How the SNP baby-boxed itself into a corner

How the SNP baby-boxed itself into a corner

by Jill Stephenson
article from Monday 7, May, 2018

IN AUGUST 2017, the SNP Scottish Government introduced its baby box scheme for newborns. The box itself was to provide a ‘safe sleeping space’ for babies, while the contents – much of it made in China – includes a mattress, a changing mat, a thermometer, baby clothes and a poem in Scots by the ‘makar’. There were photo opportunities, with Nicola Sturgeon poring earnestly over a box and its contents. Ms Sturgeon had announced the scheme to her party’s conference in May 2016, asserting that baby boxes had originated in Finland and that they had “reduced infant mortality and improved child health” there. 

One can only assume that Ms Sturgeon was carried away by the excitement of introducing baby boxes in Scotland. It is true that the idea originated in Finland, where the first boxes were distributed in 1938 to low-income mothers. The motive was concern about Finland’s infant mortality rate, which, at 6.5 per cent, was appreciably above that of its Nordic neighbours. Widespread rural poverty and a tendency for babies to sleep in their parents’ bed helped to inform the plan for the baby box. What tends to be overlooked, however, is that the boxes were distributed as part of a welfare package for expectant mothers. Pregnant women had to visit a doctor or clinic during their first trimester. Over the following decades, health services were improved and the proportion of mothers having their babies in hospital, rather than at home, increased markedly. The scheme was extended to all Finnish expectant mothers in 1949. Finland’s infant mortality rate plummeted over the decades to become one of the lowest in the world.

The Finns, however, do not claim that baby boxes have achieved a lowering of infant mortality rates. On the contrary, the Finnish welfare and benefits agency, Kela, which pioneered the use of baby boxes, supports the view of experts in the UK that this is not the case. The reason for the reduction in infant mortality in Finland lies, says Kela, with "the improving of our healthcare system of which the baby box is a part". There is no evidence, says Kela, that the box played a role in reducing deaths in infancy. 

The Lullaby Trust in Britain made a similar point on 3 August 2017, twelve days before the rollout of the Scottish baby box scheme,

It is not possible for baby boxes to fully comply with safety standards [their emphasis], as current British and EU safety standards for nursery furniture only exist for traditional cots, cribs and bassinets and there is currently no specific standard for the use of a cardboard box as a sleeping place for an infant.”

Hackney Council, which, like the Scottish Government, had planned the rollout of baby boxes, put the scheme on hold in 2017 after consulting the Lullaby Trust about the safety of the boxes – something the Scottish Government omitted to do. Even Unicef weighed in, saying there is “little evidence regarding the efficacy of such schemes and so it is not possible to state whether they offer benefits or harm to babies and parents”.

This is where the SNP in general and Ms Sturgeon in particular have found themselves in some difficulty in recent days. The subject arose because one of the Scottish Government’s own advisers, Dr Peter Blair (Bristol University), a leading expert on cot deaths and chair of ISPID (International Society for the Study and Prevention of Perinatal and Infant Death), questioned claims made by the Scottish Government to support the distribution of baby boxes. Dr Blair drew particular anger in SNP circles for saying that there was no evidence that the boxes are safe. In the last two decades the number of cot deaths, also known as SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) has plummeted in the UK (from over 1,400 deaths to less than 300 a year), an 80 per cent decrease due in no small part to the epidemiological studies conducted at the University of Bristol.

Another expert, Professor Helen Ball, director of the Parent-Infant Sleep Lab at Durham University, made the damning observation that “the policy had been rolled out in Scotland without sound research so it was impossible to say if there were dangers in following official advice to put infants to sleep in the cardboard boxes”. Ms Sturgeon’s response in the Scottish parliament to an enquiry about the boxes’ safety from Miles Briggs, MSP (Conservative), was both intemperate and misleading. Naturally, SNP supporters on social media felt that Briggs had been ‘telt’, and, regrettably, so also did the normally astute commentator Alex Massie, in The Times

Ms Sturgeon claimed in her tirade in the Scottish Parliament that all the safety information on her government’s baby boxes had been published “months ago”. The box had passed “all relevant standards” and “conforms to the standards in place for a crib or a cradle for domestic use”. Ms Sturgeon’s spokesperson claimed that the boxes meet the standards set by the British Standards Institute, the UK’s national body for setting product safety standards. This follows the SNP’s website, which claims that the baby box “has been awarded British Safety Standard accreditation as a crib for domestic use”. The BSI responded, saying that it has issued no standards for baby boxes. Those interested in the lengthy saga of the Scottish Government’s claims about the boxes meeting safety standards should consult Roger White’s excellent and exhaustive blog at https://mercinon.wordpress.com, ‘Scottish Government baby boxes – more information, more concerns’, 2 May 2018. It turns out that the Scottish baby box was tested under toy safety legislation and not under safety legislation for cots or cribs, as the SNP has claimed. As the Lullaby Trust says,

“current British and EU safety standards for nursery furniture only exist for traditional cots, cribs and bassinets and there is currently no specific standard for the use of a cardboard box as a sleeping place for an infant.

Ms Sturgeon’s claim that the baby box ‘conforms to the standards in place for a crib or a cradle for domestic use’ is therefore at odds with the truth. 

The Lullaby Trust has gone further. It recommends that a baby box be used for day-time naps only, not during the night as recommended by the Scottish government, and that it should not be used if the box becomes wet or soiled – we are, after all, talking about incontinent babies in this context. Dr Peter Blair said that baby boxes should be used for babies sleeping in only in an emergency or if no cot was available. Professor Helen Ball takes a similar view:

“We don’t know whether sleeping babies in cardboard boxes is completely safe or carries unanticipated risks or unintended outcomes, because the ways in which parents use them, and the experience of babies placed in them, has not been studied. A box is a better alternative than putting a baby on an armchair or falling   asleep with them in your arms on the sofa.”

Several points arise from this saga. For a start, the Scottish Government launched the baby box scheme without doing sufficient research to be able to sustain its claims, but, in the face of criticism from experts who have done research, it has continued to make these claims. Even after experts in the field – including the responsible Finnish agency – cast doubt on claims Ms Sturgeon and her party had made, SNP spokespersons have continued to make claims about baby boxes reducing infant mortality. 

The SNP has continued to claim also that baby boxes are safe sleeping places and that their boxes have full safety accreditation from the BSI – which refutes that claim. Whom to believe? The SNP or the BSI? – that’s a tough one. 

It is indeed the case that the mattress provided for the box has safety accreditation, and that the box contains some useful items. But these, such as the digital thermometer, could be provided for new mothers without encouragement to them to put their baby in a cardboard box to sleep, instead of in a crib or cot or Moses basket, all of which the experts regard as much more desirable than a cardboard box. 

The tenaciousness with which the SNP in general and Ms Sturgeon in particular have defended their interpretation of the value and safety of the baby box testifies to the importance with which they invest this project. It also testifies to a reluctance to accept the judgment of experts who disagree with their interpretation in an area where the SNP feels there is much political capital involved. We have seen this previously in areas such as fracking and GM crops, among others. Experts are consulted, but if their advice does not accord with the SNP’s political objectives, it is rejected. 

The response of the nationalist masses illustrates very well how information is transmitted within the nationalist community. Bold claims are made by leaders, and these become embedded in the masses’ consciousness as gospel truth. Then, when evidence or criticism challenge these claims, they are ignored, and those who repeat them are treated to the ‘you’re talking Scotland down’ accusation. When corrections to SNP claims are made by experts, they do not seem to filter down to the nationalist masses, who have imbibed the word of the party leadership and that makes them proof against any alternative view. This is a highly dangerous state of affairs.

 

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