Finland proved baby boxes keep babies alive. Here's how they'll work in India.
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Johnson & Johnson

New parents everywhere know the first rule of parenting is keep your baby alive. Unfortunately, there are many factors that can make this a challenge.

That first year of life is the hardest because it's when babies are the most vulnerable. Couple that with a low socio-economic status, and this fundamental task may start to feel daunting.

However, about 80 years ago, one country — Finland — came up with something ingenious to help parents keep their babies alive: a box.


Finnish-style baby box. Photo by Matthew Yglesias/Flickr.

It's not just any box; it's a box with a cushioned bottom that doubles as a crib. The box also comes with a bunch of useful items to keep a baby healthy and happy like clothes, a towel, diapers, bibs, and a toy.

Despite their simplicity, the boxes worked. Within five years, infant mortality rates plummeted and kept falling after that. It's no surprise Finland still offers them to parents now.

As long as the mother goes to a prenatal visit within four months of becoming pregnant, the family gets to choose between a stipend or a baby box. Amazingly, 95% of families choose the box.

In the wake of Finland's success, several other countries have created their own versions of the baby box. However, people in low-income nations, like India, have unique needs.

Few know that as well as Karima Ladhani, a Doctor of Science candidate in global health at Harvard. When she came across an article about Finnish baby boxes, she started thinking about how they could be adapted to serve low-income families in South Asia.

Photo of one Indian mother and child the Barakat Bundle team met. All photos via Karima Ladhani.

Infant mortality rates in South Asia are among the highest in the world, which is largely due to lack of infant and maternal health care. Ladhani knew a baby box had to include more than basic baby accessories if they were going to truly make a difference.

Like any good academic, she decided to take a class about interventions for improving global health to try and refine her idea. Before she knew it, her idea had developed into a fully realized project that ended up being runner-up in the Harvard Business School New Venture Competition.

Suddenly, she had a $27,000 grant to work with. Ladhani thought, "OK, now we need to think about this in a serious way."

Ladhani then had a team behind her, many of whom had familial ties to India. So developing their baby box there seemed a simple decision.

As fate would have it, Ladhani met the president of the Public Health Foundation of India, K. Srinath Reddy, at a conference in Boston, and he was able to connect her with doctors on the ground there.

Once they had support from the heath care community, it was on to testing baby box prototypes. The way they picked items for the box was incredibly careful and deliberate — each one is proven to help reduce preventable infant and/or maternal mortality rates.

Ladhani (right) takes notes while families in India go through her baby box items.

After they were reviewed and approved by a neonatologist, it was off to India.

They sat down with more than 100 families and asked for their input on everything in the box.

They left the boxes with the families for a month, came back, and observed what was and wasn't working for them. They did two rounds of this kind of testing, each time refining the box to better fit parents' needs and wants.

Three years later, they've landed on a final prototype — a cradle made from locally sourced bamboo that they're calling the Barakat Bundle.

The cradle swings, has a mosquito net, and — because it's bamboo — is sustainable. It comes with a thermometer and other medical supplies, baby clothes, a blanket, sanitary napkins, and health education pamphlets for new parents.

After final rounds of safety testing, they plan to start selling the Barakat Bundle in the United States by the end of 2018. With every cradle purchased, a cradle gets sent to a family in South Asia along with all the supplies.

Indian families seeing one of the earlier iterations of Barakat Bundle.

"This allows families to, one, have access to a beautiful, portable cradle and, two, start their baby with a legacy of giving," Ladhani says.

The Barakat Bundle stands to make a huge change in infant and maternal health in South Asia.

And it wouldn't have been possible without grants that support research rather than the final product.

According to Ladhani, there aren't many grants that give you the leeway to do exploratory research without a guaranteed return on investment. The grant they received as a GenH finalist, for example, is an exception.

However, now that they're moving into distribution, Barakat Bundle needs more support. So if you're about to become a parent or know someone who is, consider buying one of their cradles. Not only will it help keep one baby healthy and happy, it'll do the same for a family in South Asia where such a gift could be lifesaving.

Barakat means "blessings" in Arabic. What could be a greater blessing than helping to keep babies alive?  

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