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A one-stop shopping center for baby-rearing

Isis focuses on infant needs

There is no manual for parenthood. But Isis Maternity Centers offer something of a guide service.

Walk into its Brookline or Needham locations and find buzzing classes that cater to the needs of busy new families. Here moms and families meet and learn, babies roam safely, child development questions are answered by knowledgeable staff, and there's top-quality baby gear for sale. Think of it as a cozy alternative to REI for the baby set.

While there have always been resources available to expecting and new parents, Isis Maternity cofounders Steve Schrodel and Jo McChesney have discovered the value in bringing them all together in one location. At Isis Maternity you'll find pregnant moms taking yoga, new mom and infant groups, couples childbirth classes, Kindermusic, breast-feeding how-tos, toddler play groups, women helping women, and friends meeting friends.

''We focus on the needs of expecting families and on children from birth to age 3," said McChesney, ''after which time kids reach an age where established services are prevalent and parents easily make connections with each other through preschool."

There are few times in a woman's life that can be more isolating than being at home with a new baby. Days stretch on in a grinding cycle of feeding, housework, and naps. Parents and in-laws provide conflicting advice, regular sleep is a distant memory, showers are a victory. With preschool still years away, new moms often face countless hours alone, navigating through a range of emotions, decisions, and worries.

Amy Kelman became an Isis Maternity client when her daughter was 3 months old. ''The sense of community is awesome and they don't pass judgments, they're just very supportive of moms," she said. When Kelman has questions she calls Isis Maternity, not her pediatrician. Named for the Egyptian goddess of motherhood, Isis Maternity's philosophy is more Dr. T. Berry Brazelton Touchpoints than La Leche League -- more about learning and sharing than dictating.

And that fits right in with what many young mothers are looking for. Marketers have labeled the typical Isis Maternity client a ''yoga mama." They're active and style-conscious, focused on fit pregnancies, and then on the fitness and well-being of their offspring. And they are heavily networked with each other. A 2005 survey of 1,800 mothers done by babycenter.com on BusinessWeek's behalf found that 40 percent considered other moms among their best sources of consumer information, well ahead of family and the media.

Kelman is not so sure she's a yoga mama, but she does say her husband teases her when she comes home from Isis Maternity with the week's featured baby toy. ''It may cost a little more. But I do know that developmentally it's the right kind of toy and I know what I should be doing with it," she said. BusinessWeek says that moms like Kelman are a big part of the reason why the $27 billion infant and preschool products business is growing at more than 4 percent per year. Regardless of income level, yoga mamas spend more on their offspring than previous generations.

To develop the concept for Isis Maternity Centers, Schrodel and McChesney worked with a trusted mom -- McChesney herself. The day McChesney met Schrodel, a home pregnancy test confirmed she was pregnant. Then working at Accenture as a healthcare strategy consultant, McChesney was logging a lot of time on the road while she really wanted to focus on her passion -- women's health and wellness. Schrodel, a former consultant for Deloitte Consulting, had a passion for customer service. Once Schrodel and McChesney put their heads together, Isis Maternity was conceived.

To design the centers, they consulted maternal/child health educators in the Boston area, and found support from local hospitals and private investors. In March 2003, they sublet 4,000 square feet in Brookline, maxed out their credit cards to buy furniture, and began running their first prenatal yoga classes and mom/baby groups. McChesney's son Tyler, then 3 months old, was right there with them.

From the start, Brigham and Women's Hospital supported the idea, first in an advisory capacity and then naming the centers as a preferred provider for childbirth classes. ''Isis Maternity consistently follows our childbirth philosophy and I trust them to serve our patients well," said Paula Gillette, director of women and newborn services for Brigham and Women's Hospital. In the summer of 2005, Beth Israel Hospital also named Isis Maternity a preferred provider.

For Schrodel, prenatal and postpartum services were the perfect starting point in his quest to raise the bar for customer service in healthcare. ''These are healthy people having healthy babies; and since hospitals are not structured to provide these types of services cost-effectively, we provide what parents are looking for and what parents expect," he said.

''The beauty of this concept is that it straddles healthcare and education, but it doesn't cross into insurance reimbursement, which can be a huge sticking point for the delivery of wellness services," said McChesney. All of the services and classes Isis Maternity offers are paid for out-of-pocket and range from $50 to $200. Clients can also choose to purchase a six-month $39 membership, which entitles them to 10 percent off all classes and products and free access to events and workshops.

Schrodel said that the company has more than 10,000 customers in its database, and that it has provided classes to more than 6,000 families. Currently, there are about 3,000 families with active memberships. As Isis Maternity's first clients had their babies and grew out of the early mom and baby groups, they continued to want additional services, so the centers started offering parenting workshops, dads groups, and classes for toddlers, including music, yoga, movement, and developmental play groups.

There is at least one other place like Isis Maternity: The Day One Center in San Francisco has been operating since 2002. Isis Maternity will launch its third location in Arlington Center on April 3. And it is already considering expansion to the north and south shores as well as Worcester.

In November, Isis Maternity was named 2005 Rookie of the Year by the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. With 80,000 births in Massachusetts every year there is plenty of room for growth. ''Every family should be so lucky to have them," said Kelman. ''The first year of parenting is incredibly challenging and Isis made it easier for me."

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