Around midnight, four mothers were sitting quietly in the nursing room, breastfeeding their newborn babies. As a mother fell asleep, her eyelids heavy after giving birth less than two weeks earlier, a nurse came in 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 postpartum care centers in South Korea.
The country may have the lowest birth rate in the world, but it is 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 treated in hotel-type accommodation.
Fresh meals are delivered three times a day and facials, massages and child care classes are offered. Nurses monitor babies 24 hours a day.
New mothers are summoned from their rooms only when it is time to breastfeed in the community nursing room, where nurses monitor them. Women who choose not to breastfeed are free to spend their time focusing on their healing. (Babies remain in the nursery throughout the day, although mothers can request that their newborns be sent to their rooms at any time.)
Staying in a joriwon can cost anywhere from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the length of stay, which is usually 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, grandma should take care of the new baby, but my mom didn’t have the skill, 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 smoking 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 the mission of providing exceptional care to new mothers in a Bali-inspired retreat. She became one of the first high-level joriwons in Seoul. “It’s like we are the transition between hospital and home,” Ms. Kim said. “We don’t want moms to have problems at home, that’s our approach.”
Along the halls of St. Park, workers silently collect dirty laundry and deliver food, including the required miyeok gukor seaweed soup, a Korean postpartum staple.
In the lactation room, beads of sweat run down the forehead of a lactation specialist who squeezes drops of breast milk from her nipples (not always gently) to help with production. An agile Pilates instructor offers tips on body alignment and recovery during rooftop classes.
While Ms. Kim recommends her guests stay for 21 days, she has mostly abandoned folk customs that were still in vogue when she had her first child, such as making sure a new mother’s hands are never put in cold water. and avoid air conditioning, even in the summer.
“We have air conditioning,” he said.
The new generation of joriwon also hired nurses, nutritionists and pediatricians, and as the overall quality of care at the centers improved, more mothers, especially new mothers, booked stays.
Now eight out of 10 South Korean mothers Going to a joriwon after giving birth, and private centers like St. Park are known among Korean women as one of the best parts of childbirth recovery. Pregnant women are clamoring to get into the joriwon of their choice, and the competition has become so stiff that some moms send in 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 most important joriwons. Trinity Yongsan, another in-demand center, put her on the waiting list. “They said, ‘Did you call now?’” Ms. Chun said. At the time she was only seven weeks pregnant.
Part of the appeal of booking a joriwon is the opportunity to spend time with other new mothers who have children the same age. Nestar, a Seoul joriwon that opened in October, says her goal is to help moms stay connected even after receiving postpartum care. “We bring together mothers with similar interests and personalities,” said Jeong Minyu, CEO of Nestar.
Ms. Chun said she chose Heritage because it was recommended to her by friends. “People try to make good friends in joriwon,” she said. “That culture continues throughout the child’s life.”
“What you want is for your children to get along with people of the same social class,” he added.
The question of class and cost is very delicate in South Korea, where inequality is on the rise. Two weeks at St. Park, not including massages, facials and hair treatments, cost more than $6,000. Insurance does not cover the fees, but the government can subsidize them through a stipend aimed at encouraging more families to have babies.
As expensive as some joriwons may be, their cost is but a small part of the total expense of raising a child in South Korea, a fact that may 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 is so excellent here only lasts two weeks, and then there is life afterward, which is forever,” Ms. Chun said. .
Allison Kang, a Korean American living in Seoul, had her first child in March. She said that being in her joriwon helped her recover from her complicated delivery. “I think it works in Korea because there is a big emphasis on recovery, and I really wish there was the same emphasis in the United States or anywhere else,” she said.
Some mothers say that newborns are too vulnerable to be left in the care of strangers in the joriwon system. But Ms. Kang said her room was just a few steps from her daughter’s room in daycare and she never felt far from her. “It’s incredibly important to allow ourselves to rest and not feel bad if we need to get better,” she said.
Standing in front of St. Park on a recent afternoon, Ms. Kim, the owner, said that although her business was for-profit, she still thinks “like a mother.”
“All mothers, when they go out,” she added, “always cry.”
Jin Yu Young contributed reporting from Seoul.