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Feature 10 Aug 17

Balkan Parents Dream of Finnish Baby Boxes

Finland famously hands out ‘baby boxes’ packed with useful products for infants, but the ones given to new mothers in the Balkans tend to be be less generous, if they exist at all.

Belgrade, Podgorica, Tirana

Photo: Beta.

Some countries in Europe, like Finland, give ‘baby boxes’ stuffed with useful items to new mothers as they leave hospitals.

In Scotland, the practice was also introduced this year.

But in Serbia, it can depend on where the parents live and what the sponsors have delivered - if they even get a baby box at all.

After Marija Pavlovic from Belgrade gave birth, she left the hospital empty-handed. Pavlovic went into labour in January at the Clinical Centre of Serbia – Belgrade’s biggest hospital.

“It is not about the money, because everything else [needed for a baby] is much more expensive, but it would be helpful for those of us who are going through this for the first time,” Pavlovic told BIRN. 

She added she didn’t know all the details of the things they might need for the baby in the first days of its life.

“After I left the hospital, the nurse who came to my home to check if everything was alright with the baby asked me whether I had some small bandages for the baby’s navel. That was the first time I have heard that I would need something like that. So things like that would be very important to get in those packages,” said Pavlovic.

Belgrade’s Council for Education and Children’s Care told BIRN however that in all six hospitals in the capital, new mothers and babies can count on ‘welcome packages’ – although some might not have received them. 
“Bearing in mind that they [packages] are entirely based on the donors’ will (on the social responsibility of private companies), sometimes it can happen that deliveries are late, so that means that they will be delivered late to hospitals,” the council said.

If that happens, mothers can ask the hospital or thecouncil to provide one, it added, although the contents could vary depending on the donors. 

Tamara Srijemac, whose baby is now four months old, also didn’t get a ‘present’ from the local authorities in Novi Sad, Serbia’s second city, nor from her local hospital.

“It was the same situation when my first child was born, six years ago. If the hospital has sponsors, like private companies, then they prepare those packages for mothers, but it is not something that the hospital always has, because it is up to the companies’ ‘goodwill’,” Srijemac told BIRN.

Tihomir Vejnovic, the head of a local hospital in Novi Sad, told BIRN that the hospital hasn’t provided any sponsors’ packages for mothers since August last year.

This decision was made after Rodoljub Sabic, the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection, launched an investigation into whether private companies who produce or sell baby formula used personal information – which mothers were providing while filling in the forms in order receive packages – to increase their sales.

In Serbia, advertising baby formula is forbidden.

“We permanently stopped giving out packages prepared by sponsors [private companies] and now only humanitarian organisations like the Red Cross can organise something like that, but only if this is approved by the head of the hospital,” said Vejnovic.

He added that if any company now wants to give presents to mothers, the management of the hospital will decide whether or not to accept, depending on the company’s intentions and the content of the packages.

Montenegro leads the region

In the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, parents receive a one-off welfare payment of 105 euros from the local government and a gift package containing 24 products including diapers, lotion, bath liquid and shampoo, some clothes, a towel and bottle for feeding.

The decision to provide all this was made in mid-2016 following sharp criticism from local NGOs that claimed that local authorities do not care enough about the birth rate. Until then, packages and financial assistance were much more modest.

Financial aid and gifts for infants differ across Montenegro, however. In the coastal town of Tivat, parents receive 63 euros and a package worth 50 euros. In the majority of northern municipalities, the baby aid package contains only a few products.

In other Balkan countries, like Kosovo, Albania, Croatia or Romania, mothers do not receive any packages at all. However, some countries do provide financial benefits for parents.

Although no packages are provided by Croatia's maternity hospitals, mothers of newborn children receive benefits.

The amount varies depending on which city they live in. The biggest payments, granted upon the birth of a first-born child, vary from 160 euros in the coastal town of Sibenik to 670 euros in the island town of Vis, which is fighting demographic problems. In the capital Zagreb, the state pays 240 euros to first-time parents.

While a second child receives nothing extra, benefits rise for third-born children, from 540 euros in the town of Sveta Nedelja, near Zagreb, to 4,040 euros in the coastal town of Crikvenica. Zagreb pays even more: 7,270 euros, but this is delivered over a period of six years.

In Romania, the state provides a monthly allowance of 600 lei (150 euros) until the child is two and then 20 euros per month until the child is 18.

The Albanian government gives a mother 38 euros as a gift the moment that she registers a newborn baby. The Tirana municipality in 2010 added another 38 euros for babies born in the capital.

However, in the years that followed, Tirana's young parents frequently complained that they were unable to get the 38 euros promised by the municipality.

In January 2017, the new mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj promised a return to the practice, with the addition of a savings account automatically opened in the child’s name at a bank.

Some new parents are not yet aware of the new practice, however.

Marsida Duro, a young mother who gave birth in January at Tirana's Queen Geraldine University Hospital of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, told BIRN that up until now, she has not been able to get any financial aid.

“I hope to get the two pieces of compensation, the state and the municipality one, although it is still too little and we, as young mothers, don’t feel supported by the state at all,” she said.

Europe’s best practices

Svetlana Tanurdzic, who lived in Serbia before moving to Norway, said she felt really good when she saw what she and her baby get.

“There is a website with the list of companies who want to give those welcome packages, and then mothers can choose which one they like the most,” said Tanurdzic, who lives in Bergen.

“The most popular are the ones that the retail pharmacy chain prepares. In those packages you have diapers, liners for mothers, baby bottles, soothers, baby creams… I even get children’s books, toys, a plate, a spoon... almost everything for the baby,” she added.

In this part of Europe, even local supermarket chains want to participate and provide nice packages for the baby, Tanurdzic said.

“Kids and their needs are a priority for Scandinavia and it is great to know that you will get some help, especially if you don’t have a job. Those mothers who don’t work can count on around 6,800 euros, which amounts to two average [monthly] salaries in Norway,” she explained.

She compared the situation to that of Macedonia, where her husband comes from. They were there four years ago when she gave a birth to their first child.

“I remember that I got two packages of diapers containing only two diapers each,” she recalled.

One of the countries with the longest tradition of baby boxes is Finland, which introduced the practice in 1930.

Finnish mothers receive a box, which also serves as a first crib, filled with everything a newborn needs – matters, sheets, blankets, clothes and shoes, personal care items, a book and a toy.

In January this year, Scotland also introduced baby boxes for every new mother. The Scottish boxes contain 50 items that cover the needs of newborns, very similar to those in Finland.

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.  

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