Let Your Baby Sleep Outside? Surprising parenting wisdom from Scandinavia


By Anastasya Partan

December 27, 2010

A few weeks ago, I watched the hit documentary Babies and, like many other moms, I’ve spent many a moment since re-evaluating my parenting style and wondering why I went into such a panic last summer when my now 16-month-old son, Oliver, happily devoured a healthy portion of goose droppings at the park.

If Namibian Ponijao’s mom was so cool about her baby girl sticking string in her mouth and teething on rocks, and Mongolian Bayar’s mom didn’t mind a rooster hopping around her baby’s head, who was I to keep my son from educational encounters with nature?

Exposure to other cultures’ parenting methods can be humbling, funny, and, at times, even infuriating. But whatever the case, at their best, cross-cultural encounters tend to be quite enlightening.

And enlightenment was exactly what I got when I spent last summer in Copenhagen, in my husband’s native Denmark.

We’d lived there for three years before we were parents. So I knew that I could expect to hear that no kid’s life is complete without a daily dose of dark, chewy rye bread (how do toothless Danish kids eat that stuff?). But that was just the tip of the iceberg; there was so much else I didn’t know about parenting, Viking-style. And although during my three baby-free years in Copenhagen, most culture clashes had left me pretty frustrated, the encounters with new parenting styles had just the opposite effect.

I’d always marveled at how totally relaxed Copenhagen parents are. The kids go romping through the streets, crawling into shops, picking up choking hazards, running toward stairs — and the moms — usually tall, blonde, beautiful, and lacking any outward signs of sleep deprivation, don’t bat an eye.

They don’t raise their voices, don’t hover, and generally make parenting look like a day on the best beach on earth. (The one year of paid maternity leave and job security might have something to do with it.) I’ve also honestly never seen a Danish kid have a meltdown — ever. It’s uncanny.

My good Danish friend Nathalie embodies the mystery that is the Danish mother. Her son was just a month old when we visited her in her sun-filled, modern flat — as impeccably neat and style-savvy as ever. She looked exactly the same as I remembered her pre-baby and was sporting a stylish top (“What, this old thing?) that I would have saved for a rare Manhattan night out.

Most Danes just laughed when I mentioned the strawberry threat.

As we later strolled through the city with our Bugaboos, she shared her concerns about hers. She’d taken a leap from the Danish norm with the Cameleon. It’s a far cry from the portable, bed-like prams that Danish kids use throughout infancy and toddlerhood — really until they just won’t fit. She was afraid to convert her bassinet to the toddler seat too early. “It’s really important that babies sleep flat on their backs,” she informed me. “Doesn’t Oliver get uncomfortable sleeping sort of…folded like that?”

Most Danes just laughed when I mentioned the strawberry threat.

It hit me that for a Danish mom, flat-back sleeping is considered nearly as important as empty-crib sleeping is for us Americans (How many times have we heard that our crib should be devoid of anything other than baby? God forbid the bumpers detach themselves and fall on him, the toys stick in his nasal passages, or the books come alive and attack!).

But Danish kids sleep under down comforters called dunes from the time they’re born, and dunes are just what they sound like: mini mountains with no living creature in sight. “How does Elliot breathe under there, Nats?” I wanted to ask. There have been times in the subway in New York when I’ve seen foreigners’ kids covered up in much the same way — nose submerged — and had to fight the urge to casually lean over and pull the blankets down. But lo and behold, the kids survive.

For Danes, the dunes are a matter of necessity because their kids nap outside year-round. If the family doesn’t have a yard or a balcony, the babies might nap in the courtyard while moms check on them occasionally from their fifth-story windows as they bring their minimalist houses to the impossible levels of perfection Oprah featured in her Copenhagen segment.

“Doesn’t Oliver sleep outside?” someone would ask on a bizarrely regular basis, as if the habit were as essential as regular diaper changes. Yeah, of course he does! We roll him right out onto Broadway and ask the guy selling fake Fendis on the corner to keep an eye on him while we run up to fill our slow cooker. And when I go out shopping and he falls asleep, I park him outside the store and run in for a few odds and ends. Sure.

But if I’d said it, they would have believed me. Because even in this cosmopolitan Scandinavian capital with its population of one million and regular flow of tourists, most Danish moms feel totally at ease leaving their sleeping treasures in their prams as they run into boutiques to do what Danish moms, in my opinion, do best: buy whatever it takes to look so gorgeous you’d never guess that pram belonged to them.

I spent four to six hours a day walking through Copenhagen with Oliver for three months straight. Once I was out on the town, the thought of hauling him and all my baggage up five flights of stairs made me woozy. So I’d stroll, cursing the geniuses who’d placed a good 75% of the cool shops about five to ten steps below ground level.

I didn’t have the resolve to bump my overloaded stroller down the stairs. Nor was I brave enough to leave Oliver outside. Even if the shop had giant windows, the thought of exposing him to the imaginary goons who could, at any moment, decide to abduct him unnerved me.

But in the Danish capital, the only hot commodities that ever really get stolen apparently are bikes. Babies? Never. Which is exactly what that Danish mom was thinking in 1999 when she left her sleeping 14-month-old daughter in her stroller outside a restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village and popped in for a drink — and then got arrested.

I think of that mom often as I stroll through our New York City neighborhood, wondering what she thought of our American ways. Did she balk at the fences and gates that define our — and our children’s — boundaries? In Denmark, where people don’t typically sue for their own mistakes, safety barriers are few and far between. Did she wonder why American babies couldn’t eat strawberries while hers devoured berry puree with gusto? Most Danes just laughed when I mentioned the strawberry threat.

I’ll never know, but it doesn’t matter. Having had my own immersion in Danish parenting, I now have a little voice inside my head that tells me to calm down and let Oliver explore his world. I’ve bought him a dune comforter and put toys back in his crib. I’ve stopped worrying if he drinks from three strangers’ cups at the playground. As for that weird, dark rye bread — well, it turns out it’s his favorite kind.

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