It’s a parent’s responsibility to keep their offspring safe. They feed their child, clothe them and keep them warm when the winter arrives. Some parents may not even take their babies outside when the temperatures drop too far. In Nordic countries, however, where winters are notoriously cold, it’s not unusual to see a stroller containing a sleeping baby parked outside a cafe, while mom casually tucks into a coffee and pastry inside. In fact, it’s perfectly normal.
Leaving a sleeping baby in a stroller outside may seem reckless or even dangerous to most U.S. parents. It’s an idea that would seem doubly so in the depths of winter. In fact, it’s a parent’s natural reaction to want to keep their kids warm indoors during long, dark winter months.
Scandinavians, however, take an entirely different approach to parenting. In Stockholm, Sweden, for example, it’s not unusual for daytime temperatures to often drop below freezing. And when the thermometer reads a biting 23 ºF, an unusual sight emerges.
Take a walk around the wintry streets of Sweden’s capital city and it won’t be unusual to spot a stroller or two lined up on the sidewalks. In it will be a peacefully sleeping baby, blissfully unaware of any fuss. Meanwhile, parents will be inside going about their daily business.
Even when paying a visit to a friend’s house, if the child needs a nap, few expect to be offered a spare room. Instead, the back yard or porch is more likely to be offered, even in Arctic-like temperatures. But this is no modern fad in Nordic parenting, or even anything to be alarmed about.
Lisa Mardon, a Stockholm-based mom-of-three has been putting her kids outside to nap since birth. Two-year-old Alfred, the youngest of her three children, spends 90 minutes sleeping outdoors every day. He actually went through this curious ritual twice a day in his younger life.
“I think it’s good for them to be in the fresh air as soon as possible,” Mardon told the BBC in February 2013. “Especially in the winter when there’s lots of diseases going around… the kids seem healthier.” It’s a practice Mardon learned from her own mother, who did it to her when she was a baby.
“Yes, we were doing it back then as well,” said Gunilla, Mardon’s 61-year-old mom. She told the BBC, “It was important for her to get fresh air and stay healthy.” In fact, it’s been happening for generations. Mardon’s father, too, was left to sleep outdoors by his mom in the 1950s. It’s a custom not limited to parenting, either.
It’s not unusual to see strollers lined up outside daycare centers in Sweden. Most will place infants outdoors at nap time, even if it’s snowing. For one Stockholm kindergarten, Förskolan Orren, it’s a practice that lasts until the children turn three.
Head of the kindergarten, Brittmarie Carlzon, explained to the BBC, “When the temperature drops to 5 ºF we always cover the prams with blankets. It’s not only the temperature that matters, it’s also how cold it feels.” Indeed, windchill factors can make 5 ºF feel like -4 ºF in Sweden.
Some kids at the kindergarten are made to spend all of their time outdoors. Indeed, from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. they will do exactly the same activities most would do indoors out in the fresh air. Only when it’s time to eat or when temperatures get super-cold is it time to head indoors.
But there is method to this seeming madness. The idea is that the more time children spend out in the open air, the less likely they are to contract colds, bugs and viruses. Children gathered together in one room all day, on the other hand, is a breeding ground for spreading illness.
It’s a theory not confined to Sweden, either. Other Nordic countries are getting in on the act of leaving babies outdoors at nap time. One researcher gathered evidence from parents in Finland who believe that, left outside, their children achieve a longer and better quality sleep.
In her research, Marjo Tourula found that when sitting outdoors, babies would nap for 90 minutes to three hours. The indoor equivalent would last from one to two hours. “Babies clearly slept longer outdoors than indoors,” Tourula told the BBC of her findings.
Tourula believes it may be how babies are tightly wrapped up, protecting them from the elements that leads to longer naps. She said, “Probably the restriction of movements by clothing could increase the length of sleep, and a cold environment makes swaddling possible without overheating.”
From her research, Tourula determined that the optimum temperature for babies sleeping outdoors is around 23 ºF. However, some parents in her research sample admitted to leaving their children outside when temperatures dropped as low as -22 ºF.
Whether children are less susceptible to illness when they sleep outside, however, is less certain. According to pediatrician Margareta Blennow, findings in a Swedish Environmental Protection Agency report showed no conclusive proof to support the idea.
Indeed, Blennow told the BBC, “In some studies they found pre-schoolers who spent many hours outside generally, not just for naps, took fewer days off than those who spent most of their time indoors. In other studies there wasn’t a difference.”
However, despite a lack of evidence supporting perceived benefits of outdoor napping, it’s a trend that won’t be disappearing from Nordic life any time soon. As an advocate of the practice, Martin Jarnstrom, head of a leading preschool, offers practical advice on the matter. “It’s very important that the children have wool closest to their body, warm clothes and a warm sleeping bag,” he said in the same BBC article.
Indeed, many Swedes believe a local expression that roughly translates to: “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” Likewise, another Swedish mantra that supports leaving kids outside in freezing temperatures reads: “A little fresh air never hurt anyone.” And, until someone proves otherwise, the Swedes will be sure to keep leaving their little ones out in the freezing cold!