MANSFIELD - Richland County hopes to follow in the footsteps of New Jersey by launching a universal baby box program in an attempt to reduce infant mortality rates.
On Thursday, the state of New Jersey became the first in the country to launch a statewide partnership with The Baby Box Company, based in Los Angeles. The Garden State's Child Fatality and Near Fatality Review Board partnered with The Baby Box Company to give baby boxes to more than 100,000 new and expectant parents.
Jennifer Clary and Michelle Vick, co-founders of The Baby Box Company, were in Mansfield in early January to discuss bringing baby boxes to Richland County. A discussion with community health leaders was organized by Richland Source and hosted at the Richland Area Chamber of Commerce.
"We were impressed that so many community leaders came together to work on this initiative to help ensure the best start for new babies," said Vick on Jan. 20. "We are very excited to move forward with our plan to bring baby boxes to Richland County and the rest of Ohio."
After the Jan. 13 meeting, many Richland County health officials expressed an interest in bringing baby boxes to the county. Richland Public Health Director Martin Tremmel said he felt the program would be very beneficial to local families.
"What's unique about the Baby Box concept is it's offered to all families, all parents with newborns," Tremmel said. "I think the real value in all of this is to educate all parents about infant mortality, because this can happen to any family, it's not necessarily income-related."
Cristen Gilbert, president CEO of the Mansfield Area Y, was also optimistic about a baby box program coming to Richland County. The Mansfield Area Y is the county's largest childcare provider, caring for 50 infants per day up to 12 months old.
"I think it's definitely worth exploring here for our community to prevent infant mortality," Gilbert said. "For me it's a no-brainer. Being around infants and babies all day and helping take care of them, if there's a resource we can provide these families to keep their babies safe at home, we want to be able to do that."
The Baby Box Company is modeled after a Finnish tradition that encourages safe sleep, with studies showing an education initiative paired with the boxes has helped Finland achieve one of the lowest rates of infant mortality in the world.
Families would receive a baby box after the completion of a Baby Box University syllabus, the crucial education component of The Baby Box Company. In New Jersey, Baby Box University helped doctors and health experts create educational videos for expectant parents on topics like installing car seats, safe sleeping practices, breastfeeding resources and support, and fatherhood engagement.
To receive a box, parents must register for free at babyboxuniversity.com as New Jersey residents, then watch an educational video lasting 10 to 15 minutes and take a short quiz to get a certificate of completion. They can then choose to collect their box from the closest distribution partner or have it shipped to their address.
"Parenting education must go hand-in-hand with baby boxes for the program to be truly effective," Vick explained on Jan. 20.
The best part about the Baby Box University model? In New Jersey, parents go home with a sturdy, safe box to sleep in, a head start on education, and additional newborn essentials - all for free. The same free model could easily be brought to Richland County.
"It truly does take a village to bring a Baby Box University program to fruition," Vick said on Jan. 20. "Fortunately for our universal model, we have a strong support network which alleviates many of the fiscal road bumps which might otherwise slow down or fully obstruct program implementation."
A crucial element to the success of Baby Box University is universal distribution. In the Richland Source series "Healing Hope," Baby Box CEO Jennifer Clary explains the program is designed to be available to all mothers regardless of socioeconomic status.
“In our research, universal initiatives benefit more than targeting specific members of the population, like parents at a certain level of poverty or certain demographics,” Clary explained. “If you distribute to everyone equally, regardless of economic status, the people who are most vulnerable are more likely to use the intervention properly.”
Tremmel praised the universal distribution model as well as the idea of using technology to connect with young families expecting a baby. The idea of using smartphones as a way to connect with young mothers and fathers was first introduced by local health professionals at the Jan. 13 meeting in Richland County, and received well by Vick and Clary.
"With the use of smartphones so predominant as a means of communication for young parents today, we are missing opportunities to connect and educate them, and I think great steps could achieved looking at how we embrace technology and connecting young parents with referrals and advice, especially when their concerns are after offices are closed," Tremmel said.
Both Clary and Vick of The Baby Box Company have expressed interest in making Ohio the next state to offer universal distribution of baby boxes. Tremmel and Gilbert are both eager to collaborate and take the next steps to make that happen in Richland County.
"I think that continuing to have the various agencies that work with parents and infants getting us around the table to re-engage a consistent message is most important to us in public health," Tremmel said.
"I would think we have to get the individuals around that table together who foresee this happening and who think we can be a resource and we can help," Gilbert added. "Let's get everyone together to figure out the next steps and what role we'll each play."