Baby-box lure for Finnish mums-to-be

At a glance, it seems a strange place to put a newborn - a bit of bedding and a miniature sleeping bag arranged in a cardboard box.

Even so, that is the first place that many Finnish infants lay their little heads.

And the simple set-up is believed to be one reason that Finland now has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world - 2.52 for every 1,000 births, less than half that of the United States.

Finland provides all its mothers- to-be with a baby box, but there is a string attached. To receive it, the mother has to undergo a medical examination during the first four months of pregnancy.

Each year, the government gives away about 40,000 of the boxes, which come with bedding and about 50 baby items, including clothes, socks, a warm coat and even a baby balaclava (face mask) for the icy Nordic winter.

Mothers who do not need all those items can choose to get €140 (S$210) instead.

The programme started in the late 1930s, when nearly one of out 10 infants in Finland died in their first year. The boxes were a low- cost way to encourage women, especially those at the bottom of the income ladder, to see a doctor during pregnancy, whether they felt ill or not.

The boxes provided a safe place outside of parents' beds for infants to sleep, in homes that might have only rudimentary furniture.

Finland offers considerable protection for the baby's parents: up to 10 months' paid leave and a guarantee that whoever stays home with a child can return to his or her job any time before the child turns three.

There are efforts to extend the baby-box idea to a wider audience.

Finland sent a kit to Prince William and his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, in 2013, and a hospital in London recently began giving out the boxes on a trial basis.

In Minnesota, in the United States, a non-profit group distributed the boxes to low-income families, inspiring a proposal being debated by state lawmakers.

A graduate student at Harvard formed an organisation to distribute similar kits in South Asia. And three Finnish fathers have started a business that sells the boxes in countries that do less to support new parents than Finland does.

"When you move abroad, you realise that, wow, not every place has a baby box," said Sanna Kanga- sharju, who works in the Finnish Embassy in Washington. "It's a very efficient system."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2016, with the headline 'Baby-box lure for Finnish mums-to-be'. Print Edition | Subscribe