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Birth right

Breeze through birthing with the help of these local experts.

Childbirth education

Childbirth Education Centre
Childbirth education and counseling, birthing your baby, birth refresher class, choosing a caregiver, baby basics for new parents. Brett Iimura, tel: 03-3414-7458, Web:

Best Birthing Classes
Birth planning, early pregnancy and preparation for couples, courses are held at the Tokyo American Club but are open to non-members. Ann Tanaka, tel: 03-3482-0728.

Exercise and yoga classes

Tokyo Physio
Prenatal and postnatal exercise and physiotherapy. Vanessa Colless, tel: 03-3443-6769,

Yoga at Fujimamas:
Dominica Serigano,
Joanne Guelke,

TokyoYoga Circle:
Rajay Mahtani, tel: 03-3582-3505, email:


La Leche League:
Beckie Oxley, tel: 03-3394-4359, or Iona Macnab, tel: 03-3425-2534.

Other resources

Tokyo Pregnancy Group:



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From here to maternity

Kavitha Rao turns to a handful of Tokyo experts to track down baby basics for nervous expat mothers-to-be.

"I find that pregnant women everywhere tend to be magnets for all kinds of horror stories, but this is especially true for those in Tokyo," says Brett Iimura, a birth educator and long-time resident of Tokyo. "It's time to set the record straight."
For many mothers, giving birth is difficult enough. Expatriates coping with culture shock and miles away from family and friends may find it overwhelming. Fortunately, there are now all kinds of local resources to help anxious mothers prepare themselves for childbirth and the difficult early months.


Back to school
"Communication is the biggest problem mothers face, especially if they are expatriates who don't speak Japanese. Part of the problem is not being able to get information on midwives, birth options, and caregivers," says Iimura, who runs the Childbirth Education Center, which offers a range of classes and counseling on topics ranging from childbirth to such baby basics as how to put on a diaper. "Pregnancy just magnifies the cultural clash."

Iimura says that Japanese mothers can sometimes face the same problems as their expatriate counterparts. "Doctors in Japan are often very busy and don't have the time to discuss options with mothers, even if language is not a problem. For instance, there is very little discussion on how to deal with pain relief, how the body works during labor and which hospitals offer relief. There is also little information on alternative birth options, such as home or midwife-assisted births. That's why it is vital for all mothers to draw up a birth plan. Our aim is to provide as much information as possible and help parents make an informed choice."

"Many expatriates are nervous because they don't have a support system here, but they should realize that the Japanese prenatal system is excellent," reassures Ann Tanaka, a nurse and veteran childbirth educator, who has been teaching pre-natal classes in Tokyo for 20 years. "Here they may do things differently from your home country, but that may be a good thing. For instance, natural childbirth with little or no pain relief is the norm in Japan, which is actually better for the mother and the baby in most cases. American mothers, on the other hand, seem to expect epidurals whether they are needed or not. Among other things, my classes try to educate people on what's normal in Japan, the implications of pain relief, how fathers can help, how the body works and the health insurance system."


Exercising your options
Even if you're a regular exerciser, you need to take precautions before exercising during your pregnancy. If you haven't exercised before, it's a good idea to start slowly. Either way, it makes sense to choose an exercise routine specifically aimed at pregnant women. "When you are pregnant, your body excretes more hormones, which makes your joints and ligaments more lax. This can make you more prone to injury and sprains. Overheating can also be dangerous for you and your baby. In the last few months, your pregnancy belly can affect your balance and cause falls," points out Vanessa Colless, a physiotherapist who runs prenatal and postnatal exercise classes. "Apart from improving your posture and helping with back and pelvic problems, exercise can also help you cope with the labor itself because it is quite an endurance event." Colless's exercise classes include stretching and muscle exercise, low impact aerobics, relaxation exercises, pelvic floor exercises and a short talk on labor.

As for getting your pre-pregnancy figure back and avoiding those "new mother" aches and pains, Colless again stresses the need for guidance during postnatal exercise: "Sit-ups are what everybody does, but you need to do them in a specific way, or you could injure yourself." Colless also offers breathing classes, which help to ease and cope with contractions during labor.

Yoga is another gentle alternative for pregnant women, and there is plenty of choice in Tokyo. "Yoga helps pregnant women prepare for labor because it focuses the mind, makes women aware of their bodies and keeps fear away," says Dominica Serigano, one of two yoga instructors who teach prenatal and postnatal yoga at popular restaurant Fujimamas. "Yoga also helps tone and strengthen the back, abdomen and hips, all problem areas for pregnant women. The exercises help open up the lymph and thyroid glands, and help the baby's head to engage properly." Some women may find the idea of yoga intimidating, especially if they have never tried it before, but Serigano says yoga is suited to just about everybody: "I provide options for each person to do, depending on their fitness and how far advanced they are in their pregnancy."

Says yoga beginner Isobel Arnell, who is seven months pregnant, "I've had back problems since I was 17, but none in this pregnancy. The breathing exercises help me to relax as well." Amanda Wheway, eight months pregnant, does yoga twice a week and also exercises at Colless's class. She says exercise has helped her stay flexible, fit and free of the aches and pains usual in the last trimester: "I feel great, and ready to cope with labor."


Feeding time
Many new mothers, say educators, mistakenly expect breastfeeding to come easily. "Breastfeeding is a natural process, but it's not easy. It needs a lot of work and a support group, which many expatriates do not have. You also need to learn the correct techniques," says Ann Tanaka. That's where the La Leche League comes in. A non-profit organization with offices worldwide, La Leche was set up 45 years ago to support breastfeeding.

"I think Japan on the whole supports breastfeeding, though often the midwives and hospital staff are unable to explain techniques because of the language barrier," says Beckie Oxley, a volunteer at the group. "The biggest obstacle is that women of our generation haven't been exposed to babies, and have no idea of how to feed a baby. The reality versus the expectation is the biggest problem… When a woman has a baby that doesn't feed and cries all night, she can come to our monthly meetings and find out that most babies find it difficult to feed and cry all night! Your doctor may be really great at solving medical problems, but we can help with the emotional issues."

"Having a baby can be very isolating, and especially so if you are having it in a strange country, away from your family and friends," concludes Tanaka. "Many foreigners want to leave the hospital straight away, but I always advise new mothers to stay longer and try to learn as much possible from the hospital staff. Find as many people to support you as you can, from midwives to professionals and volunteer services."

Photo credit: Kavitha Rao

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