SHANGHAI - A group of more than a dozen women, dressed in matching pink lab coats, leans over rows of benches in a classroom, serious-faced as they delicately massage and stretch out the limbs of plastic baby dolls.
They are students who have come to the Yipeitong training centre in Shanghai from around China to learn to be "yue sao" or confinement carers, who look after mothers and newborn babies, particularly in the month after birth.
Confinement care is not new in China, where the practice of one month confinement post-birth, which traditionally included strict rules around bathing, hair washing and teeth brushing for mothers, has long been the norm.
What is different today is the professionalism and expectations of those doing the caring, says Jiang Lei, a teacher at the centre.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, China's declining birth rate, official data released in January showed the country's population fell last year for the first time in six decades, might also be good for business, at least in the near term.
Even as people plan to have less children, working parents in Chinese cities likely only to have one child are increasingly willing to spare no expense in getting the best possible care from day one, Jiang said.
Even though China's booming tutoring industry was hit hard by a 2021 crackdown that aimed to lessen the financial burden on parents raising children and therefore encourage them to have more than one child, parents in major cities still spend large amounts on extracurricular activities aimed at giving kids a head start.
In Shanghai, for example, private one-on-one tutoring costs more than 200 yuan (S$39) per hour, music lessons routinely cost over 400 yuan hourly and sports and science camps often cost between 6,000 yuan and 8,000 yuan per week during holiday periods.
"We need professionals to do professional things for professional people," Jiang added, explaining that the centre teaches "scientific feeding knowledge, sleep cultivation and other knowledge such as early childhood education".
Jiang said that women in Shanghai who themselves make only half as much per month as the average confinement carer will still pay for a professional service, as it has become seen as so necessary to modern motherhood.
According to job ads seen by Reuters, confinement carers in major cities can earn 15,000 yuan per month or even more, a relatively high salary in a country where the average wage is less than 9,000 yuan, as per the latest available National Bureau of Statistics data.
Those wages are encouraging women with higher education certificates to enter the industry.
Dong Lili, a student at the centre, studied mechanical engineering before having her own baby six years ago. The experience of caring for her own child made the idea of a career in childcare attractive, she said.
"When parents choose nannies, they will choose more professional ones, and the requirements for academic qualifications are particularly high," the 35-year old added.
This said, students and teachers at the centre all agree that, although the need for modern, professional, well-trained childcare is evident, the most important skill in a carer remains the same as it has always been.
"You must be patient, and treat the baby like they are your own child," 46-year-old student Sun Hui said. "Every child is like your own heart and soul."