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Chinese doctors are bracing for a hectic day on Aug. 8. It's an auspicious day, the long-awaited opening of the Beijing Games, and a day when many of their patients will demand cesarean sections to ensure a lucky birthday for their babies.

Hospitals in Beijing are expecting a miniature baby boom on that August day as superstitious parents do everything possible to ensure their infants are born on the opening day of the Olympics, according to doctors quoted yesterday by the Beijing News, a leading newspaper here.

Birth rates will peak on Aug. 8, and hospitals are adding new beds and shortening their minimum stays to cope with the anticipated surge.

The Olympic baby phenomenon shows the continuing grip that numerology, superstition and other traditions have on Chinese life. Even the precise timing of the opening ceremony, at 8:08 p.m. on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008, was chosen because eight is considered lucky.

A growing number of Chinese women are choosing to accept the medical risks of a cesarean section in order to have their babies born on an auspicious day or year. On the advice of their feng shui masters, some women are opting for cesareans up to two months earlier than their due date in order to give birth on a lucky day.

It's among the leading reasons why China now has one of the world's highest rates of C-sections, more than 10 times higher than the rate in the 1970s and far above the 15 per cent rate thought reasonable by the World Health Organization.

An astonishing 50 per cent of Chinese births are C-sections, dramatically higher than the average of 5 per cent recorded from the 1950s to the 1970s, according to a report by the Chinese news agency Xinhua.

Thousands of Beijing women chose to have cesarean sections in 2004 to ensure that their babies would be born in the Year of the Monkey, considered a lucky year in the Chinese lunar calendar. The birth rate in 2004 was far higher than a typical year. One exhausted obstetrician in Beijing said he did a dozen C-sections on a single night in the fall of 2004.

Surgery, of course, is not the only tactic in the struggle for a lucky birthday. Last fall, Xinhua reported that many Chinese couples were trying to conceive a baby in October so that they would have a chance at an Olympic baby.

"If my wife is lucky enough to deliver an 'Olympic baby,' the luck means something more than family joy," one husband told Xinhua.

To maximize their chances of conceiving a lucky baby, he and his wife chose to "stay at home" instead of joining the crowds of tourists during the October national holiday, the agency said.

If they cannot arrange a birth on Aug. 8, many Chinese parents are still determined to have an "Olympic baby" by giving birth some time this year, even if it requires artificial help. "More and more couples are trying artificial insemination to make their Olympic-baby dream come true," the Shanghai Evening News reported yesterday.

China is projecting 18 million births this year, which is about 500,000 more than last year, according to media reports.

China already has more than 3,000 children who were named Aoyun (Olympic) in the past few years, and another 4,000 children were named after China's five official Olympic mascots.

But the expected Olympic baby boom will have a negative side, beyond just the medical risks of cesarean sections.

Health experts are warning that the quality of medical treatment will deteriorate during the baby boom because of equipment shortages and overworked staff. And the new wave of children will face increased competition in schools, universities and the labour market.

On the positive side, the Chinese media are predicting a big increase in sales of baby products, milk powder and baby clothes this year.