Birth Day Choices, Bangkok, 1982

Published on: March 17, 2012

Photo: The first BABIES (now Bumps & Babies) meeting. What was it like giving birth to a baby in Bangkok 30 years ago? Mel Habanananda, BAMBI Patron and founder, and midwife by profession, tells us about those days with a smile. By Mel Habanananda Thirty years ago Bangkok was congested, polluted, messy, noisy – well essentially the same as today, but in other ways, it was very different. The traffic was bad. Not as horrendous as today, but still bad enough to worry about not having your baby in a taxi. Not many high rise buildings, lots of local markets and only a handful of private hospitals to give birth in. Flooding was a regular feature in October. If babies were due then, a big discussion during prenatal classes was, “Shall we move into the hospital or in with friends?” There wasn’t exactly a lot of choice either as to which hospital to go to. Most foreigners gave birth at the Bangkok Nursing Home (now known as BNH Hospital) or the Samitivej Hospital. Occasionally someone would use the Seventh Day Adventist, St. Louis or maybe the Bangkok Christian hospitals.

When shopping was hard work

Also, in the foreign community, everybody seemed to know everybody else. Villa supermarket was the only place to shop for food to suit Western tastes and, like today, it was amazing how many people you could meet during a visit there. A simple errand could sometimes take an age and I think I doled out more breastfeeding advice when sandwiched between the bread and dairy shelves than I ever did at a BAMBI meeting. Other shopping was hard work too. Where to find a maternity bra/ swimsuit (well, some things haven’t changed), pure cotton baby clothes, cloth nappies (no disposables then), a baby cot that wasn’t covered in leaded paint and prize of all prizes: a car seat?! Whenever any of these precious articles appeared in the BAMBI magazine’s ‘For Sale’ page, word went around like wildfire. Our Bring & Buy sales were born out of those desperate searches.

Introducing the Active Birth concept

As for actually giving birth, the old Bangkok Nursing Home was wonderful. It was a colonial style building with the ambiance of another age. Each room had a verandah to laze on after baby’s birth and a lovely garden to gaze over. No hospital gowns there. Sarongs and little sleeveless tops were the order of the day. All the nurses spoke excellent English and the whole establishment was kept in order under the ‘iron rod’ of the Scottish matron, Edith Stuart. Edith’s bete noir was cotton buds, and heaven help any nurse who was caught approaching a baby with one of these hated articles in her hand. Feeding babies (breast or bottle) was a strictly four-hourly routine procedure. I entered into many a battle with Edith over the merits of demand feeding and no supplements. My husband and I introduced the Active Birth concept and the old delivery room was often taken apart, with mattresses put on the floor so that mums could choose their position for birth. Everyone thought us quite mad, but it was all accepted in good part and we were allowed our way.

A ‘farang’ peculiarity

The Samitivej was very new and it was there that we really set out to change the birthing scene. Like the BNH, and all hospitals at that time, the old delivery room resembled a public lavatory: wall-to-wall blue tiles and floors that could be hosed down. There was a ‘prep’ room for routine enemas and pubic shaves and there were four beds with curtains between each for mums in the first stage of labour. The delivery room looked like an operating theatre – strictly no fathers allowed! And, as at the BNH, we pulled mattresses off the beds, turned the lights low and crawled around the floor. And everyone there thought us mad too, viewing ‘that sort of birth’ as a ‘farang’ peculiarity. After their births, babies were separated from their mothers, for at least six hours, and rooming in was not even considered.  We viewed all this with horror, but thankfully this is now all in the past.

BAMBI mums make the difference

Today there are many private hospitals to choose from, most of which now listen to women’s needs, but unfortunately many still have a long way to go. It has taken twenty years to bring about the changes at the Samitivej that you can see today and I must tell you that it has much to do with BAMBI mothers that these changes have taken place. They made their voices heard and wholeheartedly supported us in our work so that, hopefully, all mothers and babies can now experience a satisfying and happy birth day. Thirty years on and BAMBI mothers can still make a big difference to birth practices in the hospitals they attend. So keep up the good work so that all women can have the birth that suits them rather than what is convenient for hospital policies and the staff.

[ Related: The story of BAMBI’s birth & growth | Life in Bangkok in 1982

About the Author

Mel is the Founder and Patron of BAMBI.
The views expressed in the articles in this magazine are not necessarily those of BAMBI committee members and we assume no responsibility for them or their effects. BAMBI News welcomes volunteer contributors to our magazine. Please contact