A few days before I became a mother, a friend gave me a present. It was wrapped in brown paper and she handed it to me while we sipped tea and ate biscuits in her lounge room.
‘When you get home, pop this straight in your hospital bag.’ she told me.
I unwrapped it and inside was a little red notebook and a felt-tipped pen. It was a beautiful gift, but I had no idea what it was for.
Our son arrived the following Tuesday. On our first night in hospital, when the midwife came to check on us, she reminded me that there were classes each morning for new parents. Monday was a breastfeeding class, the next day there was one on baby-care and the next day sleep and settling. So early the next morning, I wheeled the plastic bassinet down the corridor and found a spot to sit up the back. I took out the little red book and started taking notes.
I took that book everywhere over the next year. In it, my scrawly handwriting documents my determination to be a perfect mother.
Feed the baby on demand, the notes on the first page read, babies must sleep on their backs and, drink plenty of water while breastfeeding. There are notes from the paediatrician visits: tummy time for 20 minutes, 3 times a day, the six-month classes: homemade purees have more texture, and from articles that I read: music is good for babies’ brains. I took everything down in that little book. And I tried to follow it all.
But in all those notes from all those classes there is one piece of advice that was missing.
Nobody told me to take my baby outside.
And so I didn’t. Of course, there were times I did. I used to push him around the block in his pram when he was grizzly. We went on holidays when he was six weeks old and he slept in a bassinet on the sand. But it was never something I did intentionally.
But I did know that outdoor play was good for pre-schoolers though. So when Ezra turned two my husband and I started taking him outside, more often. The funny thing was, by that stage we also had our newborn baby girl in tow. And we soon discovered that being outside was wonderful for her too. Here’s why…
Pretty quickly we noticed that our daughter Phoebe slept better on the days we went outside. There is a reason for this. When researchers at Liverpool John Moores University in the UK monitored the sleep patterns of 56 newborn babies they found those exposed to higher amounts of daytime light—slept better at night. This study was conducted in 2004 but the idea of taking little ones outside is not new. For generations, parents in Scandinavian countries have sent their babies outside to nap, wrapping them up in cosy layers when outdoor temperatures drop below freezing. Why? Well in her book, There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather, Swedish American Mum Linda Åkeson McGurk explains that Scandi Mums and Dads find that their babies sleep better outside. Apparently, they nap longer and wake up feeling more refreshed—read, less grumpy—which sounds pretty good to me.
Children learn to crawl, sit, stand and walk on their own, by exploring the world around them. And the best place for a baby to explore is outside. On a walk through the bush, in an inward-facing carrier, a baby can strengthen his neck muscles as he lifts his head to look at the light shining through the leaves. On the grass, learning to crawl, a baby is challenged by the natural uneven terrain. A piece of driftwood in the sand is a good place for an older baby to practice pulling herself up to standing. Even if she loses her balance, the sand provides a perfectly soft place to fall. It’s all connected, according to Paediatric Occupational Therapist Angela Hanscom, the natural world is not only a great place for babies to develop their physical skills but it also to aids the development of their senses. Being outside ‘engages all of their senses' she explained in a recent post 'setting them up for healthy sensory integration.’
So do we need to worry when we take our enthusiastic babies outside and they end up gnawing on a strip of bark or sampling a little mud? No, not according to Jack Gilbert PhD, the director of the Microbiome Centre at the University of Chicago. As well as a microbiologist Jack Gilbert is a Dad and the author of the book Dirt is good: The Advantage of Germs for your Child’s Developing Immune System.
According to Gilbert, our children spend too much time indoors, with too many sterilised surfaces and so their immune systems have become ‘hyper-sensitized.’ In an interview with NPR he explained it this way, ‘You have these little soldier cells in your body called neutrophils, and when they spend too long going around looking for something to do, they become grumpy and pro-inflammatory. And so when they finally see something that's foreign, like a piece of pollen, they become explosively inflammatory. They go crazy. That's what triggers asthma and eczema and often times, food allergies.’ His advice? Take your child outside—if they get their hands and feet in the dirt, if they end up with a mouthful of mud or sand—don’t sweat it. ‘Let them eat food off the floor, play in the soil, dirt is good!’ he says.
The Happiest Baby
I have photos of Phoebe as a baby—on a rug under a shady tree, dipping her toes in the waves at the beach and sitting up on our mulched garden beds watching the bees and butterflies in the lavender bushes—in all of them, she is smiling. It seemed to me that as a baby she was happiest, outside. I recently read an extract from Dr Harvey Kemps book, The Happiest Toddler on the Block, in which he wrote that 'modern homes are both boring and overstimulating’ for young children. I thought this was quite profound.
In contrast, spending time outside is the ultimate restorative experience. We all feel calmer when we have had some fresh air and babies are no different. So if you have a little one, consider this my advice to you—take your baby outside.
I wish someone had told me.
The Baby Sleep Study, Liverpool John Moores University
Linda Åkeson McGurk : The site, the book.
Angela Hanscom: The post, the book.
Jack Gilbert PHD: The NPR article, the book.
Dr Harvey Kemp: The book.
Want more of the science behind getting outside with your kids? Have a look HERE.