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.
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.