Baby boxes: A lifeline for vulnerable mums
Published 30th October 2020
Can you imagine having to choose between eating dinner or buying nappies for your baby? This is the harsh reality facing many of Doctors of the World’s (DOTW) pregnant patients, who are among the most marginalised women in the country.
“So many of our pregnant service users experience extreme hardship and have to make stark choices between such things as having an evening meal or buying nappies or a sleep suit for the baby,” said Bettina, a midwife and long-time DOTW volunteer.
Bettina and her colleagues at the Women and Children’s Clinic support hundreds of women and their families each year, offering health checks and information and advice on accessing NHS services and what to do if they receive a bill for their NHS care.
Now, thanks to a new partnership with PramDepot, an arts-led recycling project, we hope to make vulnerable mums’ lives a little easier by providing many of the things they need to welcome a new baby into their home.
Introducing the baby box.
Baby boxes contain high quality recycled baby clothes and equipment, which are assembled at PramDepot’s London premises and delivered directly to the mother’s door by PramDepot volunteers.
“It has a fitted mattress and sheet so the baby can sleep in the box… Inside are all of the baby items that the mum needs – nappies, wet wipes, breast pads and all that stuff. It’s got a breast pump and steriliser, milk storage bags, a sling,” said PramDepot founder Karen Whiteread.
An equal start to life
Baby boxes are commonplace in Scandinavian countries, such as a Finland, where the tradition dates back to the 1930s. In Finland, a government-funded maternity package is available to all expectant mothers to give all children, no matter what background they’re from, an equal start to life.
Baby boxes are also provided universally in Scotland and supported by the Royal College of Midwives as a way to reduce the risks associated with unsafe co-sleeping. The baby box is designed so that the baby has its own bed!
Karen explained how the baby boxes and PramDepot came about.
“It started as an art project because I’m an artist and I started volunteering as a birth companion to support women who don’t have anyone to be with them when they’re in labour,” she said. “There were about 30 of us spread all over London and we all had stuff that people had donated to us and it was proving to be really difficult to coordinate getting the items to the women.”
A trip to an art exhibition inspired Karen to transform her studio into a storage space for the donated items as “an ever-changing art installation” and PramDepot was born.
PramDepot has been running for seven years and previously gave baby clothes and equipment to vulnerable mums. Then COVID-19 forced Karen to rethink service delivery. She launched the baby box initiative during lockdown to ensure women in extremely vulnerable situations can still get support in a safe way.
Helping the most vulnerable
If a DOTW patient is identified as extremely vulnerable or as having no financial support, they are referred to PramDepot, which arranges delivery of a baby box.
“We only support women who aren’t supported by anyone else or have serious mental health or domestic violence issues… we’re trying to fill a gap,” said Karen. “DOTW is an organisation that supports undocumented women, who I feel are some of the most vulnerable women and obviously don’t get any other support. DOTW helps us reach the hard-to-reach women.”
As a mother of two and grandmother of one, Karen knows how important it is to have support during pregnancy and motherhood.
“I was quite young when I had my first daughter and I lived in a commune and had very little money,” she said. “But I had other women with babies around me, we supported each other. It was a magical time and the reason it was like that is because we had support.
“When I became a birth companion, I realised that there are so many women out there with no support, without their parents down the road, without their sisters, or even women that speak their own language. It must be so hard and so difficult. I can’t imagine what it’s like.”
To reduce the risk of COVID-19, PramDepot volunteers wear masks and gloves for deliveries, which are contactless.
“All we’re doing is taking the lid off the box and showing them the instruction manual with all the health and safety stuff in it and telling them they mustn’t put the lid on the box when the baby is in it, which usually causes quite a laugh,” said Karen. “But you have to say it because people have done it,” she added.
For the women PramDepot supports, knowing that they have many of the things they need – as well as a place for the baby to sleep – comes as a huge relief. The delivery of a baby box has even been known to send some expectant mothers into labour!
“We’ve heard from referees that mums have gone into labour the next day,” said Karen. “Quite often it’s such a relief that they’ve got all the stuff.”
When Mary (not her real name) first came to DOTW, she was four months pregnant but wasn’t registered with a GP and hadn’t received any antenatal care. Pregnant in the middle of a pandemic and miles from her friends and family in the Philippines, she was struggling with both her physical and mental health.
Fortunately, Mary found DOTW and our staff and volunteers helped her to get the care and support she needed.
“There are not enough words to say how thankful me and my husband are,” said Mary. “For help in all aspects, especially for health. DOTW is always there, not only for vulnerable women, but also for vulnerable people, so that we have equal health rights.
“I cannot imagine what would have happened to me without DOTW, especially when I was looking for a hospital. Also, regarding my emotional stress and the problems I have experienced. I will never forget how much you have helped me and the baby. I hope you will help more people like us in the future.”
Mary is the first DOTW patient to receive a baby box kindly donated and delivered to her door by PramDepot.
“First of all, I felt overwhelmed, surprised. I was not expecting what it is,” she said. “When receiving I felt very happy. There is a lot of stuff inside which is very helpful for me and the baby.”
A two-way street
The experience is just as rewarding for the women who contribute to the baby boxes as those who receive them. Karen said most of those who donate to PramDepot are new mums, who quite often burst into tears at the thought of being on their own.
“They see the boxes or whatever it is they’ve given, and they just get overwhelmed by how privileged they feel being able to come and give stuff to PramDepot for women who haven’t got anything,” she said.
“I think that’s what’s really nice about PramDepot, it’s like the conduit between women who want to support other women but have no way of doing that as an individual but can do it as a collective. We do see a PramDepot as a community.”
If you’re interested in donating baby items or volunteering with PramDepot, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please be aware PramDepot is a small organisation with limited resources and is currently only taking baby box referrals from partner organisations.
If you can, please consider donating to DOTW’s Women and Children’s Clinic to ensure vulnerable women and their families can access healthcare and support, such as baby boxes.