasounds during her pregnancy. Are monthly ultrasounds just a Dianthus thing, or an Asian thing in general?

I’ll admit the routine ultrasounds did end up causing me anxiety. For instance, there were a couple of months in my second trimester when the baby was described as “underweight”, which made me question what I was doing wrong. And as I mentioned earlier, her head was apparently growing faster compared to other babies at the same stage. 

Since this extra information was causing me stress, I decided to skip the ultrasound during one of my later appointments. The doctor was a tiny bit taken aback. She even noted in my file that we refused the ultrasound. I felt a little guilty, like I was already neglecting my kid! But no biggie. Our baby girl turned out just fine, big mushroom head and all.

What it’s like having a 35+ pregnancy

Being 35 years old during pregnancy, and 36 by the time my baby arrived, I was considered “advanced maternal age”. This meant testing weighed heavily on us, and each negative test was a hurdle we were relieved to have passed. We tried to be calm and not let fear or worry take control, but of course it’s not always easy being a first-timer.

I found my doctors at Dianthus generally erred on the side of caution, letting us know most first-time mothers “my age” would choose to get the optional follow-up tests for peace of mind. We were lucky because we have a good friend in Sydney who’s an obstetric surgeon and we had him look over my test results. (We asked Dianthus for English versions of test results.) If it wasn’t for this second opinion, I think we may have decided to pay for the follow-up tests even though they weren’t necessary for our situation.

Another issue that popped up was the shocking fact that I had put on weight after a two-week trip to NYC and Chicago to see friends. (My “solo babymoon”, I like to call it.) I ate slice pizza and gelato at every opportunity and put on some weight because, hello, I was pregnant. Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal except my gestational diabetes test was scheduled at Dianthus the day after I got back to Taipei. That was really stupid timing. I failed the last stage of the 3-part test.

Seeing I put on 2kg in a month, which in the US and Australia would be a non-event, my doctor furrowed her brow and immediately sent me to the Dianthus nutritionist. I tried to explain the abundance of gelato in New York and the lack of gelato in Taipei, but it didn’t matter. She talked me through a boring meal plan (no rice, no yogurt, no cereal) which I knew would be impossible to follow since my strange pregnancy craving was bowls upon bowls of Corn Flakes doused with cold milk*. I feel like a rebellious teenager admitting this: I totally ignored her. I knew once I was back on my unexciting, gelato-less Taipei diet and walking up and down the stairs of our 4th floor apartment, the extra weight would naturally evaporate. Which it did.

To compare, my cousin in Copenhagen who’s 6 months younger than me really wanted to take a gestational diabetes test during her pregnancy. She’s a scientist at the University of Copenhagen and just lives for data. But the hospital wouldn’t do it unless she proved a family history of diabetes.

*I’m okay admitting now that the milk was cold, but back then if someone saw me drinking cold milk the cereal bowl would’ve been smacked right out of my hands. It’s a Chinese thing.

Where to take a birth class in Taipei

Soon after I became pregnant, I started shamelessly reaching out to people I knew (a couple of them I barely knew) to chat about their experiences giving birth in Taipei. Some were more Western like me. Some spoke limited Chinese like me. Others were fully Taiwanese. I listened to stories where the mother didn’t really have a plan and just followed instructions from their doctor. I heard about sudden C-sections, planned C-sections, cranky nurses and brutal episiotomies. I kept all this knowledge in the back of my mind until it was time to consider the kind of birth I’d prefer. Gulp.

In my third trimester, I was told about English-language birth classes with Angela Chang, a Canadian mother of three and certified doula who lives in Neihu. The classes involved two 3-hour Saturday morning sessions in September with one other couple. When we weren’t sitting there in stunned shock and silence we were actually having a good time. (Sometimes the classes can have as many as eight couples, which would’ve been a lot of fun too.)

In class, Angela covered everything we didn’t even know we needed to know about the labor process, pain relief options, possible complications, breastfeeding, and most importantly, how Taiwan practices can differ from Western approaches. My husband learned how he could help me through labor, and what to do when labor started. We went home equipped with all the info we needed to make the big decisions about the birth. Hands-down the best 6,000TWD we spent in 2017.

Angela is also a certified doula. If you don’t speak Chinese and you need help communicating with doctors, she’d be perfect. Plus she has an insider’s perspective of how Taiwanese doctors, midwives and hospitals work. You can contact Angela through her Beautiful Beginnings page on Facebook.

How to put together your birth plan

At the birth class, we learned two things about Dianthus: it’s one of only two places in Taipei that offers water birth, and their head midwife is amazing.

So after the first class, we quickly booked an appointment with the head midwife at Dianthus. Her name is 張錦姝. Until then, we weren’t sure where we wanted to give birth — a big hospital was still on the table — but after meeting the head midwife, we locked it down with Dianthus. She felt like the kind of person we could trust, she was sensible and rational, and she didn’t speak down to us even when my husband asked 10 questions in a row about what happens if I poop during birth. All with a straight face. (“What happens if she poops in the water bath? What happens if the poop isn’t solid? What happens to the baby if the baby touches the water with the poop in it?”)

We met with her twice before my due date. The first appointment was to find out about the midwife service (it’s a separate, paid birth service you opt into) and the second time to discuss our Dianthus birth plan, which is basically a checklist of things we consented or didn’t consent to. Gross things like whether I’d be okay with an episiotomy (um, no) or a vacuum-assisted delivery (no, again). Necessary things like if I’d want an epidural for the pain (I think I ticked “maybe” but inside I was thinking “most definitely yes give it to me are you joking”.) There were also important things we learned about in birth class: like waiting a few minutes to clamp the umbilical cord blood and waiting 24 hours to wash the baby after birth (we decided yes for both).

The water birth part was a little trickier to decide. Since water birth isn’t in demand in Taipei, Dianthus only has one water tub and it’s in their Neihu branch, not the Xinsheng branch near us. Did we want to go all the way to Neihu during labor for the water birth room, and risk it not being available because someone else was using it?

We decided it didn’t make sense for us, however we did go to Dianthus in Neihu to take a tour of their facilities before we made that choice. By some crazy bad luck we didn’t get to see the water birth room because someone was in there having a baby.

I should mention again that Dianthus is a private clinic, so we paid out of pocket for the birth. From a financial standpoint, the reasoning was I’d already decided against a confinement hotel post-delivery (more about that later) so I settled on a nicer, private room for the delivery. In hospitals you typically stay in a twin room, with private ones depending on availability. At Dianthus, all rooms are private. Plus they’re new and don’t feel hospital-like at all. Baby and I ended up staying 4 or 5 nights.

Finally, I just have to say that having the midwife in the room with my husband and me was the most important thing ever. Before things got serious, she took me for an hour-long walk around Daan Park so I could get some fresh air. Then she stayed with us in the room during my labor until it was time for the doctor and nurses to come in for delivery, and made sure they followed my birth plan as much as possible. (The pain. Oh, the pain.)

If it wasn’t for her, it would have felt like me trying to fly a plane by myself with my husband helping with navigation, both of us clueless and freaked out. We couldn’t have done it without her.

How to navigate breastfeeding

The birth class with Angela prepared me to take on breastfeeding, but of course I wouldn’t know what it would be like until baby and I started trying together. The good news is they take breastfeeding seriously at Dianthus.

During our stay, on-call nurses came in every couple of hours to make sure the baby was latching properly, and they didn’t leave until I felt comfortable. A lactation specialist also dropped in to check up on us to make sure I was picking it up. Some nurses were more gentle than others. One nurse was incredibly annoying because she spoke to me with a baby voice as if I was a teen mom. There were a few times I was close to losing it.

We left Dianthus with a goodie bag of stuff from the Japanese brand Pigeon, like diapers, baby bath gel and shampoo, breastfeeding pads and a cute glass milk bottle for newborns. (I heard that Pigeon is distributed in Taiwan by the wife of the Dianthus founder.) We also paid for two small tins of SD26 formula to take home with us as backup. This smaller size isn’t sold in retail stores, only hospitals and clinics. Knowing what I know now, I would have purchased a couple more of the small tins because formula is only usable one month after opening and we ended up wasting a lot.

At home, I tried all sorts of pumps with varying levels of success, and also drank the tea mix that’s supposed to help with milk production. (Who knows if the tea works, to be honest.) For the pumps, I started with a second-hand Medela hand pump from a friend. Then we bought an electric portable Medela which only pumped one side at a time. About a month after getting home, I was ready to take things up a notch.

My husband called the Medela office to book a hospital grade pump, then went to pick it up from their location near Shin Tien Temple. The pump came in an intimidating blue toolbox and still sits on our bathroom counter like a piece of serious hardware. My breastmilk wasn’t fully steady until almost three months after I got home. Now it feels easy, but back then it was touch and go sometimes. I can understand why some new mothers decide to stop.

If you’re curious, here’s some info from their website about pump rentals. You can do everything online. If I could go back in time, I would’ve started using the hand pump right after delivery and upgraded to the rented hospital-grade pump as soon as I got home. It would have saved a lot of time and stress. Also make sure you remember to order the hands-free pump bra online so you can take care of urgent things while pumping, such as put filters on all the baby photos you’ve been taking.

How to plan for confinement month

If you’re pregnant in Taiwan, people will ask about these two things: if you’re planning a natural birth or a C-section, and whether or not you’ll be staying at a confinement hotel.

When I was doing my initial research and speaking with people who’d given birth in Taipei, I was frequently told how great confinement hotels are. They’re like five star hotels. It’s like a full-service vacation after giving birth. It feels like delaying the realities of parenthood. You can to catch up on sleep and recuperate, etc. I even found this article on Quartz from 2017 about how it’s a booming industry here in Taiwan, despite the birth rate being so low.

There are a lot of reasons new mothers decide to go to confinement hotels, but I knew I’d prefer to be at home. (Also the costs add up!) I don’t regret skipping it, though I know plenty of new mothers who have done it — for 10 days, two weeks or even three weeks, instead of the full month — and absolutely loved it. It’s so popular families book their confinement stays months in advance of the due date.

Anyway, my issue with confinement was never about where I’d be staying. Immediately after announcing I was pregnant, I was told to avoid eating anything cold (in temperature and in terms of “chi”) and I was frequently reminded by my mother and mother-in-law it would be best that I follow the rules of confinement for at least a month.

This would involve not washing my hair, eating hot soup almost every meal of the day, not leaving the house, not eating things that would allegedly stop my breastmilk from coming in (like chives, for whatever reason), and drinking a Chinese medicine concoction my mum bought from a Chinese medicine shop. I had to heat up the prepared packets and drink morning and night. It tasted like wet soil.

I did all of my confinement obligations*, except for the hair washing part which I was flat-out against. It’s remarkable how many people still believe this old wives’ tale. Even my hairdresser, who I assume is around my age, warned me about the dangers of washing my hair during confinement. Hearing that made me want to lather up excessively every night as if I was in a Pantene commercial.

*I may have snuck out to the supermarket once or twice and possibly dropped into the wine bar around the corner to eat some raw oysters and dessert. However none of this can be proven.

What to buy, and where to shop in Taipei

During my babymoon, I ordered a lot of baby stuff from Amazon and brought it all back with me from New York. This might sound crazy, but I even flew back with a stroller after doing a lot of obsessive research. (The one I decided to get, the Uppababy Cruz, wasn’t available in Taipei at the time.)

For myself, I also bought a diaper bag, prenatal vitamins, organic nipple balm, alcohol test strips for breastmilk and maternity jeans. For the baby, I ordered a lot of English baby books. I was also grateful for a lot of hand-me-down clothes, swaddles, baby books and equipment from close friends and cousins. It filled up a massive suitcase pretty quick.

Of course most of the things I bought are available in Taipei anyway. We live near a Kodomo baby store (where I raged against that smoker) so we drop in a few times a week to pick up standards like diapers, wet wipes, baby detergent and baby dish soap. One night in those first few weeks I asked my husband to run over to buy a mobile for the baby’s crib certain it was the secret to getting her to sleep. (It wasn’t.)

Other chain stores in Taipei like Mothercare and Mamaway are pretty much useless for daily essentials. Like the kids floors at Sogo or Shinkong Mitsukoshi, they cater more to gift-buyers instead of parents, and their prices are insane. (More evidence of a culture where birth rates are low.) For things that aren’t urgent, we order online from Momo or Malldj.

I should probably mention that I run an online gift registry platform for weddings and baby showers, so I’m pretty up to date when it comes to “hot” baby brands and must-have items. The truth is you don’t need most of that stuff.

For instance, instead of buying a changing pad and changing pad sheets, we’re still using this 299TWD inflatable baby pad from IKEA with a soft towel thrown over it. And if you’re thinking about getting colorful foam floor tiles, I’d suggest buying a floor mat from the Korean brand Parklon. The colors and designs won’t burn your eyes and they’re reasonably priced. Ours is in the living room and used daily during tummy time.

One last thing about shopping for baby supplies: avoid the baby trade fairs at all costs. We went to one at the World Trade Center in Xinyi and it was a nightmare. I imagined we’d be wandering around casually collecting samples of this and that, then going home for a relaxing nap. No, the lines to collect any sample were 20 to 30 people deep, and they required you to add the brand on LINE or leave your personal info. The only reason I can think of to go would be if you wanted to taste-test multiple confinement meal catering companies.

Um, what else?

  • Don’t choose Kenting for your resort-style babymoon like we did.
  • Pack a new pair of pajamas and a fluffy robe for your clinic stay. The ones they give you at the clinic are just a tiny bit hideous.
  • If you need to replace your mattress, pillows or bed sheets do it before your due date because you’ll be spending a lot of time in bed. But don’t buy sheets from MUJI, they’re the worst.
  • Get a bed tray so you can work on your laptop or eat from bed during confinement.
  • Buy an air purifier and dehumidifier machine that can also dry baby laundry for those Taipei days with questionable air quality.
  • If you need fresh onesies, buy zip-up onesies from Uniqlo or Gap instead of snap ones. Saves so much time. If you can swing it, get your hands on the double-zip “Wondersuit” design from the Australian brand Bonds.
  • Don’t step inside the kids section at Zara unless they’re having a sale. Trust me. Things are too cute there.
  • If like me you used two-week contact lenses pre-pregnancy, switch to daily disposables and never, ever go back. So worth it.