Once in a month my husband and I pack Amos in his stroller and walk a few blocks to our closest health care center. We take the elevator to the fourth floor and enter Neuvola, the maternity and child care clinic, or ‘Place for Advice’ as translated freely from the Finnish word.
Neuvola is a Finnish public health care service available for all expectant mothers and children for free.
Maternal and child health is crucial, a cornerstone of development for all countries. Currently in the world approximately 830 women die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth and an estimated 5.9 million children die annually before they reach the age of 5.
The numbers for maternal and child mortality used to be staggering in Finland as well. Just 80 years ago, out of 1000 children a total of 95 died before reaching the age of 5. Now that number is less than 3, one of the lowest in the whole world. Similarly, the rate of maternal deaths used to be high, with 400 mothers dying per 100,000 births. Today, such deaths do basically not occur.
Who are we to thank for this?
The story of Neuvola dates back to the 1920s.
Mr. Arvo Ylppö, a Finnish pediatrician, was determined to decrease infant mortality in Finland. He got his motivation from Germany where he studied and observed, for instance, that the cause of death for prematurely born infants can be traced to treatable conditions instead of simple underdevelopment.
The ideas he then implemented in Finland are, in essence, preventive health care measures.
He supported efforts to educate health care professionals, along with midwives, to municipalities. The services provided by Neuvola were to be free of charge and voluntary. At its core were to be the provision of guidance for mothers and families, a complete vaccination programme as well as the detection of abnormalities in a child’s development as early as possible.
These remain the activities of Neuvola even today.
Neuvola started small, but today it reaches practically all expectant mothers and children in Finland from their birth to the beginning of primary education which is usually at the age of 7. It has been a tremendous success story. My mother used Neuvola services, now I do too. It is a privilege shared by many generations.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Finland is one of the best countries in the world for parents.
As a mother, especially a first timer, Neuvola has for me been an important place for guidance and reflection. This is the place I knew I would go to once a month when pregnant (and more frequently towards the end of the pregnancy) and once a month after giving birth. I always look forward to going there.
During these visits, our baby is examined by health care professionals. Doctor checkups are scheduled for the early months as well. Vaccinations are given and the baby is measured.
If parents need someone to talk to, counseling services are available.
If breastfeeding is not going as smoothly as the mother hopes, help is available.
Some cities, such as Helsinki, even provide home visits by health care professionals to help the family if the baby is not sleeping well during nights.
Of course the system is not flawless.
It is designed and run by people. People do not always possess empathy or communication skills. So the system is only as good as compassionate are its workers.
My first contact in Neuvola was not that great. I felt we didn’t quite connect, she was too busy staring at the computer screen. I felt I was bothering her so I didn’t feel like opening up.
Then another person was appointed to me and we instantly clicked. With this person I always feel I can talk about anything. My son adores her and smiles every time he sees her.
To me Neuvola works at its best if parents leave the place feeling elevated, their sense of parenthood heightened, even when receiving advice in how to do things differently.
Parents should feel that the professionals at Neuvola do not judge them or stare blindly at a child’s measurements (this can be quite stressful for some parents). They should feel the health care professional is assessing the overall situation, looking at the child as a whole. They should feel like Neuvola is an amazing support system in their lives. That is how I feel.
I am such a fan of Neuvola. It is one of the greatest success stories of the Scandinavian welfare state model and completely unique in the world. Not a lot of countries (truth to be told; almost no countries) have a system like it.
Some people claim a system which is financed by taxpayers for all citizens means there will always be free-riders, people who never become productive actors for the society.
I say sure, there will always be free-riders.
But in general, a society which gives an equally good start for all its babies and mothers, regardless of their income level or social background, is a society which also values peace and stability.