All Finland’s expectant mothers have been given a baby box by the state since 75 years ago.
The maternity pack is like a starter kit of clothes, sheets and toys that can even be used as a bed. And some say the baby box helped Finland achieve one of the world’s lowest infant mortality rates.
It’s a tradition that dates back to 1938 and it’s designed to give all children in Finland, no matter what background they’re from, an equal start in life.
The maternity package – a gift from the government – is available to all expectant mothers.
The baby box contains bodysuits, a sleeping bag, outdoor gear, bathing products for the baby, as well as diapers, bedding and a small mattress.
With the mattress in the bottom, the box becomes a baby’s first bed. Many children, from all social backgrounds, have their first naps within the safety of the box’s four cardboard walls.
Mothers have a choice between taking the box, or a cash grant, currently set at 140 euros, but 95% opt for the box as it’s worth much more.
The tradition dates back to 1938. To begin with, the scheme was only available to families on low incomes, but that changed in 1949.
“Not only was it offered to all mothers-to-be but new legislation meant in order to get the grant, or maternity box, they had to visit a doctor or municipal pre-natal clinic before their fourth month of pregnancy,” says Heidi Liesivesi, who works at Kela – the Social Insurance Institution of Finland.
So the box provided mothers with what they needed to look after their baby, but it also helped steer pregnant women into the arms of the doctors and nurses of Finland’s nascent welfare state.
In the 1930s Finland was a poor country and infant mortality was high – 65 out of 1,000 babies died. But the figures improved rapidly in the decades that followed.
Mika Gissler, a professor at the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Helsinki, gives several reasons for this – the maternity box and pre-natal care for all women in the 1940s, followed in the 60s by a national health insurance system and the central hospital network.
At 75 years old, the baby box is now an established part of the Finnish rite of passage towards motherhood, uniting generations of women.
The contents of the box have changed a good deal over the years, reflecting changing times.
A boy can pass on clothes to a girl too, and vice versa, because the colors are deliberately gender-neutral.
During the 30s and 40s, it contained fabric because mothers were accustomed to making the baby’s clothes.
But during World War II, flannel and plain-weave cotton were needed by the Defence Ministry, so some of the material was replaced by paper bed sheets and swaddling cloth.
The 50s saw an increase in the number of ready-made clothes, and in the 60s and 70s these began to be made from new stretchy fabrics.
In 1968 a sleeping bag appeared, and the following year disposable diapers featured for the first time.
Not for long. In 2006, the cloth diapers were back in and the disposable variety were out, having fallen out of favor on environmental grounds.
Encouraging good parenting has been part of the maternity box policy all along.
“Babies used to sleep in the same bed as their parents and it was recommended that they stop,” says Panu Pulma, professor in Finnish and Nordic History at the University of Helsinki.
“Including the box as a bed meant people started to let their babies sleep separately from them.”
At a certain point, baby bottles and dummies were removed to promote breastfeeding.
“One of the main goals of the whole system was to get women to breastfeed more,” Panu Pulma says.
And, he adds: “It’s happened.”
Panu Pulma also thinks including a picture book has had a positive effect, encouraging children to handle books, and, one day, to read.
And in addition to all this, Panu Pulma says, the box is a symbol.
A symbol of the idea of equality, and of the importance of children.
The story of the maternity pack:
- 1938: Finnish Maternity Grants Act introduced – two-thirds of women giving birth that year eligible for cash grant, maternity pack or mixture of the two pack could be used as a cot as poorest homes didn’t always have a clean place for baby to sleep
- 1940s: Despite wartime shortages, scheme continued as many Finns lost homes in bombings and evacuations
- 1942-1946: Paper replaced fabric for items such as swaddling wraps and mother’s bedsheet
- 1949: Income testing removed, pack offered to all mothers in Finland – if they had prenatal health checks
- 1957: Fabrics and sewing materials completely replaced with ready-made garments
- 1969: Disposable diapers added to the pack
- 1970s: With more women in work, easy-to-wash stretch cotton and colorful patterns replace white non-stretch garments
- 2006: Cloth diapers reintroduced, bottle left out to encourage breastfeeding
Baby box content:
- Mattress, mattress cover, undersheet, duvet cover, blanket, sleeping bag/quilt
- Box itself doubles as a crib
- Snowsuit, hat, insulated mittens and booties
- Light hooded suit and knitted overalls
- Socks and mittens, knitted hat and balaclava
- Bodysuits, romper suits and leggings in unisex colors and patterns
- Hooded bath towel, nail scissors, hairbrush, toothbrush, bath thermometer, diaper rash cream, wash cloth
- Cloth diaper set and muslin squares
- Picture book and teething toy
- Bra pads