Not Your Mother's Maternity Ward

Comfort, luxuries for mothers-to-be have come a long way in 50 years.

Chen May Yee

McClatchy Tribune

February 26, 2010


At Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia, Minn., women can now give birth in rooms with whirlpool tubs and wi-fi. At Fairview Southdale in Edina, Minn., new moms can hire a massage therapist or a portrait photographer.

Even the Hennepin County Medical Center has upgraded its maternity ward, with pastel decor and a deep tub for water births.

All three are part of a major marketing offensive by hospitals to win a coveted demographic: mothers.

Thanks to a cultural obsession with pregnancy and babies, new moms are more informed and more demanding than ever. Many come to the hospital clutching "birth plans" and expecting to be indulged. Make them happy, the thinking goes, and they'll become lifelong customers.

Hospitals also covet women for their influence. Eight in 10 mothers take chief responsibility for their children's health care, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. One in 10 women also cares for a sick or aging relative. Earning their loyalty is important in an era when hospitals are highly competitive businesses.

"As we look at the decision makers in the family, we want to make sure we are meeting their needs, as an entry point into the system," said Mike Phelps, vice president of diversified services at Ridgeview.

The New Labor

The maternity ward has come a long way in 50 years.

In the 1960s, women began resisting the norm of the medicated, doctor-directed birth and demanded a return to natural childbirth. The 1970s brought dads into the delivery room. In the 1980s and 1990s, babies started staying in the room with Mom rather than in a separate nursery.

And today?

"I'd say it's about customer service," said Jeanette Schwartz, clinical director of maternity care at Woodwinds Health Campus in Woodbury, Minn. "It's all about giving moms choices in their care."

Many women have taken childbirth preparation to a new level. Bombarded by marketing from retailers such as Babies "R" Us and Web sites such as babycenter.com, and inspired by reality shows such as "Maternity Ward" and home birth videos on YouTube, this generation has grand ideas about labor and delivery.

Some tour multiple hospitals before deciding where to deliver. Insurance policies mostly let women go where they want, though they might be constrained by where their doctor can practice.

"(Childbirth is) a business that's very competitive," said Ted Blank, director of marketing at HCMC. "It's a planned thing and they have the luxury of shopping around."