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Baby boxes – a proposal which brings out best and worst of Scottish politics

April 17, 2016

There is not an obvious link between the main subject of this site – student support – and baby boxes. But in fact they do connect, via the issues of universalism, opportunity costs, larger needs and untested claims.

Baby boxes have been in the news today, with the SNP’s announcement that all parents of new babies will get a box containing  some new baby essentials, which doubles as a small bed – it will come with a mattress. This is modelled on a Finnish scheme which apparently has run since 1930s, where – the SNP highlight – infant mortality has fallen substantially since its introduction. Cot death is mentioned particularly.  This is being held up as the reason for doing this.

New parenthood can be baffling.  It was also for me the most socially levelling experience since school (and that got increasingly segregated even in a comprehensive, as we progressed up the years).  As a new parent, if you make any use at all of NHS help, ante or post-natal, you are thrown together across age and social boundaries. Keen for any advice you can get on what lies ahead?  Trouble with your baby’s feeding, or sleeping? Hanging around for weighing? Heart-broken by their response to being jagged? Just for a few months, what we had in common was far more important than what made us all different.  The very most vulnerable I probably rarely saw, but otherwise the mothers I mixed with at classes, ward and clinic were a real cross-section. But that relatively unselfconscious mingling doesn’t last forever. Quite fast, you’re less around the system and gradually the old grooves of life reassert.

So I like the idea of reinforcing that commonality for the brief time it exists, and maybe it would be nice to take advantage of the extent to which the political culture here is a bit more comfortable with the idea of celebrating that. New parents already get a box or bag of  bits and pieces for free from a commercial organisation: but some will feel a present from their fellow citizens is a more powerful welcome for their baby.

But I wouldn’t over-claim what it will achieve. Will it reduce cot death? There were (I’m told, but haven’t checked, though it’s consistent with the percentage quoted) 19 cot deaths in Scotland in the most recent year for which we have figures.  Cot deaths have substantially reduced over past decades, in the absence of a national box scheme. The highest risk of cot death is apparently between 2 and 4 months, by which time most babies are likely to have outgrown their box. So if anyone wants to justify this on the basis of reducing infant mortality, it’s fair to ask them to walk us through precisely how they see that working. The article linked further down contains a sceptical assessment from an academic about the link between baby boxes and reducing infant mortality. The initial reporting seemed to take claims about infant mortality effects at face value.

Leave that aside. There may be families who are chaotically unprepared, where this would be a non-stigmatising way of ensuring their baby had somewhere to sleep safely from the start. Good. But if you are a parent who hasn’t managed to organise a basket or cot because you can’t afford it, and can’t borrow one,  or are too fragile or vulnerable, then a short-term sleeping solution and a couple of babygrows is a pretty tiny part of what you and your baby need. If helping this group is the main aim, then what’s the rest of the strategy and how many of them do we think there are?, are important questions. Will we be getting them an actual cot at any point?

This article suggests there may be another aim: to discourage co-sleeping, which many professionals associate with cot death.  This is a very touchy area. If this is an aim the SNP should say so. Is this official policy? How will it be reflected in any assessment made of children’s wellbeing in future? This isn’t a trivial question. Some people may just be planning to co-sleep because they haven’t made alternative arrangements. But some people are very strong advocates of it, and others who have no ideological view, end up doing it, pragmatically. There are people who would contest the scarier statistics, as unduly influenced by casual (for example, drunken) rather than carefully planned co-sleeping arrangements. All I’m arguing for here is overt, not covert, aims, for not patronising people, and treating them with respect. Let’s avoid one of Scotland’s weaknesses, which is for government to function as a partner of professional lobbies (a.k.a. consensus politics with civic Scotland), rather than a broker between these and the sometimes conflicting interests of citizens. The long-standing culture of government here to govern at people, rather than with them, needs to watched for.

What about cost? There are a bit under 60,000 births in Scotland each year:  a figure of around £100 has been suggested per box (though whether this includes the cost of administration and distribution is not clear). So this might come to around £6m, or less if many people turn it down. I suspect some will. Some who have a perfectly good basket etc.  will be charmed by the lovely colourful box, use it as a downstairs baby-stashing spot or leave it at the grandparents.  Others however may well feel that their family’s journey to the point where they can afford, with however much difficulty,  everything new has been hard-fought in this and other generations, and will not be impressed by a suggestion from the government that their baby should sleep in a box. This is not decades-of-collectiveness Finland,  but a country with plenty of confident individual consumers. I was a certain kind of middle-class happy user of hand-me-downs, Oxfam and NCT sales: I met others for whom having the newest and latest really mattered – and it wasn’t always by any means people who were better off than me. The worst case, for the environment at the very least,  is that many people take the box, keep a few bits, but throw much of it away. But still, it’s not a big figure in the grand scheme of the Government accounts and perhaps some commercial sponsorship will creep in to the deal (Bounty may be keen not to lose their whole business model, after all).

And yet … you won’t have to look too hard to find the government excitedly issuing press notices about spending well below this level.  How far would £6m, or event £3m, go in, say, improving mother and baby support for women caught up in the criminal justice system.  Or increasing the availability of post-natal depression support? I just ask.

Also, somewhere in here is something I can’t quite pin down about the displacement of the personal and local. We were lent a moses basket by friends. And then a hammock – which was a bit wild, but worked for a while. It was part of the network of borrowing and lending which at its best makes early parenthood a shared experience beyond your immediate, intense, sleep-deprived world. Will the bottom fall out of that informal market in early baby sleeping kit? It’s not the strongest argument, but there is something important if elusive here. What did I most want the state to do when I had a baby? On reflection, it was to be good at helping quickly when there was an unusual need or things got particularly hard – not to displace the basic, predictable stuff I often enjoyed choosing for myself or being lent by friends.

At its worst, this could therefore be  a tokenistic feel-good universalism giving a warm glow to those not living at the edge, while brushing aside how far we still are from giving vulnerable new mothers and their babies (from all backgrounds) the support they need and diverting resources, however small, from more urgent uses. Or it could be the pursuit of unstated professional agendas about child-care packaged in a pretty box. Or a displacement of more personal, informal sharing.  At best, it’s a relatively cheap and attractive gesture to new parents to reinforce their common experience and a way of helping some very vulnerable people without marking them out. But even then let’s not over-claim what it is likely to achieve in practical terms, or deny there’s a cost or much more substantial things to do. And in all that, it turns out there’s quite a few parallels with student funding.



Note added

Grateful to the ex-pat Finn who cautions me against making generalisations about Finland and adds that in Finland new stuff is much more expensive, so that lending and second-hand is even more significant there than here. In that context,  you can see why giving everyone something new of their own for the stage where children are most likely to grow out of things fast might have particularly widespread appeal.





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