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.
Now Finland has one of the worlds lowest infant mortality rates, and many believe it’s due in a large part to a cardboard box every expectant Finnish mother receives from the government as a gift.
This box is a maternity package containing most things a newborn would need such as bodysuits, a sleeping bag, outdoor gear, bathing products, picture book, teething toy, bra pads, nappies, bedding, a small mattress and clothes such as mittens, socks, overalls and booties. Colors are deliberately gender-neutral so a boy can pass on clothes to a girl too, and vice versa.
This tradition began in 1938 and is designed to give all children in Finland, no matter what background they’re from, an equal start in life. Originally, the scheme was only available to families on low incomes, but that changed in 1949.
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 walls of the cardboard box. 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.
In order to get the grant, or maternity box, mothers 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.
It’s more than just a box with stuff for babies
So not only did the box provide mothers with most of what they needed, but it also helped make sure pregnant were receiving the medical attention they needed and deserved.
“There was a recent report saying that Finnish mums are the happiest in the world, and the box was one thing that came to my mind. We are very well taken care of, even now when some public services have been cut down a little,” says Titta Vayrynen, a 35-year-old mother with two young boys.
For some families, the contents of the box would be unaffordable if they were not free of charge. For Vayrynen, it was more a question of saving time than money.
She was working long hours when pregnant with her first child, and was glad to be spared the effort of comparing prices and going out shopping. When she had her second boy, Ilmari, Vayrynen opted for the cash grant instead of the box and just re-used the clothes worn by her first, Aarni.
At 75-years-old, the box is now an established part of the Finnish rite of passage towards motherhood, uniting generations of women.