When Grace Rabinowitz had her first baby this summer, she didn’t even spend one night in the Tel Aviv hospital where she gave birth. About 12 hours after her daughter was born, Rabinowitz moved to Tel HaShomer Hospital’s upscale Sheba Baby Hotel, where she had a private room with a soft bed, and buffet meals full of grilled meats, fresh breads, and colorful salads. Her baby stayed just down the hall in a professionally staffed nursery. And for three days, Rabinowitz thought of nothing but resting and taking care of her baby and herself, all with the encouragement of a professional staff of nurses and lactation consultants.
“I didn’t want to leave this place because I was so comfortable,” said Rabinowitz, a 28-year-old doctoral student in biology at Bar Ilan University. “It also really made a difference that my husband could stay there, too, sleeping in the bed beside me.”
This post-birth hotel stay is becoming more common in Israel, although it still remains largely unheard of elsewhere around the world. Since Sheba Baby opened in 2000, many similar hotels have cropped up across the country, and in the last two years, Israel’s public health-care system has raised its reimbursement rates for new mothers who wish to stay in these places, making such pampering an increasingly popular and accessible option.
“It’s become much more of an accepted idea now, and it does not mean that you are spoiled,” said Natalie Hurvits, who opened Baby Lis Hotel in 2005 near Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. Now, about 35 percent of women who give birth in Ichilov stay at Baby Lis for at least one night, Hurvits said. “When we first opened, women felt they had to justify why they were coming here. Now, women who don’t go to hotels have to explain why.”
Although there haven’t been scientific studies of the benefits of these hotels, many health-care professionals and new parents said that a few days of relaxation in a non-hospital environment helps new mothers cope better. In addition to comfortable rooms that mothers and babies can move into often within 24 hours of giving birth, or a few days in the case of a cesarean section, most of these hotels also offer classes about baby-care and breastfeeding as well as a nursery that looks after the newborns while the mothers sleep or eat. The newborns’ fathers are also welcome to stay.
“The mother goes home from here in a different state of mind,” said Inna Batkilin, the head nurse at Hadassah Baby on one floor of the Ein Kerem Hotel on Hadassah Hospital’s sprawling campus in Jerusalem. “It’s really important to have a space where new mothers can enjoy the quiet and not have to think about other things,” she said as she sat in the hotel’s dining room, whose windows offer a panoramic view of hills and forests.
Hadassah Baby’s 28 rooms also have views of the surrounding landscape, as well as flat-screen TVs, beds made up with crisp white linens and sitting areas with easy chairs and coffee tables. Gifts of baby bottles, wipes, and diaper cream sit neatly arranged atop each room’s changing table. And rather than artwork, the rooms are decorated with framed posters advertising Pampers. A bedside call button goes directly to the nursery, in case a new mother isn’t feeling well or needs extra help. Nurses are available around the clock to evaluate mothers and babies, and can, if needed, quickly send a mother or baby back to the hospital for medical attention.
After giving birth last year, Elana Dascal, a single mother from Jerusalem, spent a week here on the recommendation of her midwife and doula. “It was much more relaxed than the hospital,” Dascal said. “The nurses there were very patient and relaxed, not as busy as in the hospital.”
Due to its high birth rate, Israeli hospitals, including Hadassah Ein Kerem, are often full and crowded, with most maternity patients having at least one roommate. And although the hospitals—where all birth costs for Israeli citizens are covered by the National Insurance Institute—provide lactation consultants, counselors, and social workers, there can be a long wait for such services, often frustrating already-overwhelmed women. For Dascal, the hotel offered more personalized breastfeeding and other advice than the hospital. “It erased the hospital experience, which wasn’t so great,” she said. “This also helped make the transition to coming home easier. I was a little nervous to come home alone.”
Miry Eman Brandeis, a social worker from Givat Shmuel, who spent three nights at Baby Lis after giving birth in February says this stay “saved my life.” She found herself very emotional and crying in the first days after birth, and frustrated as she struggled to breastfeed her baby. “But the hotel staff really understood all of the struggles and everything,” Brandeis recalled. “A few weeks later at home on a bad night when the baby wouldn’t eat and wouldn’t sleep, I just kept saying I wanted to go back to the hotel.”
Saralee Glasser, a psychologist and senior researcher at the Gertner Institute for Epidemiology & Health Policy Research at Chaim Sheba Medical Center, who has authored several studies on postpartum mental health, said that until appropriate research studies are conducted it is impossible to say if a short stay at one of these hotels really has health impacts, and that no research to date has investigated association between maternity-hotel stays and postpartum emotional difficulties. She pointed out that postpartum depression and anxiety are influenced by many factors. “These hotels may be one small factor that affects a woman’s emotional health, and probably could not hurt,” she said. But she also pointed out that those who stay in baby hotels may also be more likely to be in secure financial positions or have sufficient family support, two other factors that can protect against depression. “There are barriers for women to access these hotels, and these may be similar to issues that can exacerbate emotional distress at this sensitive time in a woman’s life. Thus, we certainly cannot conclude that the hotel stay in itself can prevent an episode of postpartum depression. ”
But whether or not studies back up their benefits, the hotels are growing in popularity, mainly due to increased awareness and subsidies from the state-funded HMOs, from which all Israelis receive health care. In recent years, these HMOs have increased the amount of money they reimburse members for private services, including stays at baby hotels and postpartum convalescent homes. But this benefit is usually only available to those Israelis who pay about $10 a month for a higher level of coverage from one of the otherwise free HMO plans.
“This money absolutely helped make it possible, because it is expensive,” Brandeis said. Her HMO paid for half of her 5,000-shekel ($1,428) bill for three nights at Baby Lis.
Some hospitals, including Hadassah Ein Kerem, also now give new mothers one free night in their connected baby hotels as a way to encourage more women to give birth in their facilities. Hospitals receive government money according to how many births they have.
Seeing the growing demand for stays at baby hotels, last year Yogev Bochbot opened a maternity hotel in 20 rooms of the Ramada Jerusalem Hotel. Called Bikorim, this facility caters mainly to ultra-Orthodox women, who for the last 50 years in Israel and abroad have had a tradition of going to convalescent homes after giving birth. Most ultra-Orthodox communities have several of these convalescent homes, but they are usually not high-end. Women often share rooms and husbands do not stay with them.
“But now more women want something nicer, more in the style of a hotel,” Bochbot said. “And with the [HMOs] paying more toward it now, there is growing demand.” Rooms at Bikorim are about $200 a night, or $120 a person for double occupancy, before any reimbursement from the HMOs.
This widespread practice of post-birth convalescent homes among the ultra-Orthodox has allowed that model to expand into other parts of Israeli society. “There is something very Jewish in this baby-hotel thing,” Hurvits, of Baby Lis, said. “Women don’t want to go home alone. Throughout our history we were always surrounded by our hamula of mothers and aunts and cousins, so, on the one hand, we don’t want to be alone. But we also don’t want that hamula coming too much into our space at the hospital room or in our first days home. Now, at the hotel, they can come and sit with you in the lobby and drink a coffee, and then when you are done you can go back to your private room. It really makes for a soft landing.”
Hurvits said that entrepreneurs and birth professionals from around the world have come to visit Baby Lis, and she recently consulted a group that tried and failed to build a successful postpartum hotel in London. “The business model really depends on tradition and on the working together of the private and public medical systems, or else no one can afford it,” Hurvits said. One of the only other places in the world that has anything similar is East Asia: In Chinese culture, new mothers have a tradition of a “sitting month” after birth, when they refrain from going outside and are often cared for and fed special healing foods in the home of female relatives. In recent years, some luxury hotels in mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong have started offering this service to women. But high costs, not covered by the health-care systems, still prevent most women from partaking so the practice is not as widespread.
New Israeli mothers say they are grateful to have the option and to have it become more affordable recently. After a difficult pregnancy where severe nausea from hyperemesis gravidarum resulted in spending months hospitalized and reliant on a feeding tube, Kalanit Taub credits a few days at a postpartum convalescent home in Telzstone outside Jerusalem with her not having to resort to anti-anxiety medication after birth as she did with her two previous births. “I was able to relax and sit and talk with other women about their birth experiences,” Taub, from Efrat, said. “I came out of there feeling so emotionally healed from what was a very difficult pregnancy. It really made a huge difference for me.”
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Sara Toth Stub is a Jerusalem-based American journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, Associated Press, and other publications.