This Napping Practice In Other Parts Of The World May Surprise You

This Napping Practice In Other Parts Of The World May Surprise You

When Helen Russell, a British journalist who had relocated to Denmark, visited a Danish day care for the first time, she was struck by an unusual sight: rows of baby carriages parked in an outdoor shed, each containing a sleeping child.

“At day care, or vuggestue (nursery room), under threes nap outside in their Mary Poppins-style perambulators under a shelter or in a ‘sleeping shed,’” Russell, author of “The Danish Secret to Happy Kids,” told HuffPost.

“Infants are strapped in so they can’t ‘escape,’ with rein-like harnesses. And some prams are made from wood and even have hinged wooden bars over the opening so that toddlers stay put until a pedagogue comes to get them. There may also be 3-foot ladders leaning against some prams to help sturdier toddlers make their own way up to sleep. … The whole thing looks archaic, but they nap like a dream,” Russell said.

Though she was anxious about leaving her firstborn to nap outside, everything worked out fine when she eventually gave it a try. When she subsequently had twins, she was grateful for the option to leave their hulking double stroller outdoors while they snoozed.

“If my twin babies were sleeping, they stayed outside, and I’d take a window seat, keeping an eye out for twitching blankets,” Russell said. She also let the babies nap outdoors in a shed in her yard, where “they slept well and woke happy (usually).”

In addition to rows of strollers in day care sleeping sheds and parked in families’ yards or patios, “it’s not a rare view to see a coffee shop and outside several strollers with babies inside them and no adults around. The parents are hanging out inside the coffee shop,” Avigiel Cohen, a mother of a 2-year-old who lives in Copenhagen, told HuffPost. Russell mentioned that families living in apartment buildings also use communal courtyards for this purpose.

Where does the practice come from?

The practice is common in Nordic countries. It was championed by Emily Picker, “a well-known Hungarian pediatrician, whose teachings and approaches to infant development were introduced in the USA by Magda Gerber,” explained infant and child sleep consultant Lola Sánchez Liste. “At her Lóczy orphanages, all babies nap in their cribs outside,” Sánchez Liste said.

Since it gets quite chilly at northern latitudes in places like Denmark, caregivers have perfected the art of bundling up little ones to stay warm.

“Danish children wear a balaclava, or ‘elephant hat,’ much of the year-around in varying thickness — from cotton in spring to wool in winter. They’re dressed in multiple layers, often woolen ‘sleep suits,’ as well as mittens and booties, all topped off with a duvet or sleeping bag and then a pram cover,” Russell said.

Some people even go “old school” and use “layers of newspaper for insulation,” she added.

Caregivers also pay attention to where the stroller is parked, selecting a spot that will offer shelter from the wind.

What are the benefits of babies napping outside?

Nordic caregivers cite multiple benefits to the practice of babies napping outdoors, Swedish psychologist, sleep expert and mother Li Åslund explained.

First, there is the reduced chance of catching a respiratory illness as opposed to indoor naps — a concept we’re all deeply familiar with after the COVID-19 pandemic. This “is important during the long winters in the Nordic countries,” she said.

Second, there is a belief in the salutary effects of being outside. “Exposure to natural light and fresh air is thought to promote healthy sleep patterns, helping babies maintain a regular circadian rhythm,” Åslund said.

This is consistent with the Nordic philosophy of friluftsliv, or “free air life,” Russell said. “They see breathing in fresh, cold air as a way to develop immunity.”

When children outgrow their naps, it’s still expected that they will spend hours every day outdoors, playing in clothes that will protect them from the often harsh weather.

Finally, and most critically to new parents, adherents believe that babies fall asleep more quickly and take longer naps when they are outside. “Parents will therefore opt for the outdoor nap as often as possible,” Åslund said.

Russell remarked that an added benefit might be that children become accustomed to sleeping through the kind of ambient noise that is common outdoors.

Are there any safety concerns?

Met with the sight of strollers parked outside cafes and bars, most Americans immediately have the same thought: What if someone steals the baby! That this is where people’s minds go says something about the fear-based, crime-obsessed nature of our culture — and the lack of such widely held anxiety in other parts of the world.

“I worried that the practice was dangerous early on, asking my Danish friends: ‘What if someone … takes them?’ But I got the same answer again and again: ‘No one steals babies in Denmark,’” Russell said.

She noted that the only instance of this she knew of was a 1966 case in which the baby was eventually found safe and returned to her family.

There was a well-publicized drama in the U.S. involving a baby napping outside, but in this case it was the authorities who separated the child from her mother. In 1997, a Danish woman, Annette Sørensen, was arrested in New York City for leaving her sleeping toddler outside a restaurant she had entered to have a drink. The baby was placed in foster care and then reunited with Sørensen four days later. Sørensen was charged with child endangerment, and she later sued the city over the ordeal.

The biggest concern in Nordic countries, on the other hand, seems to be that babies will get cold. In addition to proper bundling and strategic stroller parking, Danes keep their babies inside when the temperatures drop. Danish health authorities recommend moving naps indoors when the temperatures fall below 14 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 10 degrees Celsius).

Cohen said that during a recent snowstorm in Copenhagen, she saw on the news “an official statement that since it’s -10 degrees Celsius, if your baby is under 1 year old, you should ‘consider’ not having them sleep outside.”

Both Russell and Cohen reported that outdoor napping has been successful with their children.

“I can count on one hand how many times she has taken a nap indoors,” Cohen said of her 2-year-old daughter. “We always prioritize fresh air, and she sleeps better this way.”

Can this help babies who struggle with naps?

If you’re struggling with naps, pushing the stroller out onto the patio may be worth a shot — but you shouldn’t expect it to solve all the issues that you’re having. Sánchez Liste cautions parents: “While it is very ‘romantic’ to see dozens of European babies sleeping in their strollers outside a coffee shop, this is not an image that is realistic in New York, for example.”

In general, she said, while newborns sleep so often that they end up frequently napping on the go, in the stroller or a carrier, as babies get older, they may require more particular sleeping conditions — at least here in the U.S., where napping outside is not the norm.

“The need for a nap becomes more regular, timing more relevant for the nap quality, and the older baby more stimulated with everything that happens around him/her,” she explained. In most cases, she added, “the best place for a nap is the crib, in a dark, cool room, following safe sleep recommendations.”

If you do decide to give outdoor naps a try, it’s important to take precautions regarding baby’s temperature. Though cold weather means layers, Sánchez Liste advises also paying attention to the chance of overheating when weather is warmer.

“Leaving the stroller in the sun (or even in the shade on a hot day), covered with blankets to block the light, increases the temperature of the stroller so much that it creates the risk of suffocation. The stroller should always be put in a cool area and not covered with blankets that prevent the airflow,” she said.

The recommendation to put babies to sleep flat on their backs applies to strollers as well, Sánchez Liste said, recommending stroller bassinets for young babies that allow for this positioning.

A child’s sleep needs change a lot during their first years, Sánchez Liste explained. Though newborns won’t adhere to a schedule, “after 4 months of age, daytime sleep starts slowly becoming organized. Babies will transition from three to two naps, and from two to one, all within the first 15 months of life.”

She advises parents to follow a routine for naps, just as they do for nighttime. It can be helpful to arrange activities in the order of eat, play, sleep, “where the baby is feeding when he/she wakes up from a nap instead of when she/he is going down for the nap.”

Another way to encourage a healthy sleep? Fresh air and natural light while the child is awake, particularly during the morning hours. That is, as a Scandinavian might say, a good daily dose of friluftsliv.

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