Since 1938, expectant mothers in Finland have been given a box by the state in preparation for the birth of their child. The Finnish äitiyspakkaus, or maternity package, contains several essential supplies designed to give every child an equal start in life. In its origins, the box was given to low-income families. However, since 1949 it has been granted to every expectant mother by the National Board (now Institute) of Social Welfare, and from 1994 by Kela, Finland’s social security.
There is a possibility to accept a €140 (roughly £100) cash grant instead, but the box has proven to be an extremely popular choice among expecting mothers as its contents are seen to be worth more. According to Kela’s statistics, 37,582 packages were reportedly given in 2014, with just over 21,000 women taking the cash alternative.
The contents of the package attempt to cover most bases, acting as a starter kit of sorts for parents. In 2015, the box includes a snowsuit, insulated mittens and booties, a sleeping bag, quilted and woollen suits, a variety of woollen hats, tights, bodies and romper suits, leggings, shirts, a mattress, mattress cover and sheets, a bath towel, nail scissors, body and bath thermometers, a toothbrush, a hairbrush, bibs, a book and a toy. Additionally, the box doubles up as a crib with the included mattress, and it is traditional that many Finnish babies take their first naps in them. The fabrics included in the package have been ‘neutral’, as described by Kela, for several years. Before the 1970s, the clothes were mostly white, without a clear gendered distinction.
Given the widespread media coverage regarding the Finnish baby box in recent years, it is not surprising that this has led some to attempt to export it, obtaining a profit along the way. This is the case, for instance, of three Finnish fathers, who have started a business selling the boxes for nearly €400 (£285); they are nevertheless not the only start-up selling baby boxes, with British and American companies providing competition. However, as they are not intended for commercial use, none of these are the ‘official’ Kela boxes. It might defeat the purpose, but the fact that the Finnish baby box’s popularity is growing exemplifies to what extent the programme is considered a part of Finnish culture and could be the starting point in spreading a very special tradition of looking after expecting parents.
Elsewhere in Europe, traditions tend to involve the child, rather than the mother.
Perhaps the most entertaining babyhood tradition can be found in Lithuania, home to the annual baby racing championships. What began in the 1990s as a response to International Child Protection Day, is now an unmissable annual sporting event. With the aim of finding the fastest crawler in the country, nationwide attention and international corporate sponsors, Lithuania’s annual output of YouTube gold can often be found in this one room on June 1st.
Irish tradition is somewhat less dangerous, and some may argue, somewhat less entertaining. Couples regularly save the smallest tier of their wedding cake in order to preserve and use it as their first child’s christening cake. This preserving of the wedding day in anticipation of the arrival of the child ensures that the wedding day, and therefore the marriage, is not complete until the arrival of its final member, the first child.
Strange traditions can be found even further afield than Europe, however. Bali has several odd customs, one of which is the ceremonial burying of the placenta. Balinese parents believe the placenta to possess its own spirit, and in someway to be the guardian angel of the child between conception and birth, therefore, when its duty is done, i.e, the baby is born safely and healthily, it is rewarded with a great level of respect and buried in its own ritualistic ceremony.
However, even more unusual is the fact that babies are forbidden to touch the floor within the first 12 weeks of life. A newborn baby is considered to be the purest realisation of human life, and therefore contact with the unclean ground could defile and damage it. When a child is three months old, a remarkable ceremony is held, whereby the child is put in contact with the unclean ground for the first time in its life.
Nigerian tradition, however, sounds somewhat painful. It is normal for a woman in Nigeria to complete the birthing process alone, a partner and medical professionals are allowed to be in attendance and offer assistance after the birth, but the woman is expected to experience the birth itself on her own. Whilst some people optimistically believe this to be a tradition derived from independence, it is often more to do with low social standing and poverty. Many families simply do not have the resources to be able to provide help, rendering many women vulnerable to still birth, miscarriage, or maternal death. In response to this, several aid organisations have committed to providing pre and post natal services in rural areas.
Be it north or south, east or west, it is evident that the relationship and respect between mother and child is valued, cherished and celebrated the world over.