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Getting the Word Out on NJ’s Big ‘Baby Box’ Giveaway

State collaborates on — but hasn’t trumpeted — program to donate tens of thousands of low-cost cardboard bassinets

baby box

In January, New Jersey became the first state to launch a safe-infant sleep education program that also involves free cardboard “baby boxes” designed to protect newborns as they rest and to further reduce crib death rates.

But public information on the program, which debuted at Cooper University Hospital in Camden and ensures all new mothers have access to the box itself and critical information about safe-sleep techniques, remains hard to find.

That could change under legislation approved by the state Assembly on Thursday, which would require the Department of Children and Families, which oversees the initiative, to post a clearly marked link to the program on its website. It would also force the DCF to ensure all other state departments included the information online and that it was updated as necessary.

The Assembly also passed bills designed to improve the safety of baby monitors with Internet connections and to ensure all infants are covered by health insurance. While championed by Democratic members, all three measures received nearly unanimous support.

Safe, portable

The baby boxes offer a low-cost, low-tech bassinet that provides caregivers a safe, portable space to put a baby to sleep. Experts recommend infants sleep on their backs, in a crib or similar compact space free of blankets, pillows, toys and other items — a scenario that can be challenging for mothers with limited resources and remains a frequent concern to many parents, regardless of their economic status.

“When you come from a low-income background, a lot of time you don’t have accessibility to a bassinet or crib and many women make the difficult decision that, ‘I need to sleep and so does the baby, so the baby’s coming to bed with me,’” said Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Newark), a lead sponsor who introduced the bill in late February. “I think this is an excellent program because it offers an option, and a safe option.”

While the Garden State’s infant mortality rate is below the national rate, the New Jersey Child Fatality and Near Fatality Review Board reported 61 child fatalities in 2014, the most recent year for which data was available. Of these, 57 of the deaths — or 93 percent — involved sleeping or bed conditions, including 35 fatalities that resulted from the baby sleeping with adults.

New Jersey’s baby-box program involves a collaboration between the child fatality review board, which operates independently under the DCF umbrella, and the Baby Box Company, a Los Angeles-based firm that has worked with government programs and healthcare providers in dozens of countries. The firm has also partnered with officials in Ohio on a comprehensive program, announced last week.

At least 100,000 boxes in 2017

Baby Box said the project was inspired by a longstanding tradition in Finland, which has provided similar cardboard mini-cribs to mothers for some 75 years. In an effort to address high infant mortality rates, the Finnish government created the program that sent new mothers home from the hospital with the box — full of infant clothes and other critical supplies — to be followed by a visit from a local health worker who would do a well-baby checkup soon after.

In New Jersey, officials have pledged to distribute at least free 100,000 boxes in 2017 alone — enough for all the babies expected to be born here this year. The boxes come packed with diapers, wipes and other items, as well as safety information to help new parents avoid Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and other fatalities. The program, funded with some $40,000 the state received from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is open to all parents of newborns or infants under 3 months of age.

Parents must complete the Baby Box Company’s short online course on safe-sleep practices and take a quiz to be eligible to pick up their box at certain distribution centers, or have it shipped to their home directly. The boxes can be used until the infant is five or six months of age.

The Camden launch attracted widespread media attention, prompting stories in the New York Times and on CNN, among others outlets. But there does not appear to be any reference to the program on the DCF website and a spokesman for the department did not return a request for comment on the effort Thursday afternoon.

Protect baby monitors from spying

The bill (A-4684) to increase awareness of the program, sponsored by Pintor Marin and Assemblywomen Pamela Lampitt, (D-Camden) and Blonnie Watson (D-Newark), would not limit the program to products distributed by the California company, but defines a “baby box” as a “durable cardboard” box that meets consumer safety standards for a bassinette and comes filled with essential items like baby wipes, diapers and safe-sleep information. The measure also stresses that the public link for the program must include both safe-sleep information and details on the baby box itself. A Senate version of the bill awaits action.

The Assembly also passed a final version of legislation designed to protect families that use baby monitors that connect to the Internet from online spying or other security breaches. The bill (A-3581) requires all audio or video infant monitors sold in New Jersey to include a clearly worded warning about potential security risks and technical features designed to thwart such infiltration. Parents have had growing concerns about hackers spying on their children or stealing family information as security weaknesses in the devices are discovered.

The measure, sponsored by Assemblywomen Joann Downey (D-Ocean) and Gabriela Mosquera (D-Gloucester), was introduced in April in the Assembly, and the Senate took up the matter in September. A similar version, led by Sens. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) and Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), was approved by the Senate Monday and merged with the Assembly bill in advance of its final vote Thursday. It now awaits Gov. Chris Christie’s OK.

Another measure, (A-1458), also sponsored by Mosquera, Lampitt and Downey, requires all hospitals and birthing centers to provide new parents with information on insurance coverage for their infants. Under current law, babies are covered by their parents’ insurance for the first month, but if caregivers don’t inform the company of the birth, that coverage could lapse and infants could be left unprotected until the next enrollment period begins. A Senate version of the bill has yet to have a hearing.

“Giving birth is an emotional, exciting and overwhelming experience for new parents,” Lampitt said. “They have thousands of questions and concerns, but making sure their insurance company is notified of the new addition to the family within 30 days is almost universally not one of them. This is something that is so easy to miss in the chaos and joy of bringing a new life into the world.”

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