Island Health’s baby bed box program is expanding and health officials hope it will one day be Island-wide.
“It was the first on Vancouver Island and definitely in British Columbia,” said Dr. Charmaine Enns, a Medical Health Officer based in Courtenay.
Island Health said it’s also likely the first in Canada. It launched the baby bed box program in 2015 in the Cowichan Valley. Similar programs and a study were announced in Calgary and Ontario in 2016.
This week, the health authority expanded its program, in partnership with Nuu-chah-nulth Nursing, to include Port Alberni and west coast communities such as Ucluelet and Tofino.
The program gives new parents a cardboard box bassinet for newborns to sleep in safely, as well as other useful items, such as sleepwear, diapers and a thermometer.
It is based on a Finnish model launched in the 1930s that aimed to give babies a package of necessities regardless of their economic background. One of the results was a drastic reduction in infant mortality, Enns said, due in large part to safer sleeping.
“The baby beds are part of a very robust public policy to support moms, babies and families,” she said, noting Finland has one of the world’s lowest infant mortality rates.
The Canadian Pediatric Society recommends that the safest place for an infant to sleep is in a crib, bassinet or cradle in the same room as a parent.
Enns said the bed boxes help health providers to connect with new parents and start a conversation about safe sleeping environments. Babies should sleep on their backs, on a surface that is firmer than a regular mattress, without pillows, heavy blankets or stuffed toys and away from adults who could roll on them, she said.
“Having the bed [box] empowers parents to have somewhere to put the baby and keeps them safe,” she said.
“There are many infant deaths on Vancouver Island over the years that could have been prevented.”
In May, the coroners service issued a public alert about an increase in infant deaths in B.C. The child death review unit said that in the first four months of 2016, 15 babies died from causes related to unsafe sleeping. Most were younger than six months. The average number of sleep-related deaths in the previous three years was 18 a year.
“Babies are especially vulnerable in the first few months,” Enns said, adding the box can serve as a bed until a baby is four or five months of age or starts to roll.
Enns said Island Health chose to launch the program in the Cowichan Valley last year because it wanted to be able to offer a box to every newborn’s family.
“The number of births there matched our funding perfectly,” she said. The Vancouver Foundation helped fund the 600 boxes given out. Enns said 90 per cent of those offered boxes followed up to receive one.
“It was hugely successful,” she said.
The West Coast General Hospital Foundation and West Coast General Hospital Auxiliary donated $16,000 and $10,000 annually to fund the Port Alberni-area program. More than 300 boxes are available for families to pick up at their local health unit.
Enns said the boxes were sourced from the Baby Box Company in California and meet the bassinet safety regulations in Canada. The cost for each box, including items inside, is about $80 to $100.
Providing baby boxes to families across the Island is ultimate goal Enns said. “It would be great if the province kicked in some funding.”
She said it would cost about $300,000 annually to fund an Island-wide baby box program for 6,000 annual births.