In 1938, the Finnish government introduced the Maternity Grants Act. That year, Finland’s expectant mothers each received a baby shower of supplies for their newborn. All-weather clothing, health and hygiene products, bedding, a toy–these were some of life’s bare necessities included in the box (which even doubled as a crib).
Today, the 75-year-old maternity package tradition is very much thriving, a cultural rite of passage for proud mothers-to-be, and a key contributor to the country’s low infant mortality and high quality of life.
When the legislation first passed, Finland boasted one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world–65 deaths per 1,000 births. There was no nationalized health insurance program (as there is today), and a weak hospital network left many Finns with no access to doctors and nurses. Prenatal care was a mere afterthought for the large rural poor population, and few sought it. Even fewer could afford it.
The Maternity Grants Act was passed as a legal measure to combat these social ills, a healthy-minded gift of government, as it were.
Carefully curated maternity packages are intended to give all Finnish children the same start, if not the same winter caps. Interestingly almost all first-time mothers choose the package over the 140 Euros cash grant. To collect, pregnant women are required to seek prenatal tests at a municipal maternity unit before their fourth month. There, they are given essential, once-unaffordable supplies and healthcare advice (like, “Don’t sleep with your baby; lie it on its back in this box,” and “Show your baby this photo book so s/he can learn”).
For several decades, the successful maternity grants program was the one of its kind in the world. By 1979, 100 percent of women were seeking prenatal care, up from 20 percent in 1940. In 2012, Finland had one of the world’s lowest infant mortality rates, an impressively small 2.4 (Finland National Institute for Health and Welfare).