The Finnish “Baby Box” has made headlines in the news since BBC published a comprehensive article about the history of this peculiar and yet envied Finnish maternity perk. The “baby box” – or as it is referred to in Finland, the maternity package – is a box filled with essential baby and maternity items, such as cloth nappies, baby clothes, toys, baby books, and the box itself, which can be used as a crib for a baby, and comes with a fitted mattress. The “baby box” is only a small part of a broad package of benefits offered to families in Finland, including around 3-4 months of paid maternity leave for the mother, additional 5-6 months of paid parental leave which can be taken by either mother or a father, and 54 days of paid paternity leave specifically for the father.
I don’t have personal experience with Finnish maternity benefits, but a close friend of mine, Outi Vierola, does. She had her firstborn child, Fiona, in December last year. She notes that the original reason behind the “baby box” was to encourage mothers to get health checks done during pregnancy, and the maternity package contributed notably to the decline in child mortality in Finland. Even today, a requirement for receiving the maternity package is for the mother to see a doctor for a check-up before giving birth.
Outi considers the “Baby Box” absolutely wonderful. She remembered asking a nurse in the earlier stages of her pregnancy what basic items they should get before the baby arrives, and the nurse told them that there really wasn’t anything else they absolutely needed in addition to what is in the “baby box” – the package has everything essential for the first 6-12 months of the baby’s life. Every child born in Finland receives it – and therefore gets an equal start to life, regardless of the socio-economic situation of their parents.
Outi also noted that the Finnish “neuvola” system is a crucial part of the Finnish welfare model. In Finnish, the word “neuvo” means advice, and “neuvola” translates to “a place for advice”. These maternity and child health clinics form a specific branch of the Finnish public health care system for maternity, family and children’s health services. Finnish mothers usually visit neuvola between 8-10 times during a pregnancy. The visits are free, and include two ultrasounds. In addition to health care services, nurses in neuvola offer information and advice, organize family support groups, and help parents with the baby-parent interaction once the child has been born. Outi noted that her experience with her local neuvola was purely positive – she felt she could access the services easily and with short notice, she could always get a hold of someone for advice, and information was easily available. She doesn’t consider these services, nor the other maternity and family benefits, as welfare or handouts, but believes it is the responsibility of the state to provide certain basic services for its citizens in an affordable and accessible manner.
Outi plans to return to work in August, when Fiona is around 9 months old. At this point, Antti, the father, will stay home on his paternity leave for a few additional months. Outi noted that the Finnish model not only supports healthy pregnancies and deliveries, but also makes it easier for women to combine career and family if they wish to do so. It is also becoming easier for fathers to take on stronger roles as caregivers and remain home with their babies. Ensuring that fathers are included in parental benefits is important for supporting the bond between the father and the baby, but also essential for gender equality. If nothing changes with traditional parenting roles, mothers will end up double- and triple-burdened by their work and domestic responsibilities, and fathers may end up feeling left out as caregivers. Encouraging women to return to work after having children is useless as long as the support services offered for families are inadequate – a situation that remains a reality for majority of families around the world, both in developing and developed countries.
The Finnish model is not about charity or giveaways, but about supporting entire families so that mothers can experience safe pregnancies and deliveries, and parents have the means and knowledge to raise their children with confidence and with support. Healthy mothers give birth to healthy babies, and informed parents raise happy, healthy children. These support systems and benefits are not handouts, nor are they just for the mothers – they benefit the entire society.
Photos of Outi and Fiona by the happy and talented photographer-father, Antti Vierola.
- Could the Finnish Baby Box be copied? Check out this Impatient Optimists-post by Jennifer Burden about a global MDG-Baby Box!