At midday, the lobby of Beijing's biggest maternity hospital is packed; expectant mothers make calls on their mobiles and relatives queue to pay the bills. In their midst is a pile of white plastic lunch boxes on the floor and a red banner exhorting staff to improve service in the name of the Olympics. 'I have to have my baby before the Spring Festival,' said Liu Liping, 32, chatting with her mother. 'I want a horse and not a sheep. A horse is proud and strong but a sheep has a miserable life. If that means inducing the baby, that is what I will do.' Mrs Liu is not alone. Thousands of other women across China are determined not to have their only child in the Year of the Sheep, which begins at the next Spring Festival. 'In October, we had 100 more births than last year [the Year of the Snake],' said a doctor at the hospital who gave his name only as Zhang. 'In other months, we had 80 to 90 more births than a year earlier. It is a busy year. 'Hospitals in Guangdong have been inducing births to have the child born a horse and not sheep. But, for us, the health of the child is the first consideration, so we cannot do that, just to please the parents. In our experience, the dragon, the horse, the rabbit and the pig are our busiest years,' he said. At the Beijing University maternity hospital, officials said the number of births had increased since the start of the year, reaching nearly 300 for last month, while bookings had dropped after the Spring Festival, to about 50 in February. Mrs Liu's mother said the dragon was the most popular symbol because it stood for the emperor and the Chinese race, followed by the horse because of its speed and strength. 'But the sheep is weak and easy prey for other animals. So we say yangnian mingku - the Year of the Sheep means a life of suffering. The worst are those babies born in the winter months of the sheep year, when there is no grass to eat,' she said. 'So I took care that my two children were not born in the year of the sheep.' Nurse Wang Li said that this dislike of 'sheep children' was, of course, not based on science. 'But it is widespread in northern China. Nowadays, we are allowed to have only one baby. Who wants to take the risk? If your 'sheep' child really had a hard time, you would regret it for the whole of your life.' But Duan Chengrong, a professor at the population studies institute of People's University, is impatient with this kind of talk. 'Yes, there is this kind of thinking and many people prefer dragon and horse babies. But there is no scientific evidence to back this up. If you look at the birth figures for the last 10 years, there is little variation. Between 1990, a horse year, and 1991, a sheep year, the difference nationwide was only 1,000,' Professor Duan said. 'The idea of a sheep baby being unlucky is just rumour.'