Critical gap in Korea’s postpartum carePARK HAN-SEUL
The author is a pharmacist and writer.
Postpartum care centers exist only in Korea. While some other countries have similar facilities, Korea is the only country where such centers are widely used. What is controversial is not the facts but the interpretation. While some parts of Korean-style postpartum care may be excessive, it is far more reasonable to interpret that the postpartum care centers have become so uniquely common because of the systematic differences and cultural changes in Korea and other countries.
The need for postpartum care is addressed in all countries, but the difference is how people respond. In major developed countries, mothers do not check into such facilities upon giving birth. They don’t need such facilities because spouses are allowed to take extended parental leave, which allow mothers to recuperate and couples to care for the mothers and newborns at home. Since professional maternity care may still be needed, the state or local government subsidizes to dispatch professional care workers. But in Korea, paternity leaves or professional assistance for care after giving birth are nearly non-existant.
As of 2020, only 24 percent of the workers who took parental leave were men. While awareness for paternity leave is improving, it is still too low to help with postpartum care. Moreover, maternal care is largely neglected institutionally as little assistance is offered to hire professional care. In the past, the strong family culture took care of mothers who just gave birth. But as family culture changed, a gap appeared. Postpartum care centers cleverly fill in this gap.
A survey by the Ministry of Health and Welfare shows that 81.2 percent of new mothers used the postpartum care centers in 2020. The problem is that low-income mothers find it increasingly hard to access them as the vast majority are private-run.
In the same survey, only 58 percent of the mothers of households with monthly income of less than 2 million won ($1,500) received professional care at the centers. The total postpartum care period also differed by income levels. The mothers in the lowest income bracket spent 12 days less in postpartum care centers than the mothers in the highest income bracket. The gap in health care for mothers shortly after childbirth cannot be filled, not to mention the childcare and educational burdens afterwards.
To resolve the low birth rate in Korea, macroscopic structure reform may be important. But I am not sure what it would mean if society cannot address the issue of postpartum care for all mothers.