Finland has been handing out so-called "baby boxes" to expectant parents since the 1930s, and now Alberta moms and dads are receiving similar starter kits for their newborns through a University of Calgary initiative.

Welcome to Parenthood is a broad-scoped pilot program aimed at guiding first-time parents through the often daunting process of suddenly being responsible for a tiny human.

As part of the program, boxes full of infant essentials are being offered to expecting mothers and fathers and, like their Scandinavian counterparts, the empty containers are designed to be used as baby's first bed, to boot.

"The box itself meets the requirements of the Canadian regulations for a bassinet," said professor Karen Benzies, principal investigator with the Welcome to Parenthood study.

Each box includes a "thin, dense foam mattress," Benzies said, and serves as a safe sleeping area for infants until they are old enough to roll over by themselves.

But, she stressed, there is much more to the Welcome to Parenthood program.

"The boxes are only part of a larger system of health and social support," she said. 

"The other part is building adult capacity about how to raise that next generation of children."

Mentor matching

Another key part of the program is matching expectant moms and dads with mentors who are familiar to them and can help guide them into their new lives as parents.

Mentors can be a friend, family member or neighbour of the first-time parents who, starting during pregnancy, are willing to have one-on-one contact with the mom.

Once the baby is born, the mentor must maintain contact once a week until the baby is six weeks old, then once every two weeks until the baby is six months old.

"We know that moms and dads often needs someone to walk alongside them for a little while during that transition," Benzies said.

Evaluation

Mentors must record their interactions in a journal briefly describing time with the parent and baby, to help researchers in their evaluation of the pilot program.

Benzies said the goal of the project is to evaluate the impact of the various support mechanisms on the developmental outcomes of children and the health of mothers and families, in general.

The program received a $500,000 provincial grant in 2014, announced by Manmeet Bhullar, who was the minister for responsible for Alberta Human Services at the time.

Bhullar died in a car crash in November.

Participation

Researchers are still looking for program participants.

To be eligible, you must be a first-time expectant parent over the age of 18 and willing to be mentored by another adult in your personal social circle.

Participants must also agree to fill out questionnaires at various stages of the study and Benzies said ideally they should live near one of the 11 pilot sites, which are:

  • Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society (Edmonton)
  • Camrose Family Resource Centre
  • Community Links (Airdrie)
  • Fort Macleod Kids First Family Centre
  • Jasper Place Child & Family Resource Centre (Edmonton)
  • Midwest Family Connections (Lloydminster)
  • Family Futures Resource Network (Edmonton)
  • Mountain View Parent Link (Didsbury)
  • Norwood Child & Family Resource Centre (Edmonton)
  • Parkland County Parent Link Centre (Stony Plain)
  • The HUB Family Resource Centre (Fort McMurray)

For more information, visit the Welcome to Parenthood website.