Not Your Mother’s Maternity Ward

Room service. Spa-quality toiletries. A meditation garden. Personalized service. This sounds like the kind of place you’d hole up with your spouse.

But deliver a baby here? Hospitals across the Bay Area are in the throes of a rebirth, delivering top-notch family birthing centers that feel more like hotels than your mother’s sterile maternity wards. 

Mills-Peninsula Medical Center in Burlingame opened doors to its new buildings in 2011 and Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley debuted its new hospital in 2012. In the next several years, hospitals across the Bay Area will unveil new facilities. They all feature a variety of amenities – from private rooms to state-of-the-art communication and medical equipment to an emphasis on family. It’s a move that’s been taking shape since the ‘70s to re-imagine how hospitals handle the age-old process of labor and delivery. 

“There’s the whole … big push to provide very flexible, personalized care, not one-size-fits-all. We’re taking into account cultural diversity and personal preferences,” says Deborah Quinn-Chen, chair of the department of OBGYN at Mills-Peninsula Hospital and a private practice doctor.

Women began birthing babies in hospitals around the turn of the last century, according to Fung Lam, the vice chair of OB/GYN at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. Women labored together in one room while their spouses waited in the lobby. When ready to deliver, a woman was wheeled into another room, according to Lam. Babies spent the night in the nursery and mothers shared a room with other recovering women. That all changed in the ‘70s. 

A More Family-Friendly Environment

“There was a movement toward private rooms, making them bigger and more family friendly, and having the instruments available but behind cabinets so that they are out of sight and out of view. Right afterwards, the baby is in contact with the mom,” Lam says.

Women wanted family members present and demanded more control over their experiences. Home births became popular. Some women wanted epidurals, and others desired the safety of a hospital but little intervention. That’s when the family birthing model was born, and many hospitals remodeled to accommodate this trend. 

Now, birthing units are undergoing another evolution, in part because of a state law that demands seismically-unfit hospitals to retrofit or rebuild. 

So far, the reaction to Mills-Peninsula’s new Family Birth Center has been overwhelmingly positive, Quinn-Chen says. 

“It’s certainly a physically pretty environment to work in. The patients are really happy to be there. Happy patients make me happy,” she says.
&pagebreaking&Women labor, deliver and recover in private suites designed to feel more hotel-like with a tranquil, earthy color palette and medical equipment hidden. Babies stay in the room with mothers, and spouses or family members can spend the night on a fold-out couch. There’s an outdoor meditation garden, flat screen TVs, and rocking chairs. Room service allows  moms to dine on demand. The hospital also has remote monitoring, which allows patients to roam the halls or even go out to the meditation garden while in labor. Doctors and nurses can track contractions and the baby’s heart rate, while giving the woman a chance to deal with the pain on her terms. 

Amanda Kaldenbaugh, who delivered her first child at the old Mills-Peninsula Hospital, particularly liked this feature when she birthed her second child who is now 19 months old. 

“A huge bonus of the new hospital is all the wireless technology. I was plugged into the machine that tracks contractions and able to ‘walk’ the wings of labor and delivery. I walked two miles, in fact. The ability to be mobile is key for a woman in labor,” she says. 

The “old” hospital wasn’t new and shiny, she says, but it was clean, and you could feel the energy and stories in the wall and in the rooms. That said, the post-delivery rooms were “not what I would call the most beautiful place to spend your first 48 hours with a newborn – but functional,” according to Kaldenbaugh. 

More Patient Safety

Perhaps the biggest innovations at Mills-Peninsula are invisible, says Quinn-Chen. Things such as electronic medical records allow nurses and doctors to leave notes, track medications and heart rates in one central computer database that can be accessed remotely. 

“There’s been a real push on maximizing patient safety. I think that’s something that people don’t think about. Patients tend to focus on the things that you notice,” she says.

Kaiser Oakland will debut a new Family Birthing Center in July. It’ll feature many of the same amenities as Mills-Peninsula, in addition to a play area above the maternity ward for siblings and visitors. Dr. Amanda Calhoun, a physician and maternity director at Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center, agreed that patients often take for granted the medical risks associated with childbirth. The hospital will have an expanded NICU and all services for expecting and new moms will be housed on one floor. A new phone system will allow doctors and nurses to communicate with each other immediately, and there’s a tube system that links the lab to the maternity ward so specimens can be immediately sent for analysis.
“The number one thing should be about the quality of the care that they are getting. What is the staffing like? Is there 24-hour on-call anesthesia? Are the doctors in house or at home? Those things are the most important. Then when looking at the unit itself, you want to make sure there is one-to-one nursing for all the patients in labor,” Calhoun says.
Amy Sherman, who delivered her son at the old Mills-Peninsula Hospital and whose partner recently birthed their daughter at the new facility, agreed. What mattered most to them was the doctor. The new hospital was a bonus. 

“The amenities at the new hospital allowed us to stay in one room for the entire stay – labor, birth and post-labor. That was awesome. Nobody likes to be wheeled around in a hospital gown through the halls,” she says.

Jennifer Aquino is a freelancer for Bay Area Parent and mother of two.

Hospitals Undergoing a Rebirth

• Kaiser hospitals – Oakland, San Leandro and Redwood City. Expected to be completed in 2014.

• California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco – Expected to break ground in 2014.

• Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland – Expected to open in 2014.



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• Get Me Out: A History of Birth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank by Randi Hutter Epstein. (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010)

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