In the 1930s, Finland was a poor country fighting an economic depression; 65 out of every 1,000 infants died. In response, the government came up with an idea for at-risk expectant mothers: a free box full of baby gear that doubles as a bassinet where babies can sleep safely. Eighty years later, Finland has one of the lowest infant mortality rates of any industrialized nation the world–the United States still has one of the highest.
While it’s hard to imagine the United States adopting such a program amid looming government health care cuts, the tradition is making its way stateside all the same thanks to a company named Baby Box Co. Already in Canada and India, Baby Box is launching as a free service to all expectant women in Ohio today, after making its way to New Jersey recently, too.
The Ohio box will feature diapers and wipes, a onesie, nipple cream and breast pads, baby development activity cards, a waterproof tote bag, a firm mattress, a waterproof mattress cover, and a fitted sheet. Dozens of other states are slated to come on board in the next several months, with goods varying by region.
Founder Jennifer Clary was inspired to launch the company after reading this article on Finland’s tradition, published by the BBC. The box proved an effective way to battle sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) because it promoted a healthy sleeping environment. Rather than setting a baby on a bed or couch, where he can roll off or get suffocated by a pillow, you put him to sleep in the safe, enclosed box. Already an entrepreneur who had moved on from her first company–a vegan food delivery service called Gobble Green–Clary was struck by the idea. “I turned to my husband and said, ‘Look this is unbelievable, they’re handing out cardboard boxes in Finland. Unicorns and puppies, and we should be doing that!”
Curious if there would be demand for a Finnish baby box in the U.S., she ran an ingenious market test: Clary listed a Finnish baby box on eBay, even though she didn’t own one. It sold in 30 minutes. So she spent the next year developing her own patented take on the Finnish box–loaded with high-end goods–before launching the company aimed at affluent families.
Boxes were routinely selling out, Clary says, but within a month, she’d discovered a new market. Private health care providers were reaching out, interested in bringing the boxes to their communities. At the same time, Clary met with organizers of the baby box program in Finland, where she garnered a valuable insight.
“The reason infant death had dropped was because they paired the box with training–you had to have a conversation [with health care specialists] in the second trimester to get the box,” she says. The box was a way to entice mothers into taking proactive steps to learn how to care for their new baby.
Since, Baby Box pivoted into the product that it is today. Yes, it’s still a box. Yes, it’s still loaded with goods that any new mother will need. But rather than something you can buy, it’s sponsored–and you can only get one by going to a health care provider in a supported state, picking up a Costco-like membership card, and going online to Baby Box’s site. There, you’re tasked with watching a few short educational videos and taking a test. When you pass, you’ll get a voucher for your box to pick up or be mailed to you.
The box itself is regionalized to issues within a particular community. So in India, where malaria is a problem, the boxes come with mosquito nets. In the U.K., Highways England has included air pressure gauges for your car, because they believe car crashes pose a serious risk to children. Similarly, all educational videos are shot by Baby Box with local doctors and community specialists, to ensure that they don’t feel foreign. “We have to approach every single state in the U.S. as if it’s a country, because there are so many populations, and the populations are so diverse,” says Clary. “We wouldn’t have a doctor from London talking about safe sleep in Alabama.”
To make the boxes free, Baby Box relies on a series of partnerships. “Every state has different fiscal capabilities,” says Clary. Some states have stronger budgets. We work with them on a case-by-case basis. When they don’t have the funding fully available, we have a number of fiscal financial partners.”
Private donors and the Bezos Foundation provide some funding–even though Baby Box is a for-profit corporation. Secondly, while Baby Box won’t take a sponsorship from a formula maker or a diaper brand to include those products due to conflicts of interest, the company will allow local organizations and businesses to donate goods to include. And finally, the boxes themselves are assembled at community events, removing some labor costs from the equation.
To make money, Baby Box relies on its online platform. The company offers mothers the option to reorder sheets, blankets, and other goods. And it’s steadily building a social media presence of Baby Box moms who share photos of their (adorable) babies, which could unlock more monetization opportunities, too–as any popular social media account can become a profitable influencer.
The Baby Boxes aren’t as nice as their Finnish counterparts–in Finland, as of 2013, mothers could receive a 140 euro credit for the posh government-sponsored box, which is said to be so good a value that a vast majority of moms take the box over the credit. Meanwhile, the average U.S. parent can spend $500 on diapers alone in their child’s first year of life–the Baby Box comes with a small bag of Pampers and 18 wipes.
The educational component of Baby Box may indeed be its most important, but should this ideal supersede the consumer aspects of a treasure chest full of new baby goods to parents with serious financial needs? Is it reasonable to enlist at-risk moms as customers to an online platform? And does it make sense for community funding and manpower to go into supporting a private corporation rather than a nonprofit?
No doubt, what’s inside a Baby Box is bound to continue to shift by region and evolve over time–but ultimately, its utility and communal value will determine whether it’s a brand that’s celebrated for as long as the Finnish tradition.