Having a new baby sounds, to put it lightly, terrifying. I imagine this is especially true at first, when particularly helpless infants are sent home with necessarily inexperienced parents. Baby-wise friends and family members can help, but it’s still pretty dangerous to put a total neophyte—like you, for example—in charge of a brand-new, independently useless living person. And while the right baby accessories don’t eliminate that gravity, they can mitigate it. Finland’s revolutionary “baby box” program has been successfully addressing this issue for almost 80 years.
Ever since 1938, expectant mothers in Finland have been given the choice between a cash grant (now set at 140 euros) or a maternity box—and given the value of its contents, 95 percent opted for the latter—as a gift from the government. The offer was originally only available to low-income mothers, but has been a nationwide right since 1949.
The boxes contain an annually changing array of clothing, outdoor gear, bathing products, diapers, bedding, and a small mattress that fits in the bottom of the box to form baby’s first crib. A crucial part of the program requires women to visit a doctor or municipal pre-natal clinic before their fourth month of pregnancy in order to pick up the box, further encouraging medical support. After the introduction of the boxes, infant mortality in Finland plummeted, and now sits comfortably as one of the lowest in the world—lower than rates in the U.K. or the U.S.
Finally, other countries are starting to take note and follow suit. Private suppliers have cropped up in Finland—exporting one of the nation’s best ideas—and other countries, often teaming up with health professionals to target local health crises.
Two South African entrepreneurs developed a kit packaged in a plastic box that serves as a bath rather than a bed—which they determined was a more pressing need locally. A doctoral student at Harvard University is developing a version for distribution in South Asia that would include a mosquito net to protect babies against malaria. In Alberta, Canada—where many mothers are left alone soon after birth while their husbands are away working on oil rigs for weeks at a time—the kits come with a community mentor who agrees to check in the new family regularly, from late in the pregnancy into the baby’s first six months. There’s also a manual for fathers on how best to bond with the newborn.
In the United States, small isolated programs (and companies that sell the boxes for $70 to $225) have sprung up. The most comprehensive replica will launch later this year in Fort Worth, Texas, where the infant mortality rate is significantly higher than the national average. Over the next two years, all four of the city’s hospitals will distribute a total of about 36,000 boxes in an effort to discourage parents from sleeping alongside their newborns.
These local initiatives are an encouraging start. But they fail to address one of the primary benefits of Finland’s program: the government insurance that all babies born in the country have access to at least a certain basic set of necessities—regardless of family circumstance. That idea has proven ... controversial in the U.S. But when you’ve got a screaming newborn on your hands, no one’s turning down a box of free shit.