For the last 60 years, Finland’s newborns have been drifting off to lala land within the cozy confines of…a cardboard box.
Gifted by the government as part of the Maternity Grants Act of 1937, the box is packed with everything babies need for the first year of life, and once emptied, doubles as a bed where little ones can sleep next to mum and dad’s until they’re ready for a crib.
Yet the reasons this cardboard package is a continuing feature of Finland’s social security system, and a valued part of Finnish culture, has little to do with some quirky sense of frugality.
In the 1930s, Finland was a poor country and had a very high infant mortality rate of about 65 for every one thousand births. In order to change that, low income families were given access to maternity grants. This grant came in the form of a cardboard box filled with necessary baby supplies such as fabric to make clothing and nappies. Expectant mothers who wished to receive this gift were required to visit a doctor or municipal clinic in order to qualify – thus ensuring proper prenatal care for the new generation.
Over time, the contents of the Maternity Grant Package have changed; each successive box a veritable time capsule reflecting the social mores and industrial developments of decades gone by.
In the earliest days, it contained mostly cloths and sewing materials for mothers to sew into outfits and nappies for their babies. Then in the 50s, ready-made clothing was introduced. Clothing was kept mostly white until the 1970s, when gender-neutral coloured clothing and blankets were introduced. Disposable diapers were included for a short time, but were removed because of environmental concerns.
Despite the changes inside the box, however, the prerequisite that mothers-to-be check in for prenatal support before qualifying for the free supplies still stands. The effectiveness of this approach is plainly obvious when considering the stats; historically having one of the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality in the world, today Finland has one of the lowest – and the country has even ranked top position as the best place to be a mother.
For Finnish parents there is no need for a baby shower, or overspending on unnecessaries. Inside the maternity box is a snow suit, sleeping bag, hats, socks and booties. There are gender neutral rompers and onesies, reusable nappies, bathing supplies and towels. Also included is a picture book, teething toy, toothbrush, nail clippers, wash cloths and creams. And of course, at the bottom of the box is a soft mattress. For mums and dads having multiples, their package is multiplied to match. Parents can choose to accept a monetary payment instead of the box, but less than one third opt for the 140 Euro payout because the value within the box is so much more.
With an economy deemed wealthy by global standards, the box has become more symbolic than vital to survival. There’s the subtle markers of state-directed socialisation/socialism in these care packages – the picture book, the re-usable clothing, the unpretentious cot – but the most unmistakable message behind the gift is this: raising a child is an immense responsibility, and nobody can do it alone.