Why Scandinavians Leave Their Babies Out in the Cold

Why Scandinavians Leave Their Babies Out in the Cold. As it turns out, letting your baby nap outside - even in freezing temperatures - has many benefits.

A few years ago, I got talking to a prominent researcher at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana about the Scandinavian attitude to outdoor play and nature connection. I told her about our commitment to dressing kids for the weather and getting them outside every day, as well as our obsession with friluftsliv (topics which are all covered in detail in my book There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather). The professor then asked, somewhat big eyed, “I’ve heard that parents in the Nordic countries even let their babies nap outside in the winter. Is that true?” Even though she herself had done quite a bit of research on the effect of nature connection on children, she wasn’t sure what to make of this piece of information. But yes, it is true.

Why Scandinavians Leave Their Babies Out in the Cold. As it turns out, letting your baby nap outside - even in freezing temperatures - has many benefits.

For generations, the people of the North have bundled up their babies, taken them outside in their prams and then left them out in the freezing cold, sometimes for hours on end. If this sounds like reason for calling the Child Protective Services, please hear me out. As it turns out, letting your baby nap outside could be good for them. 

Benefits of letting babies nap outside

For starters, being out in cold temperatures doesn’t increase your child’s risk of getting a cold, being exposed to pathogenic bacteria and viruses do. And guess where they thrive? That’s right, indoors. Daycares and preschools, where big groups of children play in a relatively small, enclosed area, teem with germs that get passed around and cause infections. In fact, studies have showed that kids who spend most of their day outside at preschool, at so called forest schools, have fewer sick days than kids in traditional preschools. That’s one reason not only parents, but also many preschools (which also function as daycares) choose to let children nap outside in Scandinavia. 

Secondly, parents report a number of other benefits of outdoor napping and at least one Finnish study backs up the anecdotal evidence. The study was based on the experiences of parents in the city of Oulu in northern Finland, where 95 percent of families let their babies nap outside, typically beginning when they’re two weeks old but in some cases as early as three days. Among the participants in the study, the ideal napping temperature was perceived as -6 C (21 F), although many parents reported that they let their babies stay outside in temperatures as low as -15 C (5 F), with a few even venturing out in -27 C (-16 F). As many as 95 percent of the parents saw no downside of napping outside. On the contrary, the study noted that:

  • The babies took longer and deeper naps outside,
  • had better appetite afterwards, and
  • were more active after an outdoor nap.

Marjo Tourula, who conducted the study, believes the swaddling sensation of the clothes could help explain why some babies napped as long as three hours in their prams.

Being immersed in nature and listening to sounds like bird twitter, water rushing through a creek or leaves crackling in the wind is in itself is soothing. The reason, according to one study, could be that nature sounds cause decrease the body’s “fight-or-flight” response and increase the response that helps the body relax. Although the study was done on adults, the sounds of nature likely have a calming effect on infants as well. In fact, many parents in the Nordic countries say that once their baby gets used to falling asleep in the stroller, they won’t have it any other way!

Tips when letting your baby nap outside in cold temperatures:

  • Find a good spot to park the stroller, out of the weather, preferably somewhere where you can easily check on it.
  • Always place baby to sleep on its back.
  • Young babies should sleep on a flat surface. A convertible stroller with a bassinet for the infant stage and a reclining seat for toddlers is ideal for outdoor napping: 
  • Dress the baby warmly but don’t double up on everything. A wool romper is perfect as a base layer for cold temperatures:
  • For the middle layer, an insulated puff snowsuit with built-in mittens works well:
  • Don’t forget the hat:
  • A bunting bag finishes out the setup for those freezing days:
  • Make sure you can see the child’s face and that air can circulate freely around it.
  • Consider potential hazards, for example cats and other animals that may get into the stroller, and how to avoid them.
  • Check on the baby frequently to make sure he/she isn’t too cold or too hot. Keep in mind that hands and feet often are colder than the rest of the body, so put a hand on the baby’s chest to get the most accurate measure of the baby’s body temperature.
  • If you’re worried about leaving your baby unattended, place a baby monitor by the stroller.

For more tips on dressing babies for cold weather, check out this post.

26 thoughts on “Why Scandinavians Leave Their Babies Out in the Cold

  1. Dorothy Kernaghan-Baez says:

    I’m all for children not being stuck indoors. I don’t even have a problem with outdoor naps, even for babies…but…newborns belong cuddled up with their mothers.

  2. Diane Scott says:

    When my children were born we lived on Long Island, NY. My eldest daughter was born at the end of March, but my youngest was born mid December. Both girls, but most especially the younger one, took most of her afternoon naps outside. It gave me time with the older girl and I believe, for all the reasons you stated, she slept so much better and it was better for her!

  3. Lori Ailor says:

    I love your information, and I agree. I run a preschool daycare in my home in Colorado. While there are a few days we don’t get outside, the best days are when we play out as long as possible. I also keep my house cooler than most and we are a healthier group and sick less frequently.

  4. Naomi Newbold says:

    I remember the first time I was in Denmark and seeing the babies sleeping alone outside with no adults around… I was freaking out inside my head pretty badly! 😀 It definitely took some time to get used to seeing it and understanding it.
    I’ve thought about doing this with my kids, letting them sleep outside, but I don’t think my husband would go along with it. I think it would just be too different for him.

  5. Andrea Fryer says:

    I’m a Canadian momma living in Finland and when my sons were babies, I had them sleep outside in the pram because it seemed to be the norm over here. Now thinking back, it’s funny that I never questioned the practice, it just seemed so self evident. And indeed, my sons slept so very soundly and peacefully, no matter how much noise was going on in the surroundings. I did check on them frequently though to check that they were warm and comfy in their snowsuit and bunting bag. They seldomly woke up cranky, instead I would eventually discover them lying there, wide eyed, rosy cheeked and in a cheery mood, happy to see me when I peeked in. A word of warning though, like the article says – make sure you do this in a place or in a way so no animals get into the pram. Over here we have special nets we put over the pram for that purpose. I do believe there was a horrific news story one time where a squirrel had gotten in and chewed on the baby’s face!

    • Linda McGurk says:

      Yes, it’s very much the norm, maybe even more so in Finland than in Sweden:) I’ve always let my kids nap outside and they got so used to it that it was hard to put them to sleep any other way than in the stroller…But yes, animals can be an issue; I found that our cat loved getting into the stroller and that could obviously be risky with a young baby.

  6. Anna Arnold says:

    The story about why people let their children sleep outside here in Iceland is because of the housing shortages in the 1930 ..like 2 families sharing a house with 2 bedrooms…there was so much going on in the house that the babies did not have pease to sleep so they were bundled up and put outside. Today we do it because we know it is the best for them.

  7. Deedee says:

    Is no one concerned about the baby being stolen?! How are you comfortable leaving your child unattended in public?!
    The fresh air thing makes sense but I’d be terrified to leave my baby alone outside

    • Linda McGurk says:

      Hi! No, not that I’m aware of. Baby thefts are pretty much unheard of but of course people may have other reasons not to leave their babies unattended in public, and not everybody does. A lot of people leave them outside on a back porch and check on them frequently.

    • Linda McGurk says:

      Yes, I did too when mine were little! But sometimes they’d nap for two and a half hours, so I’d maybe walk for an hour and then leave them on the back porch to finish their nap once we got home:)

  8. Cris says:

    This is great information, thank you!

    Would you recommend having a Bluetooth thermometer on the baby while napping and monitor temp on phone? What type of monitors do parents use there? And, what should one dress baby in for warm months napping (would parents use some type of netting and or bug spray to prevent insects bothering, biting, and or stinging the baby)?

    Thanks so much!


    • Linda McGurk says:

      Hi Cris!
      Thanks for writing; those are some great questions. As far as thermometer goes, I don’t know anybody who has used one and although it probably won’t hurt, I wouldn’t rely solely on technology. If you’re concerned about the baby being too warm or too cold, check on them periodically by feeling the neck and forehead with your fingers. If they’re sweating, they’re too bundled up and if they’re cold, they’re not wearing enough clothes. Hands and feet sometimes get a little bit cold but they shouldn’t be freezing. Whether summer or winter, dress the baby as you would yourself. And yes, bug net is a great idea for summer if you have an issue with mosquitos or other insects but I wouldn’t put bug spray on the baby. Hope this helps!

  9. Jaime says:

    I love this idea. Thank you for the tips! At what age do you recommend transitioning naps from the stroller to the crib? In your experience, was this transition difficult?

    • Linda McGurk says:

      It’s not really necessary to transition to naps in the crib and mine never did. My youngest took naps until she was over three years old and at that age I just put her in one of the “big kid” strollers with a reclining back and walked her near the house until she fell asleep. I never saw a need to use the crib but if you do, just try to find a routine that works and stick with it.

  10. Ali says:

    Love this! Any suggestions on how to start with a 2 and 1/2-year-old to nap outside, or did I miss the window? Also, could I do it in a baby hammock swing instead of a pram?

    • Linda McGurk says:

      Hi! Some kids become set in their ways and might have a harder time than others transitioning to outdoor napping if they’re used to sleeping in their crib but I don’t think it’s impossible at all. For a 2.5-year-old, you don’t need to have a pram that reclines all the way, as long as your child is in a comfortable enough position to go to sleep in the stroller. If they usually nap around the same time of the day every day, that can help with the transition. When you notice that your child is getting tired, put them in the stroller and walk around until they fall asleep. As far as the baby hammock swing goes, I know it’s not recommended for newborns to sleep in them since they need a flat surface, but for a toddler I don’t see a problem, as long as they’re comfortable!

  11. Lisa Ripley says:

    Hello, I know this comment is coming in a few years later but I am Canadian and I remember my Aunt bunding up her babies to nap in the baby carriage on her front porch. It was out of the wind and weather but they got the crisp, fresh air. This was in the 1970s. My mum said she did the same with my brother and I in the 60s. It never occurred to me to do this with my own kids in the 90s. I wish I had. Though we lived in a large Canadian city at that time and it wasn’t part of the culture by then. Somebody probably would have called Children’s Services.

    • Linda McGurk says:

      Hi Lisa, thank you for sharing your story; it’s interesting that there were people doing this in Canada as well. You’re probably right, though, that today it wouldn’t be as readily accepted.

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