Finnish babies and the boxes they sleep in

Jun 5, 2013 at 3:45 p.m. ET

Parents in Finland can choose to receive a box filled with essential baby supplies when they have a child, and the box itself can be used as a bassinet for the baby to sleep in. We talked with a mom who was born there to find out more about this amazing custom.

Ann and Rebecca

Find out how the tradition of baby care boxes benefits babies and their parents.

For the last 75 years, Finnish moms and dads can elect to receive a baby care box (full of essentials for Baby’s first months and beyond) or a cash benefit when they have a child. Most choose the box, which has been designed to give every child in the country an equal start to life. We were able to chat with a mom who was born in Finland and how her parents’ experience was — and what it means to have such a wonderful program set up.

Baby care boxes

The program, which originally was only offered to parents who fell below certain income limits, was expanded to all Finnish citizens in 1949. To get the benefit, moms-to-be also must visit a doctor or prenatal clinic by their fourth month of pregnancy.

In the early decades of the program, the boxes contained fabric because moms often made clothing for their children, but premade clothes began to replace the fabric in the 1950s. In the late '60s, disposable diapers appeared for the first time, but those have recently been replaced with cloth diapers.

The boxes today contain a variety of baby-care items, such as clothing featuring neutral colors and patterns, a snowsuit, booties, mittens, bath items, a book, a toy and other odds and ends. It also includes a small mattress, which, together with the box, creates a bassinet for the baby to sleep in.

A Finnish baby's perspective

Rebecca as a baby

Rebecca Andersson, mother of four and owner of Warehouse Cafe & Market in Portland, Oregon, was born in Helsinki, Finland in 1974. She told us that parents there have a choice between a baby care box and a sum of money. "The value of the box is much higher than the sum of money though, so most people opt for the box," she explained. "My parents did. They were young, my father was in university and they lived on a limited income."

In addition to the replacement of disposable diapers with those of the cloth variety, the government, in 2006, removed bottles and pacifiers from the boxes to help improve breastfeeding rates in the country, which Rebecca loves. "I know, from personal experience with my own babies, that as a new mother you will try anything if your baby cries and you don't know what's wrong," she shared. "I think it is easy to reach for the pacifier, or bottle and formula, if you already happen to have that on hand at home. By contrast, I think not having bottles and formula readily available gives new moms the positive message that she already has everything she needs to feed her baby right there, within her breasts and her innate abilities."

Sleeping in boxes

There has been a lot of attention paid to the "sleeping in boxes" idea — the concept was originally developed so the poorest families had a clean and safe place for their baby to sleep, but some parents worry that it sends the message that babies cannot safely sleep in their parents' bed.

"I think the supplies the government gives you do send a message about current recommendations and best practices, and have an air of authority just by virtue of being government sanctioned," Rebecca said.

She told us that the government-provided box may make parents feel that their babies should sleep alone and may even need to cry it out, but the baby box can actually be a useful tool that helps promote co-sleeping.

Rebecca explained that the bassinet can be used close to and within mother's reach for the first few months. "Once the box is outgrown, babies can transition into their parents' bed, a side-carred crib or whatever other arrangement works best for the family," she said. "There are many ways to safely co-sleep and stay connected at night, until the child is old enough to sleep alone by choice."

The Finnish system

The baby care boxes aren't free, per se — instead, they are the result of taxation. Taxes in the country are high, but they pay for a large number of social programs, such as free healthcare, free daycare, free university education, paid parental leave and other benefits.

"Most people there agree that this is a good arrangement between the people and the government," she said. "Taxes are used to level the playing field and give everyone equal access to resources regardless of income, especially children who are seen as future contributors to society."

Images courtesy of Rebecca Andersson

More on new moms

Oh bebe: Parenting in France
The ultimate new baby checklist
How to keep your new baby healthy naturally