curiosity about the ways of the world

My Irish Baby Box is forty years old

When I was expecting my first baby a parcel arrived from my Aunty Rene in Ireland. Inside there was a handmade book with advice on how to stay well during pregnancy and many practical instructions for making everything we would need in the first few months of parenthood. Forty years later it occurs to me this was my ‘baby box’.

It was nothing like the smartly packaged version presented to pregnant women by Nicola Sturgeon at the beginning of 2017. No mass-produced ready-made baby-grows, changing mats or nappies. No neatly designed mattress, blanket or thermometer. All the essentials listed in my ‘baby box’ could be home-made including the cot, ‘An orange box*’ says one of my aunt’s carefully handwritten notes, ‘makes a cosy bed until he is big enough for the cot.’

Times were hard in the late 1970s but not quite that hard even with inflation hovering around 16%. But my aunt’s gift had been produced in an earlier era of austerity. Her DIY pattern for a baby nightgown is cut from the front page of the Scotsman dated 22 July 1948, barely two weeks after the birth of the National Health Service. Her money-saving tips were garnered from the make-do-and-mend years of post-war rationing.

Today, as Scotland’s baby box scheme gets off to a highly publicised start, I am turning the pages of what now seems to me a remarkable fragment of social history. This handmade book, fraying at the edges, is a product of my aunt’s training for midwifery when she was a young woman studying in Glasgow.

Samples of material and handwritten notes explaining how to make baby gowns

I finger the samples of flannelette, Winceyette and Viyella (‘good for nightwear’) as if they were museum exhibits. Smile at the endearingly wonky diagrams of knitted bootees and matinee jackets (‘baby’s clothing should be warm, comfortable, simple’). Admire the still-stylish forties fashions (‘how to adapt your ordinary clothes for maternity wear’). And wince at out-dated attitudes – the baby always referred to as ‘he’, mothers advised to bring fathers to choose the pram, ‘He will understand the mechanical parts’. It’s a post-war period piece, a personal memento from a different world and yet I think it has many echoes with the aims of the Finnish baby box which first emerged in 1938.

Handle with care

My reservations about the Scottish scheme (what exactly are the aims, how will they be evaluated?) are balanced by an eloquent article by Dr Suzanne Zeedyk, a ‘research scientist fascinated by babies’ innate capacity to connect’.  She celebrates the row stirred by the Scottish Government pilot scheme because it provokes a debate about the needs of babies.

ultimately, the Boxes aren’t about poems or parenting or even babies themselves.  The Boxes are about building relationships. 

The items in the Baby Box, she argues, provide an opportunity for parents to enable babies to experience gentleness, warmth and loving care in the crucial first year of life. (The argument is more complex than that so please do read Dr Zeedyk’s blogpost in full here).

I’m quite sure my aunt would approve of that and the inclusion of Jackie Kay’s poem Welcome Wee One in Scotland’s £7 million gift to new parents.   There are poems in my aunt’s manual too. No sentimentalist, Aunty Rene was one of the many spinsters of wartime Britain. She bore no children of her own, but in devoting her life to the care of others she delivered countless babies to women in homes and hospitals in areas of both plenty and poverty – in Glasgow, Belfast and, winning respect of Catholics and Protestants alike, under curfew in the battle-torn Bogside of Derry.

I pause now, looking at lullabies (‘Golden slumbers kiss your eyes’) and rose-tinted pictures of smiling babies (no small faces clenched in howling tears) but my aunt was under no illusion that mother-child bonding always comes naturally. In fact, she confessed to her younger sister in a letter, when she began nursing she found newborn babies ‘in some ways repulsive’ but that changed as she became more acquainted with them. ‘Now I think a tiny baby is about the most unspoilt thing there is, but,’ she adds to her sister who has just become a mother, ‘you don’t need to think that for a while yet.’

A simple message

All this is part of my personal treasure trove, packed in a drawer with other precious souvenirs – our sons’ first pictures, school reports, concert programmes, graduation ceremonies… now making room for grandchildren. But there’s also a simple message which had special significance in the 1970s when some of us still nurtured fantasies of self-sufficiency, swimming against the tide of consumerism: you don’t need to buy a lot of stuff for newborn babies. I duly bought a few yards of Viyella and made what I thought were beautiful night gowns for all three beautiful sons, using that Scotsman pattern template each time.

Instructions on how to make a baby gown

Inside the envellope a now tattered piece of the Scotsman

A lot has changed in my life-time. I notice the 1948 Scotsman front page reports a worrying increase in deaths from tuberculosis and polio, and gastro-enteritis as the main cause of infant deaths in Scotland.  Infant mortality in the UK has reduced dramatically from almost 60 deaths per 1000 live births in 1947, the year I was born, to around 3.7 deaths now.

In Finland the reduction is more dramatic still. It was 65 per 1000 live births in 1938 when the Baby Box scheme was first introduced. It is now 2 per 1000 live births. A Baby Box can be used as a cot (perhaps not unlike Aunty Rene’s orange box*), a safely confined space which prevents babies turning onto their fronts – putting babies to sleep on their backs is credited with greatly reducing the incidence of cot deaths (now around 0.7% per 1000 live births in the UK).

But there is another simple message in my aunt’s meticulously gathered information about the vital importance of maternity care. ‘It’s important to remember that the life of a child starts nine months before birth,’ says a yellowing leaflet produced by the National Association of Maternity and Child Welfare Centres for the prevention of Infant Mortality. ‘For these nine months the child lives on the mother, drawing food and fluid from her tissues. So you see you must begin now caring for the health of your baby by caring for yourself.’

Can we invest more in universal care? 

The Finnish scheme integrates Baby Boxes into a comprehensive maternity scheme funded by the state. Important questions remain for the Scottish Government – what exactly are the aims of our Baby Box pilots and how will they be evaluated before the scheme is rolled out across the country in just three months time?

If, as Nicola Sturgeon states, the admirable aim of the universal gift is to recognise the equal value of every child born in Scotland then arguably it needs greater investment to integrate it into the best antenatal care for all expectant mothers regardless of where they live. And that raises the question of how we pay and provide for it at a time when health care is under severe pressure. Can we rediscover the spirit of 1945 which delivered the NHS and welfare state? Or are we up for the 21st century Finnish tax rate (56-62% at the top) which supports such good universal care?

70 coupons with instructions to use them wisely

Coupons were issued to each new mother for bedding, clothing and nappies

Another thought occurs as I prepare to put my ‘baby box’ away. It’s odd to remember just how turbulent the UK was back in 1976-7. Not quite as bad as 2016 perhaps but there were IRA bombings in London, bombs, massacres and shootings across Northern Ireland, peace marches in Derry, Cod Wars with Iceland, a Labour government battling raging inflation (it hit 24% at one point), and poor Chancellor Denis Healey winning £2.3bn from the IMF on condition he cut £2.5bn from public expenditure.

Yet I had to look that up. For me those dates are significant because – despite occasional blood, sweat and tears – it was the start of the best time in my life, as this particular mother and father began the endlessly challenging and rewarding adventure of getting to know our first son.   I wish the very best to all parents opening their Baby Boxes in 2017.

*An orange box, long since gone, was a wooden box traditionally used for transporting fruit – it was roughly the size of the Baby Box.

A rosy cheeked baby with lines of Wordsworth, 'Heaven lies about us in our infancy'.


  1. fay

    There’s ongoing discussion about the Baby Box, and rightly so. It’s a progressive idea which deserves progressive state funding as Maggie Mellon argues in her post on Sceptical Scot: Baby Boxes, Universalism and Higher Taxes

    It also needs clarity of purpose from the Scottish Government. Does it come under Education or Health in policy terms? It could well be either and indeed Lucy Hunter Blackburn finds it itemised in both departments in the draft Scottish Budget, though the £7m cost will be born by Health. There’s a case for good scrutiny and open discussion.
    Hard to read Scottish Budget

  2. fay

    Thank you Anna, a catch up long overdue xx

  3. fay

    Thank you Malc, I still can’t quite believe I’m reaching the stage of ‘tribal elder’ but it’s good to get the chance to share some acquired experience.

  4. fay

    What a sad-sweet story Jean. The baby box story took me unawares but it’s fascinating to track the progress from Finland across the wealthy world – inevitably the commercial potential is being exploited to the full.

  5. Jean

    What a great piece of social history Fay, and a lovely thing to have been given. I had never heard of a ‘Baby Box’- past or present but I was just reminded that when I was pregnant for the first time my sister-in -law gave me the largest brown suitcase filled with clothes she had made for the baby she never conceived. She must have given up hope at that point – although it was never talked about. She went on To foster new-borns awaiting adoption and eventually to adopt a boy and a girl. She was a lovely auntie to Andrew.x

  6. Malcolm

    A lovely thought-provoking piece.

  7. Anna

    That’s beautiful Fay! x

  8. Lucy P

    If it is, then I think it’s the right kind of nostalgia – too muchof the wrong kind around. Anyway you also have a 40 year old baby this year – so timely to celebrate that too! X

  9. fay

    Thank you Lucy, that means a lot. I was aware of the danger of nostalgia but the more I looked the more I realised there was a great deal we can learn from the first years of the NHS and early maternity service.

  10. Lucy P

    This is a really lovely, moving and thoughtful read Fay. Thank you for reconnecting us to history, to future possibilities and to what really matters.

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