Babies parked out in the cold

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An age-old Norwegian practice of putting babies in their carriages and parking them outdoors to take their naps, also in the middle of winter, is now under scrutiny. Immigrant parents and a doctor at the University of Oslo are questioning the ritual, which has developed over the years with no solid medical research to support it.

A woman checks on a baby napping outdoors at a day care center in Bergen on Wednesday. The practice is widespread throughout the country, but now it's being questioned. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

A woman checks on a baby napping outdoors at a day care center in Bergen on Wednesday. The practice is widespread throughout the country, but now it’s being questioned. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

“I think it’s a very peculiar Norwegian practice, or a bad practice, that infants sleep outside, even through winter,” Dr Torleiv Ole Rognum, a forensic specialist at Oslo University Hospital, told newspaper Aftenposten this week. Many young Norwegian mothers automatically set their infants outdoors for naps, packed in wool when the weather is cold, because they think the fresh air is healthy. Rognum isn’t so sure.

An unknown percentage of crib deaths in Norway occur while the babies sleep outside during winter, and when Rognum shared this information with an audience of pediatricians at a conference in Buenos Aires a few years ago, all reacted with horror. “In Argentina you would be accused of child abuse if you left children outside unattended,” Rognum said.

Infants are at the highest risk of crib death, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), while asleep, inside or outside, and its cause is so far unknown. However, a common prevention strategy is to provide well-ventilated sleeping space and lying infants on their backs to sleep. Many parents believe that the clean, fresh outside air provides such an environment.

Rognum believes the Norwegian custom is either a misguided belief that it will make the children accustomed to the cold air, or that it is simply a matter of convenience. He wonders whether parents and child minders simply grab the chance to get some peace by parking the babies outdoors.

No research to back it up
Dr Kai-Håkon Carlsen, a specialist in children’s’ allergies, believes the practice is based on tradition and experience rather than on medical reasoning or research. “As far as I know, there is no research to support this issue,” he told Aftenposten.

Carlsen said that from a medical point of view, it is important that the air is not polluted and that temperatures and the baby’s age be considered. “Inhalation of very cold air can be harmful to a child’s airways,” he said. “Very cold temperatures can also cause frostbite unless the baby is properly dressed.”

Dr Finn Bovim, district medical chief in Oslo, confirmed there is little research to support outdoor napping, and said his advice was for children with respiratory conditions to be kept indoors when pollution levels are potentially high.

Foreigners skeptical
Immigrants with children in Norwegian day care centers or childcare groups are often especially skeptical to the practice, particularly because of the extreme Norwegian winters.

Hanne Kristin Faye, head of the Tonsenhagen day care center in Oslo, said she regularly has to explain to immigrant parents why they choose to have the children sleep outside. “Some foreigners do not understand the point of this and don’t like it,” Faye told Aftenposten. “But when we explain that the children do sleep well, get fresh air and, we believe, stay healthier because they do not sleep so close together, they accept it.”

Faye added that it is easier to get children used to napping during the day at the center when they sleep in their own baby carriage. Children with a cold or who for other reasons need to stay indoors, are permitted to sleep inside.

Most child care groups in Norway do have rules for being outside during winter, with the most common advocating that children below the age of three should not go outside when temperatures drop below minus 10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit). However, many day care centers even leave children outside in temperatures as cold as minus 15-20C to sleep, despite rules preventing them from playing outdoors in such cold weather, according to articles published in parents magazine Foreldre & Barn.

Views and News from Norway/Aasa Christine Stoltz

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