Julie McAllister was feeling serene as she lounged in her room with the window view, enjoying a quiet, kid-free afternoon.
It was almost as if she were on vacation.
But in fact the 37-year-old from Owings Mills had just delivered an 8-pound baby girl that morning and was recovering in a hospital room at Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson.
She planned to spend the rest of the day napping, lounging and perhaps catching a show on the flat-screen television. And of course she was going to get to know her new daughter, Elizabeth, who at the moment was at the hospital nursery.
Mothers look for top-notch doctors and reputable medical facilities when it comes to giving birth. But more and more, they are also pining for a bit of luxury in their hospital rooms.
Parents are shopping for rooms as they would a new condo or hotel room for a vacation.
Hospitals have responded, turning once sterile-looking rooms into ones worthy of a Martha Stewart magazine spread, with all the comforts of home or the luxuries of a resort.
Several area hospitals, including Mercy Medical Center and Johns Hopkins Hospital, are on the cusp of opening new maternity wings. Others have upgraded their rooms over the past several years.
Mothers once had to share a crammed room with little privacy, but now most hospitals offer them large private rooms where a spouse or partner can spend the night and help care for the new arrival. Hardwood floors have replaced cold linoleum, and windows once covered by commercial white blinds are now often dressed with frilly curtains.
"Women like pretty," said Susan Bowen, GBMC administrative director.
McAllister picked GBMC in part because she thought its accommodations were so nice. The hardwood floors, warm lighting and wallpaper the color of leaves in the spring created a comforting atmosphere, she said.
"It's soothing and relaxing," McAllister said. "It definitely doesn't feel like you're in a hospital. It's almost as good as being at home in my bed."
Spruced-up maternity rooms are becoming the norm as hospitals compete for mothers who may be willing to pay a little more for a better birthing experience. Labor and delivery is one of the few areas where hospitals have a degree of control over how they can make a profit.
Hospitals face competition from the midwife and home-birth movement as well. More women are choosing to give birth at home, where the surroundings are familiar. Home births increased 20 percent from 2004 to 2008, accounting for 28,357 of the 4.2 million U.S. births, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So hospitals are trying to bring a taste of home to their own facilities.
"This definitely is a business move," said Elena Mauer, an editor for thebump.com, a pregnancy and parenting website.
Hospitals say they want to attract patients who have many options. A patient's physician may have access to more than one hospital, and the patient may choose the one with the nicer room. Competition for care can be fierce where there is an abundance of hospitals on every side of town, as is the case in Baltimore.
"We try to be competitive with what other hospitals have," said Lynn Harris, manager of the mother, baby and neonatal intensive care unit at Sinai Hospital. Sinai has had all-private rooms with sleep sofas and wireless Internet for several years.
Mauer said as more women become pregnant later in life, they are more likely to have the disposable income to afford luxury amenities — which may cost extra, depending on the hospital. Insurance doesn't always cover the perks.
"There is demand for it," Mauer said. "Moms-to-be know going through labor is tough, and they're looking at pampering as a way to help them recover afterward."
Doctors and nurses say that the ambience of the rooms is not just about aesthetics. It can help make what can be a nervous and uncomfortable experience for women — especially first-time mothers — a little more relaxing.
"It's important for them to feel comfortable because they are there sometimes for a long time," said Kelly Archer, the nursing manager for labor and delivery at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson.
St. Joseph upgraded its labor and delivery six months ago, painting the walls with warm, earthy colors. Rooms have rocking chairs where Mom can hold the baby and sleep sofas where a spouse or partner can spend the night. Mothers can also order gourmet meals once they are recovering in the postpartum area.
"They can order a steak dinner, and it comes with a tablecloth and creates an intimate setting," Archer said.
The Johns Hopkins Hospital maternity ward will move to new digs in April when the new 12-story Sheikh Zayed Tower opens. The move will add 10 private rooms to the maternity ward. Mothers will be able to order meals when they want them rather than having to eat at designated times — just like room service at a resort. The rooms will also include interactive televisions, on which patients can access information about their stay.
"We treat the mothers like they're like goddesses and on a pedestal," said Karin J. Blakemore, director of maternal-fetal medicine at Hopkins. "We want to support them and make it so they have the best experience they can."
Joan Diamond, perinatal nurse manager at Hopkins, said mothers are looking for childbirth to be more of an experience. Many are getting manicures and pedicures before they deliver. And it's not unusual for them to fix their hair and makeup soon after baby arrives so they can feel more comfortable posting pictures on Facebook and other social-media sites. Wanting a luxurious room fits with that trend, Diamond said.
Thebump.com's Mauer said some hospitals around the country are offering spa services, including massages, at the hospitals.
Mercy Medical Center is halfway though construction of what will be its new Women's Health Services Center. The hospital now has two tub rooms for water births, and the new center will have three. Each room will have interactive televisions, and the neonatal intensive care units have all private rooms, rather than a pod, so mothers can be with their babies.
The hospital also has rooftop gardens where mothers can take walks, and most rooms will have a skyline view.
"The views of the city will be spectacular," said Robert Atlas, chairman of Mercy's OB/GYN department.
Anne Arundel County Medical Center was one of the first hospitals in the region to have private rooms, in the '90s. The facility added private NICU rooms in 2006. Rooms have hardwood floors, flat-screen televisions and couches that turn into beds. There is a hallway at the entrance of each room that allows for some privacy.
The hospital also has birthing tubs and a midwifery suite on campus. If there are complications during delivery with a midwife, a patient can easily be transferred to an operating room.
"This is the most incredible time in a women's life," said Maura Callanan, executive director of women's and children's services and surgery at Anne Arundel Medical Center. "We go out of the way to meet their needs."
Liz and Jason Hughes said the rooms at GBMC reminded them of those on their cruise ship during their honeymoon. The couple from Middle River recently stayed at the hospital for the delivery of their 7-pound, 4-ounce daughter, Tatum Marie.
They found the rooms at other hospitals drab.
"We wouldn't have a baby anywhere else," Jason Hughes said.
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