From the archives: Why Canadian babies should sleep in cardboard boxes like Finnish babies do

The Globe and Mail

The Finnish baby box represents a public commitment not to allow children and families to wallow in poverty. (Milla Kontkanen)

This story was originally published in June of 2013.

Earlier this week the BBC News Magazine ran an astonishing story entitled: “Why Finnish babies sleep in cardboard boxes.” It was the tale of the “maternity package,” a simple cardboard box loaded with goodies that every expectant mother receives in Finland.

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The gift from the state contains clothes, a snowsuit, bath products, cloth diapers, books, bedding and a mattress. Traditionally, newborns in the Nordic country spend many of their first naps and sleeps in that cardboard box, a practice related in the catchy headline.

While the contents of the box are significant and useful, even more important is the symbolism. The cardboard box says: “Every child matters. Every family matters.”

That philosophy is the cornerstone of Finnish public policy.

It is not the box per se, but a wide range of child-centred and family-friendly social policies giving Finland what are arguably the healthiest children in the world.

It is a philosophy that also helps explain why Finland has the world’s happiest mothers, according to Save The Children.

Which invites the question: How does Canada compare?

Well, to begin with, our moms come in at a mediocre 20th place on the happiness ranking.

More importantly, Finland has an infant mortality rate of 2.3 per 1,000 live births. Canada’s rate is a shameful 5.7 per 1,000 – more than double.

Why?

It begins with the box – or the message in the box.

To collect the maternity package, Finnish moms-to-be must visit a maternity clinic. The contents, worth several hundred dollars, are an enticement to seek care. (Women can opt for a cash payment of 140 euros, but few do.) Practically, that means every pregnant woman gets care: Not only medical interventions like ultrasound scans, but milk and fresh fruit. Prevention is the best way to reduce the number of low-birth-weight babies.

The box contains a book on how to breastfeed, and every new Finnish mom gets a home visit from a lactation consultant. In Canada, our primary care is lacking and well-baby visits are a rarity. Until not too long ago, new moms were sent home with formula.

In Finland, all new moms get nine months of maternity benefits – whether they work not. Daycare is provided at no cost, and parents who choose to forgo daycare get a cash subsidy.

In Canada, maternity benefits flow from the employment-insurance program. If you don’t pay in – meaning, essentially, you have a job with benefits – you can’t collect. The approach excludes students, many part-timers, the self-employed, those who are paid under the table, the unemployed and so on.

The only province that has state-funded daycare is Quebec, and parents still pay $7 a day (if they can find a spot). Many parents pay $40 to $50 daily for child care, a usurious amount.

For a long time, Canada had a baby bonus. It started at $5 for each of “Johnny Canuck’s offspring” after the Second World War and rose gradually until it was eliminated in the cost-cutting of the early 1990s.

Today, Canada has a universal child-care benefit of $100 a month (taxable) and a Canada child-tax benefit for parents of children under 6. There are supplements for low-income parents and those with children with disabilities.

These programs are paltry at best. They have helped reduce the breadth of poverty, but not its depths.

Countries like Finland simply do not allow children and families to wallow in poverty. It is socially and politically unacceptable.

They recognize, implicitly and explicitly in public policy, that there is a cost to child-rearing for individuals and a benefit to society more broadly if children are raised healthy. So they facilitate parenting with a range of supports in health care, childcare, education, housing and employment.

It all begins with a cardboard box, a symbol of commitment.

In Canada, we don’t have a family policy to speak of. We have a lot of rhetoric and very little concrete supports, financial or otherwise.

It’s every mom for herself. We don’t even provide a box of essentials, and that speaks volumes.

If you don’t get the building blocks right, then how do you produce a nation of healthy children?

Follow on Twitter: @picardonhealth

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