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With three-head showers, double beds and chocolates atop plush pillows, rooms at St. Mary's Hospital's remodeled birthing center, opening Wednesday, will feel more like a hotel than a hospital, administrators say.

Meriter Hospital is also upgrading its birthing center, where expanded rooms will feature soaking tubs, decorative glass and lighted soffits.

Dane County's two hospitals that deliver babies are each spending close to $40 million to spruce up maternity units and related facilities for a simple reason: Young women are key health care consumers, often deciding where their families will seek medical services for decades.

"If you don't cater to women, you lose your market share," said Kathy Kostrivas, Meriter's assistant vice president of women's health.

Many pregnant women tour both hospitals before choosing where to give birth, some bringing birth plans for each step of labor and delivery, said Holly Halberslaben, director of St. Mary's family care suites.

"They really do their homework," Halberslaben said. "It can be their first time in a hospital. You want to retain them."

With Meriter capturing 53 percent of the hospitals' births the past two years compared to 47 percent at St. Mary's, the competition is stiff.

"We want to maintain that or gain on it," said Kostrivas of Meriter.

But St. Mary's has a head start on new rooms, having finished the first phase of its $36 million project. New family care suites, where women and families stay after deliveries, open Wednesday.

Double beds with memory foam replace standard twin beds. Showers include a bench with a massage head. A warming light above a large sink will keep infants warm during their first bath. New moms can savor Belgian chocolates after a "celebration dinner" of beef tenderloin, baked salmon or fettuccine alfredo at a bistro-like table for two.

"We wanted it more like a hospitality experience than a hospital," said Kristin McManmon, St. Mary's vice president of operations.

St. Mary's will start renovating and expanding its neonatal intensive care unit next month. Labor and delivery rooms will be remodeled by 2012. The hospital's birthing facilities were last upgraded in 1995.

Meriter, which started renovating one floor of its birthing center in April, expects the rooms to be finished by late summer of next year. Work on two other floors should be done by the beginning of 2013.

Last upgraded in 1989, Meriter's birthing center was designed for 3,000 babies a year, said Patty Abraham, birthing center nurse manager. The hospital has delivered more than 3,800 babies annually the past three years.

"We have outgrown our space," Abraham said.

Meriter's rooms, like those at St. Mary's, will be larger than before and have flat-screen TVs. Two of Meriter's rooms will feature tubs for water births, which are encouraged by some of the hospital's nurse midwives. St. Mary's doesn't have nurse midwives.

Beginning in 2012, Meriter will convert its Longfellow School building into outpatient clinics for obstetrics and other women's health care.

In a separate project three years ago, Meriter upgraded its newborn intensive care unit, at a cost of $6 million.

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