The “baby box” is trending around the world right now. But it’s really just a term for a toolkit to accompany people on the complicated journey into parenthood. The box is the starting point to providing early and continuing support through pregnancy, and after baby’s arrival.
There are pilot projects all over the world, and even entrepreneurs piggy-backing on the idea and ongoing research. Some offering free baby boxes in order to market products to new parents.
The University of Calgary is wrapping up a 2016 project, “The Welcome to Parenthood – Alberta Study.” Through the assistance of program facilitators across that province, researcher and professor Karen Benzies is collecting data to see if additional supports for new mothers lead to better outcomes; in short, do developmental milestones for children improve and do new mothers cope better postpartum.
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All participants in the study received a baby box, designed for safe sleeping and filled with newborn essentials, plus educational materials on postpartum, baby’s development and important milestones.
Each mom was asked to choose a mentor from her network that could be a friend or family member.
Kensee Mark heard about it through her sister, a facilitator at Midwest Family Connections in Lloydminster.
“With the program, I was glad we started it before the baby was born,” Mark said, “because then you get all that information before you’re super overwhelmed.”
Mark picked another sister, Krista Willcock, to be her mentor. At the time Willcock had one daughter and was expecting another.
“If you didn’t have a mentor or somebody to ask, you would turn to Doctor Google and turn to the internet and find so many bad things on there, and start worrying yourself,” Willcock said.
As a mentor, Willcock received a journal and guidelines to follow. She recorded all communication between her and mom, as well as watched for any signs of depression, and stayed in regular contact to provide support. Program organizers say sometimes family doesn’t want to meddle in the mother’s business, but mentors are told to jump in.
“Just being there to reassure her that it’s fine. He’s eating well, and sleeping well and he’s happy. Just reassuring her that those things are normal, and every baby is different,” Willcock explained.
All participants met with their mentor, and received a baby box weeks before having their child, and the support stayed with them up until six months.
“I just feel like he got a really good start. He got everything he needed,” mom Kensee Mark said.
“I really wish that this program was around for me,” mentor Krista Willcock said, “I think that the potential for the program is really big.”
People have been taking note of that potential. At the University of Saskatchewan, Angela Bowen, a professor who has done her own research on maternal health is following the study, and awaiting the research outcomes.
Bowen specifically noted the impact she could see this pilot project having on immigrant women. “I would be really surprised if it wasn’t a success because they are spending more time with these moms and then targeting moms who need additional support, immigrant moms, moms who don’t have financial or other support systems in their lives,” Bowen said.
Through her own research, Bowen and her supporters in health care helped encourage the province of Saskatchewan to adopt recommendations in her 2010 Mother First Report. That brought about the Maternal Wellness program.
“The moms themselves said to us ‘we want our mental health to be as important as our physical health,’ Bowen said.
“And what they wanted, it was universal screening (for postpartum depression), more education and more supports for the moms within the regions,” Bowen added.
The province of Saskatchewan did adopt a policy to include a form that health providers go through at baby’s first check-up’s, or what used to be labelled the immunization visit. It’s a mental health questionnaire to make sure mom is coping well postpartum, and allows for health providers and public health nurses to watch for red flags.
In addition, every health region in Saskatchewan has access to and can provide educational packets in English, translated into Arabic for Syrian refugees, and soon French.
Also, in urban centers such as Saskatoon and Regina, public health nurses visit new moms during the first two weeks at home.
Another important element is the provincial HealthLine in Saskatchewan. Up to one year postpartum mothers can call the phone number, be assessed and connected to further help if they’re struggling with mental health. That applies to moms in rural and remote areas of the province as well.
Depending on where they live, mothers can also access midwives. Some also turn to online support groups.
As for Saskatchewan’s maternal wellness overall, Bowen added, “There’s lots of ways to get around getting that support, but we have to make sure it’s there for everyone, and I’m not convinced that it is right now,” Bowen said.
Bowen also notes that those conducting maternal research in Alberta have access to funding supports beyond government, such as charitable foundations and organizations, far greater than what’s available in Saskatchewan. She herself has struggled to get the funds to support some initiatives.
Saskatchewan is not currently considering getting a baby box program.
The baby box idea itself started in Finland in the 1930’s to improve infant mortality rates which are now among the lowest in the world. Entrepreneurs adapted it for South Africa and parts of India. Hospitals are running pilot projects currently in Fort Worth, Texas, in London, England, in Australia, and across all of Scotland.