On April 16, a three-month-old infant died after her mother followed an online child-care consultancy platform’s advice. The lady put the infant to sleep face-down and opted not to intervene while watching the baby crying through a monitor, local media Beijing News reported.
The incident was made public and sparked criticism and concern over the online parenting consulting business. The industry has been booming, driven by the country’s overall promotion of the second-child policy, along with a vast number of millennials born in the 1990s who are beginning to start families and see the internet as a reliable resource for information, according to a report from iiMedia, a third-party research firm.
Screenshots circulating online show that before the baby died, the mother was posting CCTV footage of the baby and begging for help in a WeChat chat group, set up by a parenting education agency called “Zhishi Xiaohuntun,” or “Small Cheese Wonton” in English.
Group members reassured her that the consultants at Small Cheese Wonton told them not to intervene during the training process despite the mother expressing concern that the baby could suffocate, according to the screenshots.
Previously, the mother purchased a 10-day online parenting guidance service worth RMB 1,999 (USD 282) from the company, where she was taught the “cry-it-out” method, a technique to train babies’ ability to sleep independently without parents’ consoling.
After the 10-day service, provided through messaging apps and phone calls, she entered a VIP WeChat group, in which members include clients of the company and a few consultants.
“I was heartbroken and angry after seeing the news. After all, the baby was a newborn, and just arrived in this world,” said Yu Guo, a mother of a 7-month-old.
As a new mother, she said she totally understands why the mother wanted to train her baby to sleep. Some nights seem endless for parents when babies have erratic sleep patterns—and it’s also good for babies themselves, she explained.
“On one hand, the current babysitting consulting market in China is a mixture of good and bad, since there’s no industry standard and the public doesn’t have a lot of knowledge about the field. Organizations set up a WeChat official account and casually post some certificates to show their professionalism,” Yu said.
“On the other hand, the mother was ignorant. Letting a three-month-old infant sleep face-down would very likely lead to suffocation since the baby doesn’t even know how to flip over,” she added.
Online parenting market
The online parenting and infant market’s valuation will reach RMB 3000 billion (USD 423 billion) this year, growing steadily from 2018’s RMB 2777 billion (USD 392 billion), research institute Analysys predicted.
In addition, per iiMedia data, the number of users on China’s comprehensive parenting advice platforms was estimated to reach 204 million by the end of 2019. More than half of users go on these platforms to obtain information related to parenting knowledge, while many parents also buy maternal products on these sites as well.
Online platforms Mama Net and Baby Tree are the leaders in the industry, with 26.5 million and 16.1 million monthly active users on their apps as of August 2019, respectively. These apps are not only a space for knowledge sharing and advice-seeking but also an online marketplace for maternity products. As WeChat is ubiquitous in China, these companies also operate WeChat official accounts providing quicker access to information and also create WeChat groups for parents (or expecting parents) who are in the same city.
Along with these platforms, there are also many so-called influencers peddling parenting advice to new parents on Chinese social media platforms including WeChat, microblogging platform Weibo, short-video app Douyin, and lifestyle-sharing platform RED (Xiaohongshu).
For example, Niangao (“sticky rice”) Mama, a baby care key opinion leader (KOL) whose name is Li Danyang, has 300 million followers on her WeChat public account. Li, who graduated from Zhejiang University with a master’s degree in clinical medicine, started to post her notes about child-rearing on WeChat in 2014 and gradually gained popularity.
The expert in child care turned to entrepreneurship and now has an established company to operate Niaogao Mama accounts on a variety of social media platforms. She also launched an app that provides paid classes and parenthood-related products.
According to a survey conducted by Tencent from July 2018 to June 2019 involving more than 2000 parents with kids under three-years-old, Tencent’s WeChat plays a significant role in new Chinese parents’ purchasing decision process. More than half of parents learn about parenting products from WeChat’s chat groups, friend’s Moments, and brands’ official accounts. Also, 46% of new parents in China get product information in brands’ own chat groups.
A huge market with insufficient regulation
In this burgeoning industry which directly targets parents and children, there are several unattended issues regarding the lack of authorized standards and certificates (especially for some more niche services, such as baby sleep consulting), and the vague definition of business services under current regulations, an opinion piece by local media the Paper wrote. Also, there are insufficient standards to determine credibility for professionals operating in this sector, the author added.
“For us in this market, we also hope the parenting education industry could be better regulated,” said Chen Yu, co-founder at baby sleep consulting firm Cheerslove, and a “maternity and child sleep coach” certificated by the International Maternity and Parenting Institue (IMPI).
“There’s no single comprehensive solution for baby care. Some organizations use a well-airbrushed model to lure anxious parents of newborns, but baby care is really case by case—every baby and every family has its own situation,” Chen said.
According to Chinese media, the childcare company behind Small Cheese Wonton, named Shanghai Changmei Culture, has been under investigation by the local department for industry and commerce and its operations on Weibo and WeChat have stopped following the incident.
The company’s representative Du Cong hasn’t replied to KrASIA‘s request regarding this issue yet.