Four mothers sat quietly in the nursing room around midnight, breastfeeding their newborn babies. As one mother nodded off, her eyelids heavy after giving birth less than two weeks earlier, a nurse came in and whisked her baby away. The exhausted new mom returned to her private room to sleep.
Sleep is just one of the luxuries provided by South Korea’s postpartum care centers.
The country may have the world’s lowest birthrate, but it is also home to perhaps some of its best postpartum care. At centers like St. Park, a small, boutique postpartum center, or joriwon, in Seoul, new moms are pampered for a few weeks after giving birth and treated to hotel-like accommodations.
Fresh meals are delivered three times a day, and there are facials, massages and child-care classes. Nurses watch over the babies around the clock.
New moms are summoned from their rooms only when it is time to breastfeed in the communal nursing room, where they are watched by the nurses. Women who choose not to breastfeed are free to spend their time focused on healing. (The babies are kept in the nursery throughout the day, though mothers can request their newborns be sent to their rooms at any time.)
Staying at a joriwon can cost from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the length of stay, which is often 21 days, the amount of 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, the owner of St. Park.
“When I had my first child, there was no place to go,” she said. “Normally in Korea, the grandmother 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 toured was in an office building. The elevator was shared by workers returning from daily smoke 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 of providing exceptional care for new mothers in a Bali-inspired retreat. It became one of the first high-end joriwons in Seoul. “It’s kind of like we are the transition between hospital and home,” Ms. Kim said. “We don’t want moms to run into trouble at home, that’s our approach.”
Throughout the hallways of St. Park, workers quietly collect dirty laundry and deliver food, including the requisite miyeok guk, or seaweed soup, a post-birth Korean staple.
In the lactation room, beads of sweat run down the forehead of a lactation specialist who squeezes drops of breast milk out of nipples — not always gently — to help with production. A limber Pilates instructor offers tips on body alignment and recovery during classes on the roof.
While Ms. Kim recommends guests stay for 21 days, she has mostly abandoned the folk customs that were still in style when she had her first child, like making sure a new mother’s hands are never put into cold water and avoiding air-conditioning, even in the 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 mothers, booked stays.
Now eight out of 10 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 parts of childbirth recovery. Pregnant women clamor to get into their joriwon of choice, and the competition has become so stiff that some moms send in booking 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 the top joriwons in Seoul. Trinity Yongsan, another sought-after center, put her on the wait list. “They were like, ‘You called now?’” Ms. Chun said. She was just seven weeks pregnant at the time.
Part of the appeal of booking a joriwon is the chance to spend time with other first-time moms who have children of the same age. Anidar, a Seoul joriwon that opened in October, says its goal is to help moms stay connected even after they receive their postpartum care. “We bring together mothers with similar interests and personalities,” said Jeong Minyu, the chief executive officer of Anidar.
Ms. Chun pointed out that she chose Heritage because it was recommended to her by friends. “People try to make good friends at joriwon,” she said. “That culture continues throughout the child’s life.”
“You kind of want to get your children to get along with people in the same social class,” she added.
The issue of class, and cost, is highly sensitive in South Korea, where inequality is on the rise. Two weeks at St. Park — not including massages, facials and hair treatments — costs more than $6,000. Insurance does not cover the fees, but they can be subsidized by the government through a stipend meant to encourage more families to have babies.
As pricey as some joriwons can be, their cost is but a blip in the overall expense of raising a child in South Korea, a fact that may help explain the country’s birthrate.
“One of the reasons people don’t want to give birth is because all the postpartum care that’s so great here, it’s only for two weeks, and then there’s the life after that, which is forever,” Ms. Chun said.
Allison Kang, a Korean American living in Seoul, had her first child in March. She said being at a joriwon helped her recover from her complicated delivery. “I think why it works in Korea is because there is such an emphasis on recovery, and I really wish there was the same emphasis in the United States, or anywhere,” she said.
Some moms say newborns are too vulnerable to be left in the care of strangers in the joriwon system. But Ms. Kang said that her room was just steps away from her daughter in the nursery and that she never felt far away. “It’s incredibly important to allow ourselves to be able to be rested 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 even though her business was profit-driven, she still thinks “as a mom.”
“Every mom when they check out,” she added, “they always cry.”
Jin Yu Young contributed reporting from Seoul.