Why Finnish Babies Don’t Sleep in Cribs

Generations of mothers are connected by a simple gift.

By Beth Dreher
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine October 2013

Baby in boxCourtesy Kela/Annika Söderblom

For expectant parents in Finland, their “bundle of joy” isn’t just the baby. Since 1938, new mothers and fathers have received a cardboard box, often used as the baby’s first crib, filled with a small mattress, blankets, infant clothes, outerwear, toiletries, and more.

The Finnish government supplies the boxes, saying the gift encourages good parenting habits and aims to give all children an equal start.

Some experts think that the starter kit has even helped Finland achieve one of the world’s lowest infant-mortality rates.

Before the tradition began, when many Finnish babies slept in their parents’ beds, 65 out of 1,000 babies died each year. Since the introduction of the box—and the custom of having babies sleep separately from their parents—Finland’s infant-mortality rate has plummeted to only 3.4 deaths for every 1,000 babies.

Over the years, the box’s contents have often reflected historical trends. Until 1957, the kits contained plain fabric that mothers would use to sew the baby’s clothes. Stretchy fabrics appeared in the 1960s; disposable diapers debuted in 1969. As more women began careers in the 1970s, the layette came in easy-to-clean stretch cotton. In 2006, cloth diapers reappeared for environmental reasons, and bottles were removed to promote breast-feeding.

“It’s easy to know when babies were born because the box changes a little each year,” Titta Vayrynen, 35 and the mother of two young boys, told a reporter for the BBC. “It’s nice to compare clothes and think, That kid was born the same year as mine.”

Below: The 48 items every Finnish parent receives at the hospital (baby not included).

Baby box itemsCourtesy Kela/Annika Söderblom

Tell us in the comments below: Do you think other countries should adopt this tradition?

  • Your Comments

    • Anonymous

      I am impressed that they reduced the infant mortality rate from 65 per thousand to less than 4 per thousand. The box may be a little ugly, but clearly saving the life of the child is more important than the style factor.

    • Mandy Chaney

      SIDS is mostly likely to occur in the first three months of life. Most people do not know that accidental suffocation is also labeled SIDS. Newborns do not have the muscle development needed to “wiggle” or “roll around” when they can not breathe. By three months of age, they have usually developed the muscle strength to do so. Therefore, they would probably not outgrow the box before they gain the muscle development needed to “wiggle” or “roll around” to prevent accidental suffocation. Also, we all stop breathing when we sleep. However, a newborn infants’ brain sometimes “forget” to start breathing again. By three months of age, the brain is able to signal that the infant needs oxygen and the infant will either start breathing again (if it is from a natural R.E.M. sleep) or (in an accidental suffocation case) the brain can signal that the infant needs oxygen and the infant can cry (to wake a parent up), or “wiggle” or “roll around” to uncover their face to get oxygen.

    • gjw1221

      How about just responding that you like it or dislike it? Does everything really have to be analyzed to the nth degree? I personally like the idea and wish America would adopt something similar, although I’m sure it would never happen.

    • Fe

      So very beautiful and inspiring to demonstrate practically that ALL LIVES ARE EQUALLY VALUABLE!

    • larina

      Fantastic idea-i was actually sent home in a cardboard box and i was born in Rhinebeck, NY, USA in 1985. no layette though, what a wonderful thing to give to a new parent-anything to make it a little bit less stressful and frightening when you have your first!

    • Missy

      That layette would be a lovely thing for new moms here in the U.S. Especially for low income parents who may be working yet unable to buy all a baby would need right off, and specifically for Moms who work underpaying jobs that don’t have any income at all during a 6-9 week maternity leave bc in the U.S., almost all maternity leave is unpaid. I was lucky, very lucky, that when I had my 2 boys in 2002 and 2003, my store manager somehow found a loophole in the wording of our short term disability benefits (prob bc I had C sections, which is a major abdominal surgery) so I got a few disability checks, plus I saved my vacay for my first 2 weeks I was off, so I had the pay check from the 2 weeks before I left, then a vacation pay, then a disability check or two. Then I all but stood on my doctor’s neck to let me go back to work after 6 weeks so we wouldn’t get behind on the bills and rent and food. I didn’t know how luxurious maternity leave was elsewhere in the world untill a few years later, I saw an article in a magazine comparing leave benefits around the world. I was amazed to find out the other countries give paid leave, longer leave, and more flexibility to moms regarding their schedules. I am actually ashamed of our policies here in a way. They don’t do much for a new mom who wants to be with her baby.

      • Larina

        you were very lucky-i also had a csection, but i had no vacation time and didnt qualify for maternity leave or disability as i was considered to be an independent contractor by my employer. I was induced on a monday, finally had my son that friday was released from the hospital on sunday and the next monday i had to return to work, as my husband’s vacation time ended, forcing him to return to his own job and leaving him unable to continue to do mine for me. i had a week of recovery time for my csection, a surgery which all drs agree should have a minimum of 6 weeks recovery

        • Unkown_user

          Well that’s no one’s fault but yours. You want more time off, plan better. I see no reason for someone to get time paid time off work to have an elective medical procedure. (as having a child is elective, you chose that path.) Furthermore, if we start giving women paid time off, then I should as a male get the same benefit for some elective surgery too.

          But I know women who don’t really need a c-section but opt for it anyways.

          • imer

            In some countries women get up to one year of paid maternity leave, paid by the government. A portion of your pay cheque is deducted and goes into employment insurance which allows you to take the time off for this type of elective procedure. I don’t understand how a country as developed as the USA doesn’ t have a better system in place for maternity/paternity leave.

            • sk_sk

              It is truly unfortunate that we in the US do not have the basic benefits that almost all other developed countries enjoy. We are not, in many ways, a First World country.

          • Kelly Hall

            It was so very helpful of you to remind her of her unfortunate situation. You don’t know that her c-section was elective. I’m sorry you have the shortcoming of needing an elective surgery.

      • sk_sk

        Missy,

        So sorry to hear that you are thus exploited. Any reputable employer in the US has paid maternity/paternity leave of multiple months. If you work for the kind of scum that does not I wish you luck in finding a better situation.

    • Tess

      Correlation does not imply causation. Could the lower death rate be more due to the fact that was around the time the polio vaccine (and many other life-saving techniques) were developed?

    • Jane

      I am from Canada. I dont like Finland its an isolated country. I have been to Finland it does not promote multiculturalism. Very hard for a foreigners to live in that country. Finnish people are very shy and close minded.

      • Jiana

        So not true! Whether you’ve been staying in a very small town in Finland, or too short amount of time OR haven’t really made true effort to get to know Finnish people. My experiences are totally different from yours, living in Finland for 10 years now. And about the article – the idea of the box isn’t really to put the baby to sleep in it, maby it was the idea 50 years ago. Today, it’s more about the stuff inside the box, it’s nice to get a “starter package”, especially for young adults who don’t necessarily know what they need for the baby, what’s useful etc.. Oh, and by the way, pregnant foreigners living here get the package too! ;)

      • sk_sk

        And this has *what* relation to the article? Such a wide brush you use to paint these people.

    • Ellie

      My two sons both slept in a basket right beside the bed for the first few months. Then I could pick them up and nurse them in bed and put them back in the basket when they were finished. Occasionally they stayed in bed with us. I think this is okay for light sleeping adults – it would be dangerous for heavy sleepers or impaired adults. My first child was slightly premature and 5 pounds when I first brought him home. As his stomach would only hold an ounce of milk or less at first, he nursed every three hours… Without the basket beside the bed I would have gotten virtually no sleep – not good for either of us. I sure would have liked the lovely selection of clothing provided in Finnland!

    • Dana

      Babies can only sleep in a box like that safely for a limited amount of time. Here’s betting that when the baby’s about to outgrow the box, he or she goes back to the family bed again.

      And by the way, it IS possible to sleep safely with a newborn. What safe sleeping looks like will depend on the individual family situation, but parents have been sleeping with babies since there have been human beings. Typical of modern people, let’s condemn all the things we did as prehistoric or primitive people that WEREN’T reducing our life expectancy in most cases, while encouraging people to adopt unhealthy habits that DO kill us. I dunno, I got nuthin’.

      • rumorasit

        Then how do you explain the mortality statistics? I realise more knowledge about things such as SIDS has played a roll. I’m just curious.

        • Christa Belle

          i bet better health care has a little to do with the reduction in infant mortality… but it is still a great idea.. i remember hearing of babies just sleeping in a drawer… also i think a box that size probably keeps them on their back, as aposed to sleeping on their tummy, which i think is also a reason for sids

          • larinachodan

            why do we bundle our babies? after leaving the close quarters of the womb it is comforting to be wrapped in a small tight environment-the larger the space the more overwhelming it is for the infant. and yes, the child would quickly outgrow the box. and yes you can safely sleep with your child(i did so, from the moment my son was born) infant mortality reducing probably has more to do with advancements in medical care and better education being provided to parents before they are sent home to care for their newborn. this is an amazing idea that provides a great gift to new parents which can be an invaluable gift for parents who may not be in the best financial situation. this is a great way to provide for the safety and needs of a baby and help new parents-every country should adopt this tradition. most hospitals in the us give a package of newborn or premie diapers and a formula kit is usually given provided by the manufacturer of the formula company. Breast feeding is proven as being the best for mother and child for a number of reasons, but it is not always a viable option, so removing the bottle from the kit, i dont really agree with(especially since my breast milk production was so low that i had to supplement the entire time i breast fed my son-seven months, until he got his first tooth)

          • Lucy Griffiths

            My first bed was a drawer out of my parents’ dresser. After that, I slept with my parents until I was about two, as the old farmhouse was short on bedrooms. My next bed was a pull-out sofa in the livingroom. Even so, I don’t believe a new born baby should sleep in the same bed as the parents. Even if only one baby dies, that’s still too much.

      • Tracy Vuorinen

        This isn’t primitive..they still do this..they started it because women were not getting healthy checkups while pregnant and because the economy was so low..they couldn’t afford to buy the things they needed when baby was born …at least they’re gov. looked out for them by doing so and continue to do so..research.. before you post you’re opinion…