by Linda McGurk – Winter. The season to enjoy snow sports, drink hot chocolate, light candles, and let your baby nap in a stroller on the back porch. Wait, what?
If the idea of letting your baby or toddler sleep outdoors in freezing temperatures seems counterintuitive, irresponsible, or downright dangerous, consider that parents in the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland) view this traditional custom as a key to good health and a surefire sign of sound parenting. And they may be on to something.
“It’s a misconception that cold temperatures make us sick,” says Roland Sennerstam, a pediatric specialist in Sweden. “We get sick because we contract viruses and bacteria when we spend too much time inside, stand too close to each other on the subway, and so on. The risk of getting infected is especially high at preschools, where you might have 20 children spending the whole day inside in a virtual cloud of germs.”
Sennerstam says it only takes a few more hours outside per week to statistically reduce the rate of infection. He is referring to a 1990 study conducted by the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare, which showed that children who spent five or fewer hours outside per week at preschool were sick more often than those who spent six to nine hours outside per week.
In 1998, another study that compared traditional preschools with forest schools, where children often spend the better part of a day outside, confirming that children who are outside more generally have fewer sick days.
Sennerstam believes even five additional hours spent outside per week noticeably reduces the rate of infection. “I recommend that children are outside both in the morning and the afternoon,” he says. “As a rule of thumb, you can let babies sleep outside in temperatures down to -10 C (14 F). Unless you live right by a factory the air is cleaner outside,” he says.
Even at traditional daycares and preschools in Scandinavia it is common to see a long line of prams parked along a wall or other sheltered area during nap time, in every season. A vast majority of the parents seem to favor the practice at home as well.
“I’d say about 80 percent of my friends let their children nap outside,” says Swedish mother of two Josephine Strand. Her one-year-old daughter, Valerie, has slept outdoors for up to three hours per day since she was two months old.
“When she is fed and dry I bundle her up in the pram and roll her out on the porch, where she immediately nods off.” Her son, Ivar, 5, no longer takes naps but had the same regimen when he was younger. “In my experience they sleep better outside since they get fresh air, and they also get used to sleeping with normal background noise. I also think that they stay healthier this way,” Strand says.
Many Scandinavian parents tell the same story that their children stay healthier and sleep better outside, even when it’s cold out. Little formal research has been done on this curious cultural phenomenon, but a Finnish study does back up some of the anecdotal evidence. The study, based on the experiences of parents in the city of Oulu in northern Finland, found that children do indeed take longer naps when they sleep outside.
The study also showed that the ideal napping temperature was perceived as -6 C (21 F), although many parents reported they let their charges stay outside in temperatures as low as -15 C (5 F), with a few even venturing down to -27 C (-16 F). A majority of the parents said that their children were ‘more active’ and ate better after napping outside in the cold, and a staggering 95 percent of parents saw no drawbacks of the practice.
Cecilia Stahre, a mother of two girls in Stockholm, Sweden, seconds that notion. “I was raised to think that it’s important to get fresh air every day, and that’s how I raise my daughters too,” she says. “They take longer, deeper naps outside and I think they become a little more resilient against infections.”
When Stahre’s oldest daughter, Matilde, 8, was born, temperatures were hovering around -15 C (5 F) and the prospect of taking the new baby outside was a little daunting. But as soon as Stahre had landed in her new role as a mother she started taking her for long walks in the cold and often parked the pram on the back porch. “I lined the pram with a lamb’s wool, and then I dressed her in layers. It’s important not to dress them too warmly. I made that mistake in the beginning,” she says.
Sennerstam agreed and said that it’s important to strike a balance between keeping the child warm and overdressing. “A lot of times parents bundle up the babies too much. You should dress them the way you would dress yourself, but not double up on everything just because you’re dressing a child,” he says. “It’s important that air can circulate in the pram, otherwise you’re putting the baby at risk for SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).”
Many Scandinavian parents will go to great lengths to provide their young children with a daily dose of fresh air. Those who can safely leave their child outside on their own can often be seen pushing a stroller around for hours, and apartment dwellers are sometimes known to park the stroller or bassinet attachment on a balcony.
As it turns out, their babies too get so used to sleeping outdoors that they wouldn’t have it any other way. “A lot of children don’t want to go to sleep unless they’re in their pram,” Stahre says. “I think they feel better both physically and mentally from being outside a lot.”
Tips for letting baby nap outside in the winter:
- Young babies should sleep in a pram with a flat bottom or a stroller that can be used with a bassinet attachment.
- Place the pram/stroller near a wall and out of the wind, and make sure that the baby’s face is not in the sun.
- Dress the child in warm layers but avoid over-bundling, since this can restrict airflow around the child’s face.
- Place a baby monitor by the stroller or crack a window, and check on the child regularly.
- Use a mosquito net to protect the baby from animals and debris that may blow into the stroller.
Linda McGurk is a Swedish-born journalist and blogger. She writes about connecting children with nature on the blog Rain or Shine Mamma, and hopes to inspire outdoor play and adventure every day, regardless of the weather.