By Mathew Miller, Sharon Perkins

Hospitals today love to stress to you and your partner how much like home they are while still having all the most up-to-date equipment at their fingertips. And though hospitals have come a long way in improving the overall birthing experience, they’re still not home. Some, however, are better than others at creating a welcoming, open-door policy for families.

Check out the local possibilities, keeping in mind that your doctor can only practice where he has privileges and that, in the long run, a doctor you trust is far more important than lavender quilts and a pullout sleeper chair. Here’s what to look for when you visit different hospitals:

  • Is it secure? Most hospitals have beefed up security, especially around the maternal and child health area. Hospital bracelets are embedded with alarm triggers, codes have to be activated to enter certain areas, and the staff all dresses in one color so you know who belongs there.

    Walking on to a maternity floor without a pass should not be possible. You want security to be tight, even if it’s a pain in the neck for you and your family and friends. The alternative is someone walking off with your precious bundle of joy.

  • What are the visiting policies? What you’re looking for depends on your preferences. Do you want your entire family and a three-piece band present or are you hoping to have just the two of you at the delivery and in the mother-baby unit afterward? Keeping family out is much easier if you can quote “hospital rules.”

  • How much access does dad have? Many places allow dad 24-hour visiting privileges, but some don’t. Find out the rules ahead of time so security isn’t called to remove you.

  • Is the staff helpful? You can tell a lot by the staff’s attitude, even on a short visit. Do they smile and say “hello” or do they run over your foot with a gurney without even an “excuse me”?

    You’re going to spend way more time with the nurses than with your doctor in labor — in fact, the doctor is often in and out so fast you may not be quite sure he was there at all — so your experience will be more pleasant if the nurses are good.

    Although you may still draw Nurse Ratched for your labor nurse, it’s less likely at a hospital with a mission statement and policies that promote a positive, family-centered mother-baby unit.

    If you’re planning to use a midwife, find out how the staff will work with her.

  • Is anesthesia in-house all night? Surprising as it may be, some small hospitals don’t have an anesthesiologist in the hospital all night. The anesthesiologist may have to be called in from home if your partner wants an epidural during the night.

    And if the hospital has only one on staff, she may be doing an appendectomy just as your partner starts getting really uncomfortable. Know ahead of time so you can ask for an epidural early, if need be.

  • How’s the décor? Consider the appearance of the hospital room, but only after you take everything else into consideration. Pretty surroundings are nice, but you’ll be too busy to notice them. And ultimately that pretty quilt will be removed from the bed because the staff doesn’t want anyone bleeding — or worse — all over it.

  • What type of neonatal intensive care unit do you have? Though no one anticipates problems, they can and do occur suddenly in labor sometimes. Having your baby transferred to another hospital because the original hospital can’t handle his issues is traumatic for you. A level III unit is the best for caring for very sick infants; most level II units can handle many types of sick or premature newborns.

After you make your decision, visit the hospital again. Knowing exactly what your room will look like and even recognizing some familiar faces removes a layer of stress as you get ready for delivery. Most hospitals and birthing centers offer tours, but you can call and schedule a private tour of the facility as well.

While you’re there, take note of the eating options, parking guidelines, and prenatal and postpartum classes that the hospital or birthing center offers. This allows you to plan ahead and give your well-wishers the information they need, as well as make full use of the facility’s offerings.

Many hospitals hold prenatal lactation classes that are taught by the on-staff lactation consultant who visits your room after delivery. The classes are usually free and not terribly long or taxing to attend.

Encourage your partner to attend a class to find out the basics of breast-feeding and to initiate a face-to-face relationship prior to the consultant’s postpartum visit. Your partner will be much more comfortable asking questions and discussing any issues she and baby are having if she has met the consultant previously.