Kerre McIvor

Kerre McIvor is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Kerre McIvor: Box keeps precious babies safe

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Most Finnish babies spend the first few months of their lives napping in cardboard boxes.  Photo / Milla Kontkanen
Most Finnish babies spend the first few months of their lives napping in cardboard boxes. Photo / Milla Kontkanen

The same week that Coroner Wallace Bain used the term epidemic to describe the number of babies dying because of unsafe bed sharing, I read a story about babies sleeping in cardboard boxes in Finland.

These are not babies born to families too poor to afford a bassinet or cradle.

Most Finnish babies, whatever their families' incomes, will spend their first few months napping in a cardboard box.

It's a tradition that dates back to the 1930s and although it was an initiative initially designed to help poorer families, now all Finns, irrespective of income, receive the box or a grant of €140 ($233).

Ninety-five per cent of families opt for the box because the contents are worth so much more.

Naturally, the contents have changed over time - disposable nappies came and went as fashion and environmental concerns dictated - and bottles and dummies are no longer given, in an effort to encourage breastfeeding.

Today's Finnish parents receive a box packed with a mattress, sheets, duvet, sleeping bag and quilt; clothing; nappies, nappy cream, a hooded towel and bath time necessities; a picture book and teething toy; and bra pads and condoms.

Finnish babies are set up for at least the first six months of their lives and as one parent put it, the box is a symbol of the importance of children.

Researchers are in absolutely no doubt as to the importance of the maternity box and its part in reducing infant mortality.

In the 1930s, 65 out of 1000 babies died. Now, that figure is just over one baby per thousand.

Of course, the national health care system played its part in the reduction.

To receive the box or the cash grant, mothers must register with a doctor or antenatal clinic, thereby ensuring expectant mums get the health care and advice they need before the birth of their child.

Here in New Zealand, health authorities have tried to accommodate families who have a tradition of sleeping with their babies without compromising the babies' safety.

Plastic pepi-pods are distributed to families who, through habit or necessity, share their beds with their babies.

In the Far North, Hawke's Bay and Gisborne, researchers are trialling traditional flax baskets - wahakura - that also allow babies to sleep safely in the same bed as their parents.

The Finnish maternity box takes the concept an important step further.

It is a gift to parents who are willing to do the right thing by getting appropriate antenatal care and it is a message that every baby born is valued. It seems a small price to pay to ensure every child in the country is given the best possible start in life.

- Herald on Sunday

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