We were a few months pregnant with our first child—past some of the scariest medical hurdles, we felt increasingly reassured that this thing was actually happening—when the box arrived. The lid was emblazoned with a pleasingly crisp, sans-serif typeface. We opened the box together, in our fledgling nursery area, electric with anticipation. Inside: charming little onesies, sleepsacks, footie pants, even an infant-size balaclava—all in bold Nordic prints with soothing colors, cheerful animals, and jaunty stripes. This box was the very first baby-related object we’d bought as expectant parents, and we lifted the items out one by one to admire them.
The “Finnish baby box”—the real one—is provided by the Finnish government to the families of every soon-to-be-born Finn. It abounds with all manner of infant attire, plus functional tools like a thermometer and nail clippers, and also a little mattress that can transform the cardboard box itself into a bassinet where a baby can theoretically snooze.
Kela, the Finnish social service, first implemented its baby box program back in the 1930s. Because I live in Brooklyn, not Helsinki, our baby box was merely a commercial replica inspired by the original Finnish product and was not provided to us free of charge by our government. We paid for it—every last bib and jumper in our treasure chest full of scrumptious infant lewks—sending our money across the Atlantic to some clever Finnish entrepreneurs.
Not long after the BBC did a 2013 story on the Finnish baby box tradition that went globally viral (more than 13 million clicks and counting at this point), a Finnish executive named Heikki Tiittanen, along with two of his friends, realized that bougie baby boxes might be an unfilled market niche worldwide. Back when Tiittanen and his wife were expecting their first child, he recalls now, “Everything was super confusing. We felt totally lost.” Then they received their government-issued baby box. “I opened the box with my wife in our living room and we felt, immediately, ‘OK, we can survive this.’ We felt much better prepared. It gave us relief. It helped us feel that everything would be OK.” Tiittanen figured parents around the world might be willing to pay for this same feeling of reassurance. So he went about sourcing clothes and supplies, and tried to reverse engineer their government’s box as accurately as he could. He needed to omit liquids and electronics the government provides—in order to clear international customs—but he offset this by including some slightly fancier infant togs. His company’s first box was sold in September 2014, and it’s since shipped boxes to more than 80 countries, including Iraq and Zimbabwe.
My wife read that BBC story about the Finnish government’s program and—intrigued by the notion of a bounty of adorable Finnish baby clothes appearing on our doorstep—it stuck with her. Once she became pregnant, she looked into getting one of the boxes. Turns out you can’t buy them from the Finnish government, which is not in the for-profit export business. Tiittanen’s doppelganger box seemed to be as close as you could get.
His version is expensive. The standard model retails for $449. (The superluxe “Moomin” edition will run you $669.) Though he has locked down the enviable finnishbabybox.com domain, his is not the only “maternity package” available on the market. There are now a couple of competitors out there, including the similarly priced Finnbin, launched by a pair of Americans. Even Walmart has gotten in the game with a super-low-cost entry, largely filled with samples.
Of course, the United States isn’t Finland: We had 4 million births last year compared with their 53,000. We don’t have nearly the same built-in commitment to social services. Perhaps we can’t give every American baby this to-die-for rainbow romper like the Finns do. Still, there is something distinctly bittersweet about the fact that a thing with origins as a government-bestowed social good is quickly becoming yet another pricey object in the upper-middle-class pregnancy-industrial complex.
Since the box was first introduced in Finland, the country’s infant mortality rate has plummeted. Some attribute this to the safer sleep environment—SIDS risk is reduced because every baby has its own flat mattress and protected area an adult can’t roll into. But the reality is more complex. In order to get this free box of stuff, pregnant Finnish women are required to meet with a doctor, and thus they are inducted into a program of education and made aware of other resources available to them. (Tiittanen says that he thinks less than half of Finnish parents even bother to use the box as a bed and that people mostly get excited about the clothes.) “People like to get something for free,” says Kathryn McCans, chairwoman of the New Jersey Child Fatality and Near Fatality Review Board. A box, she said, can be “the incentive to do the education.”
This is the notion behind Jennifer Clary’s the Baby Box Co., which began as what Clary calls a “baby shower in a box”—a startup not unlike Tiittanen’s, offering an expensive, attractive package chock full of kiddo goodies. But she says it’s since evolved into a mission-driven venture, with funding from partners like Pampers and the Bezos Family Foundation. It supplies expectant mothers with baby boxes after they take an online education course about early parenting. The Baby Box Co. is now in six states and distributed boxes to 250,000 families from a wide range of demographic backgrounds this year. Her more modest baby boxes are also for sale, ranging from a barebones version for $70 up to a more bells-and-whistles box for $225.
As for me, I’ll admit it: I love my box. It was pricey but a good value. We might well have spent as much compiling a similar list of items on our own, piece by piece. That cheery Finnish snowsuit alone will be a godsend in New York winters. But my attachment runs deeper than mere material assessment.
When we first opened the box, I felt something akin to the emotions Tiittanen describes. I was still being haunted by murky imaginings of my future failures as a dad. The delivery of all these provisions somehow managed to assuage my fears a little. It kick-started parenthood for me. I went from feeling utterly unprepared to feeling I was at least equipped with a bunch of the physical stuff I’d need. And holding up those tiny, newborn-size pants and realizing how small our child would be made my responsibilities as a father instantly more tangible. I didn’t have a creature writhing inside my abdomen, forcing me to focus on the change that was coming, but the arrival of that box helped me feel like the kid was starting to arrive in my life. Ideally, every new parent would be able to experience something like the relief and wonder I felt when this airdrop reached my door.