Democratic lawmakers want to bring baby boxes to Tennessee. The cardboard cribs would broaden local efforts to reduce the region's high rate of infant mortality.
In the most recent year data is available, 2015, 142 babies in Tennessee died before their first birthday. One of the biggest preventable causes has been unsafe sleep, with a blanket or toy playing a role in 87 percent of cases and 80 percent of the time, the baby wasn't in a crib or bassinet.
The proposal from Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville, would have Tennessee join eight states like Alabama and Texas in providing what amounts to a basic bassinet to any newborn that needs it. New Jersey was the first state to offer the boxes statewide.
In Tennessee, the cost is estimated at roughly $2 million a year if 50 percent of newborns accepted the offer, though the Tennessee Department of Health indicates it would seek out grant funding to cover the expense. The baby box, which comes with a mattress and fitted sheet, would be free to the parents but cost the state roughly $42 a piece.
Hospitals in Northeast Tennessee have already been distributing baby boxes. In Nashville, the public health department gives away pricier pack-and-play cribs, which are larger and sturdier.
"What we do know is there may be some challenges with a baby box," says D'Yuanna Allen-Robb, Nashville's director of child and infant health. "An infant can outgrow it. It's not going to stay in a baby box for very long. As a local health department, we really distribute the pack-and-plays to really help meet the needs of all of our families."
The city has been giving away roughly 235 cribs a year, Allen-Robb says.
There are some pediatricians who question use of the baby boxes because they still haven't met consumer protection guidelines. And the American Academy of Pediatrics says there's not enough data on their effectiveness.
The playfully decorated baby boxes trace back to a tradition in Finland that has been proliferated in the U.S. by The Baby Box Co. Advocates say they're just as much an educational tool. To get one, new parents must take a course in the most current safe sleep recommendations, like always keeping babies on their backs.
"I'm not wedded to the box itself. It's about the education," Dr. Kathryn McCans tells NPR. The chair of New Jersey's Child Fatality and Near Fatality Review Board says the premise is that people like free things. "It's about getting the information out there."