A group of women cradling baby dolls are gathered at Songpa Maternity Care Centre in Seoul, listening keenly to instructions on how to bathe and swaddle an infant. But these are not new mums who have just given birth and are staying at the centre during their confinement period.
They are, rather, grandmothers who are learning about childcare in the 21st century as they get ready to care for their grandchildren so the mothers can return to work.
"It's so different to raise a child now compared to the old times when I was a mother," said Madam Kim Jae Sook, 58, who signed up for lessons last year at the centre after hearing about it from her daughter-in-law.
She has been applying what she learnt on her seven-month-old granddaughter - things like how to bathe and swaddle a baby, how to massage a baby, what toys to use at different stages and nutrition for babies.
"The lessons are very good and useful, and they gave us reference charts so we can remember what to do," she said.
Baby classes for grandparents are an emerging trend in South Korea, where the number of double-income families is rising and 49 per cent of couples from such families rely on their own parents to take care of their young children.
As the economy slows down amid an ageing population and declining fertility rate, the government has been trying to draw women back to the work force by offering more benefits like free childcare services.
But the fear of child abuse at government-run childcare facilities, especially after a spate of reports of such abuse last year, coupled with the lack of alternatives, has resulted in more women turning to their own mothers or mothers-in-law for help.
A recent survey on working mums by recruitment portal JobKorea showed that the biggest concern about raising children is the lack of reliable childcare centres, with 52.6 per cent of 734 respondents feeling this way.
As of 2013, there are more than 43,000 childcare centres in the country. State-run facilities are free while private ones cost from 300,000 won (S$360) monthly.
An alternative is to hire nannies, who are mostly ethnic Chinese.
But they are not popular as they charge 1.5 million to 2 million won a month and there is no standard for qualifications.
Entrusting kids to their grandmother is more ideal as "she is family and we can trust her more", said beauty consultant Denise Kim, 33, whose mother-in-law is helping to care for her two children aged three and six, while she and her husband are at work. "The kids can bond with their grandmother and she can encourage them to be respectful to elders," she added.
Despite the prevalent perception that caring for grandchildren is a taxing chore that causes their health to deteriorate, it seems that a small but increasing number of grandparents have become more receptive to the idea of helping out.
Retiree Hwang Sook Ja, 70, has been taking care of her granddaughter since November.
Both her son and daughter-in-law are working, and their one-year-old child stays with Madam Hwang and her husband on weekdays.
"They considered hiring a babysitter but I think it's better for me to do it," she said. "I've had to cut down on social activities like music and dance classes, but it's okay because I'm happy looking after my granddaughter. She gives me great joy."
Last year, a study published by the Korea Institute of Child Care and Education showed that women who babysit their grandchildren have a higher level of life satisfaction. The study was based on 2,744 women aged above 45, and the result was similar across different ages, education levels, religions, wealth and health.
DIFFERENT SET OF CHALLENGES
What is clear is that some grandparents are taking their role as babysitters quite seriously, with the number of baby classes for them growing to cater to the demand.
Some might argue that grandparents already have hands-on experience as parents, but the challenges of childcare in today's IT-savvy world require a different set of skills and knowledge. Thus at these baby classes, participants are taught things like how to massage a baby to stimulate growth and what music to play to boost brain development.
They also learn how to use the latest baby gadgets , such as baby monitors and milk bottles that change colour according to the temperature of the contents - all unheard of decades ago when they were raising their own children.
Judging by the growing interest in baby classes for this older group, grandparents - especially the more educated ones - are clearly not oblivious to the challenges of bringing up a 21st century baby.
The demand is especially high in the affluent areas of Seoul such as Gangnam and Songpa, and Bundang in the nearby Gyeonggi province, and some grandparents would gather to jointly hire private instructors for classes, according to local media reports.
Fees can range from 300,000 won to 800,000 won a month.
However, Songpa Maternity Care Centre has been organising baby classes for grandparents for free since March last year. More than 900 people have participated in 33 classes to date, the majority being grandmothers. Only about 10 per cent are grandfathers.
The programme's spokesman, Mr Kim In Guk, said they started the classes to cater to the educational needs of grandparents who want to gain more practical knowledge before taking on babysitting roles.
Their instructors range from nurses to lactation consultants and nutritionists. Besides practical childcare skills, they also advise grandparents how to resolve potential conflicts with the baby's mother arising from a difference in opinion.
The feedback from participants has been good, said Mr Kim.
"The classes have drawn a great deal of interest and boosted confidence in grandparents to care for their grandchildren and minimise conflict with their own children."
Madam Hwang feels that such baby classes are necessary to have, but admits that she has no energy to attend them now. She spends most of her time with her granddaughter although she gets some help from her husband in caring for her.
"I didn't know much about caring for babies when I was raising my own children. If I had more knowledge, I could have brought my kids up better," she lamented.
Still, she is applying the experience she gained from looking after her own children to care for her granddaughter.
Madam Hwang Soon Ja, 72, who has spent the last five years looking after her two grandchildren - a five-year-old boy and a 21/2-year-old girl - agrees that baby classes are a good idea.
She attended a cooking class once to learn how to prepare more nutritious food for her grandchildren, and also signed up for an English class, which she said she later forgot to attend.
While her son and daughter-in-law are busy at work, Madam Hwang would cook for the kids, read to them, shower them, and put them to bed. The widow lives with her son and his family.
"I was too busy working and had no time to look after my own children when they were growing up, so now I'm passing on the love to my grandchildren," she said with a laugh.
She added that she keeps herself active with swimming, badminton and gym workouts.
"I do what I can, so I have energy to look after the kids. I even bring them along to my dance classes, and they enjoy dancing along."
Professor Jun Hey Jung, from Yonsei University's Department of Child and Family Studies, said her studies on grandmothers showed that caring for grandchildren has a positive effect on their cognitive function, or mental abilities.
The effect is stronger on more highly educated grandmothers, said Prof Jun in an e-mail to The Straits Times.
"I think this is because childcare provides an enriched and demanding environment for the grandmothers with higher education, as they need to consistently interact with their grandchildren and use cognitive abilities in order to care, teach, and play with them," she said.
Prof Jun hopes that the results of her study will encourage more grandmothers to step up and take care of their grandchildren so the mothers can return to work without worries and contribute to the economy.
She also hopes that there can be more national and social support policies that promote the positive aspects of grandchild-care, so as to negate the perception that it compromises the health of the grandparents.
A poll by the Seoul Metropolitan Government last year showed that 34.7 per cent of respondents aged 60 or older had no interest in caring for grandchildren, while 37.1 per cent felt ambivalent about the prospect of grandchild-care.
Prof Jun herself is grateful to her own parents for taking care of her three children, allowing her to pursue her PhD and stay in a job.
"Some people frowned upon me leaving the care of my children to my elderly parents, but my parents, especially my mother, raised my children with great pleasure and now that they are all grown up, look at them fondly and speak of how raising their grandchildren was more meaningful than anything else," she said.
The flip side of this is that grandchildren learn to appreciate their grandparents for what they have done for them.
"My children also cherish and respect their grandparents, especially their grandmother, and they worry about even her smallest cough and take care of her."
This article was first published on September 5, 2015.
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