Baby boxes, a practice started in Finland in the 1930s and now recognized around the world, provide parents with gear for their newborns along with a safe space for their infants to sleep. While a few American companies have tried to make babies sleeping in cardboard boxes popular, the concept has never gone mainstream in the United States. Here’s why — and what to know.
Baby box history
“When I think of a baby box, I immediately think of the efforts [especially in Europe] to make safe sleep more accessible to every family,” shares baby sleep expert Cara Dumaplin, better known as Taking Cara Babies.
Since the late 1930s (the program expanded to all families, not just low-income ones, in 1949), Finland has offered new parents what they call a “baby box.” The box, a gift from the government, is filled with baby gear — the 2023 box includes 38 baby products such as baby clothes, bedding and hygiene products for postpartum moms, as well as baby care items like a bib, nail clippers and a hairbrush. The cardboard box has a small mattress inside, and once the products have been removed, it can be used as a baby bed.
When the program first began in Finland in 1938, 65 out of every 1,000 Finnish babies died within their first year. Poverty was a factor, and many parents slept with their infants in their beds, which heightens the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The goal of Finnish baby boxes is to incentivize prenatal care as well as to provide a safe space for the baby. Rules currently indicate that to receive the box, or a 170 euro credit (which parents can elect instead), expectant parents must visit the doctor for a maternity care appointment prior to their 18th week of pregnancy. Infant mortality in Finland today is among the lowest in the world; many link that change to the introduction of the box, but a 2020 study corrects that misinterpretation, crediting the reduction in infant deaths more generally to health care access and information. Indeed, similarly low rates of infant mortality exist in Denmark and Sweden, the commonality between the three countries being universal health care, not baby boxes.
In other countries, governments and organizations are employing their own version of the baby box. A Scottish version of the baby box, a free initiative launched in 2017 and “designed to give every single baby in Scotland an equal start in life,” contains clothing, bedding, books and everyday medical essentials. A similar government program exists in England. In South Asia, NGOs like Barakat Bundle provide baby boxes with items to mothers in need. The U.S., for its part, has tried its hand at a variety of baby boxes, but the idea has never fully taken off.
Past U.S. attempts
A few companies, and one state, have tried to ignite American interest in baby boxes. In 2017, New Jersey became the first state to launch a baby box program. As in Finland, the purpose of the box was both safety and education. In order to receive the box, parents needed to take an online course followed by a short quiz.
Similarly, private companies in the U.S. — like The Baby Box Co. and Finnbin — tried to take the sustainable element of the baby box and turn them into profitable companies. These cardboard boxes were items for purchase (Finnbin’s was approximately $100) and included bedding but not the other newborn gear hallmark to government-issued boxes.
American interest in baby boxes was increasing for a time — popular new parents site Lucie’s List even called them “mainstream” — but the reality is they never quite got to the level of a more traditional bassinet or crib.
But are baby boxes safe?
In 2022 the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the federal agency that monitors the risk of consumer products, put forth new rules for baby sleep products — and the design of baby boxes was no longer deemed safe. Companies like The Baby Box Co. and Finnbin no longer exist, nor does the New Jersey program.
“The infant sleep products rule requires that products marketed or intended as a sleep accommodation meet one of the existing rules for infant sleep (cribs, bassinets, play yards or bedside sleepers), or, at a minimum, meet the requirements for bassinets, including meeting the definition of a bassinet, meaning that the product must have a stand,” explains Nychelle Fleming, a spokesperson for the CPSC. “The presence of a stand discourages consumer use of the product on unstable, elevated or soft surfaces.”
Fleming continues, “CPSC is aware of incidents involving children being placed in unstable products, or where products were placed on unsafe elevated or soft surfaces, where the products can tip over or fall off, causing serious injuries and death from incidents such as skull fractures and suffocation.”
In early 2023, DockATot, a Scandinavian company popular in the U.S., launched its Kind Essential Bassinet, a bassinet reminiscent of the Finnish baby box but elevated off the floor so as to be in accordance with CPSC regulations. “As a Scandinavian brand, we were of course familiar with the long history of baby boxes, so combined our knowledge in product development and safety to develop a new concept that also met all the standards set forth for safe sleep spaces,” says DockATot vice president of marketing Christian Piencka of the new product.
DockATot’s $119 Kind Essential Bassinet comes in multiple patterns, is sustainable, recyclable, easy to transport and can become a toy box once the baby outgrows it for sleeping. But as detractors note, it’s also a $119 cardboard box. Still, it’s a new take on a nearly century-old baby-sleep practice, and another opportunity for Americans to accept a form of the baby box.
“We had long been utilizing cardboard as a medium for design and architecture and had fallen in love with its incredible versatility,” Piencka tells Yahoo Life. “We were also increasingly aware of the tremendous amount of waste that comes out the juvenile products industry and how many products reside in landfills, long outliving their intended users.”
The news came only a few months after the recall of one of their sleep products. But pediatrician Florencia Segura notes this product raises no safety flags. "“One of the most critical aspects of safe infant sleep ... is having babies sleep on their backs on a firm, flat, non-inclined surface in their separate sleep space,” she says. “Which this box offers.” The Kind Essential Bassinet boxes are raised from the floor, which keeps them in compliance with federal regulations.
Is it better than a bassinet?
“If parents are looking for a safe and affordable option for baby sleep, they can often find a bassinet, play yard or portable crib for the same price or even less than many of the cardboard baby boxes available,” Dumaplin says.
Sales of the DockATot bassinet have taken time. “To be honest,” shares Piencka, “sales were slow to start, and overcoming consumer perceptions about cardboard has taken some time. However, as we get more and more Kind Bassinets into the hands of real parents, we’re seeing consistent momentum in consumer demand.”
The bottom line is baby sleep safety, and while the cardboard DockATot bassinet may be expensive for what it is, it is considered a safe location to place a baby.
“Another way a baby box like this can be used is as a newborn lounger,” says Segura, “where you have a place to lay your baby in between diaper changes or feedings, which is 100% safer than a Boppy lounger, which is now discontinued.”
Some parents might see these boxes and think they can put their baby to sleep in any old box, but that is not advisable. “The American Academy of Pediatrics says the only safe sleep options for babies younger than 12 months are those labeled ‘crib,’ ‘portable crib,’ ‘bassinet’ or ‘play yard,’” explains Dumaplin. “For a baby box to be safe for sleep, it must meet those same standards. In the U.S. that would mean it should be clearly labeled as a ‘bassinet’ or ‘portable crib’ and meet all CPSC standards.”