The quiet luxury of postpartum care centers in South Korea

Four mothers sat quietly in the treatment room around midnight, breastfeeding their newborns. As a mother demanded her leave, her eyelids heavy after giving birth less than two weeks earlier, a nurse arrived and took her baby away. The exhausted new mother returned to her private room to sleep.

Sleep is just one of the luxuries offered by South Korea’s postpartum care centers.

The country may have the lowest birth rate in the world, but it’s also home to perhaps some of the best postpartum care. At centers like St. Park, a small boutique postpartum center, or joriwon, In Seoul, new mothers are pampered for a few weeks after giving birth and provided with hotel-like accommodation.

Fresh meals are delivered three times a day and facials, massages and babysitting classes are offered. Nurses watch over babies 24 hours a day.

New mothers are only called from their rooms when it is time to breastfeed in the common care room, where they are monitored by nurses. Women who choose not to breastfeed are free to devote their time to healing. (Babies are kept in nursery all day, although mothers can request that their newborns be sent to their room at any time.)

Staying in a joriwon can cost between a few thousand and tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the length of stay, which is often 21 days, the time it takes for a woman’s body to heal after childbirth, according to Korean custom. But the centers weren’t always so luxurious, said Soohyun Sarah Kim, 46, owner of St. Park.

“When I had my first child, there was nowhere to go,” she said. “Normally in Korea, the grandmother should take care of the new baby, but my mother didn’t have the skills, so we decided to go to a joriwon. »

In 2007, when Ms. Kim was pregnant with her first child, joriwons were not yet popular. The joriwon she visited was in an office building. The elevator was shared by workers returning from their daily cigarette breaks. The room was small and uncomfortable. “At that time, there was no nurse to take care of the baby,” Ms. Kim said.

She opened St. Park in 2008 with a mission to provide exceptional care to new mothers in a Balinese-inspired retreat. It became one of Seoul’s first high-end joriwons. “It’s kind of like we’re the transition from hospital to home,” Ms. Kim said. “We don’t want moms to have problems at home, that’s our approach.”

In the halls of St. Park, workers quietly collect dirty laundry and deliver food, including the required miyeok gukor seaweed soup, a Korean staple after birth.

In the lactation room, beads of sweat trickle down the forehead of a lactation specialist who squeezes drops of breast milk from the nipples — not always gently — to aid production. A flexible Pilates instructor offers tips on body alignment and recovery during rooftop classes.

Although Ms. Kim recommends that her guests stay 21 days, she has largely abandoned popular customs that were still in vogue when she had her first child, such as making sure a new mother’s hands are clean. never put in cold water and avoid air conditioning, even in summer.

“We have air conditioning,” she said.

The new class of joriwon also hired nurses, nutritionists, and pediatricians, and as the overall quality of care improved at the centers, more moms, especially first-time moms, booked stays .

NOW eight out of ten South Korean mothers go to a joriwon after giving birth, and private centers like St. Park are known among Korean women as one of the best postpartum recovery items. Pregnant women are clamoring to access the joriwon of their choice, and competition has become so fierce that some mothers send reservation requests as soon as they see the double lines on their pregnancy test.

Chun Hye-rim, who is expecting her first child in March, said her husband had to use two phones to make a reservation at Heritage Cheongdam, one of Seoul’s best joriwons. Trinity Yongsan, another sought-after center, put her on the waiting list. “They said, ‘Did you call now?’ “, Ms. Chun said. She was only seven weeks pregnant at the time.

Part of the appeal of booking a joriwon is the opportunity to spend time with other first-time moms who have children the same age. Nestar, a Seoul joriwon opened in October, says its goal is to help moms stay connected even after receiving their postpartum care. “We bring together mothers with similar interests and personalities,” said Jeong Minyu, CEO of Anidar.

Ms. Chun stressed that she chose Heritage because friends recommended it to her. “People try to make good friends in Joriwon,” she said. “This culture continues throughout the child’s life.”

“You kind of want your kids to get along with people of the same social class,” she added.

The question of social class and cost is very sensitive in South Korea, where inequalities are growing. Two weeks at St. Park — not including massages, facials and hair treatments — costs more than $6,000. Insurance does not cover the costs, but they may be subsidized by the government through an allowance intended to encourage more families to have babies.

As expensive as some joriwons can be, their cost represents only a small portion of the overall expenses of raising a child in South Korea, a fact that could help explain the country’s birth rate.

“One of the reasons people don’t want to give birth is because all the postpartum care that’s so great here only lasts two weeks, and then there’s life after that, which is forever,” said Ms. Chun.

Allison Kang, a Korean American living in Seoul, had her first child in March. She said being in a joriwon helped her recover from her complicated delivery. “I think the reason it works in Korea is because of the emphasis on recovery, and I really wish there was the same emphasis in the United States or elsewhere,” she said .

Some mothers say newborns are too vulnerable to be placed in the care of strangers in the joriwon system. But Ms Kang said her room was just a few steps from her daughter’s in the nursery and she never felt far away. “It’s extremely important to allow ourselves to rest and not feel bad if we need to improve,” she said.

Outside St. Park recently, Ms. Kim, the owner, said that although her business was profit-driven, she still thought “like a mother.”

“Every mom, when she leaves,” she added, “she always cries.”

Jin Yu Young contributed reporting from Seoul.