When the clock strikes 4 most afternoons, it’s as if an alarm reminds my six-month-old to get fussy. Thankfully, one activity calms him without fail: Putting him in a carrier and taking a walk around the neighborhood.
As we step outside, he goes from agitated to enchanted with the vivid colors, perfume of blooming flowers, and cool breeze. It’s clear to me there is something about that fresh air that is so soothing — even to an infant.
I suppose I have some other motives, too. By introducing him to nature at such an early age, I hope to establish a lifelong love of exploration and activity. Plus, I still get to enjoy my favorite trails with the added benefit of witnessing his wonderment with the world.
It’s also pretty incredible to think about the health benefits he is experiencing from our daily dose of outside time. Beyond the advantages of continued outdoor play through childhood, here are six more science-backed reasons why a little time in nature goes a long way for babies’ development.
1 | Jumpstarts language skills
From the wind to the sunshine to smells good and bad, babies simply have more sensory information to take in and process outside than when they are in a controlled, indoor environment. That, in turn, promotes early language development, according to a 2014 study published in the European Journal of Social Sciences Education and Research.
2 | Improves physical development
Studies have shown that children acquire most of their basic motor skills before the age of five — with much of the progress occurring within the first couple months of life. The same 2014 study found time outdoors helps facilitate the development of many of those skills even for babies, who benefit from observing others running around and playing.
3 | Lays a foundation for learning
According to The Infant/Toddler Environment Rating Scale, outdoor play prepares young ones to be future brainiacs — or at least more adept at learning science and reading skills. Technically speaking, that’s because varied environments promote the formation of brain synapses. Or, as researchers put it in a study of infant interaction with nature, “We believe that children are born natural scientists who are curious and ready to learn. Even in infancy, children compare and contrast objects as they explore their world.”
4 | Helps create healthy sleep patterns
Regular bouts of time in the natural sunlight aid the establishment of good sleep patterns for little ones. According to a 2004 study in the Journal of Sleep Research, babies younger than 13 weeks who slept well at night spent twice as much time in the sunlight than their wakeful peers. The lead researcher hypothesized that’s because the outdoorsy infants established their circadian rhythms sooner. But all that mom and dad need to know is that they will get more shut-eye, too!
5 | Wards off illnesses
Research dating back to the early 20th century shows young children who spend more time outdoors are actually less likely to come down with illnesses — possibly because early exposure to the non-sterile outdoors boosts babies’ immune systems. Thom McDade, PhD, associate professor and director of the Laboratory for Human Biology Research at Northwestern University, told WebMD, “Microbial exposures early in life may be important…to keep inflammation in check in adulthood.”
6 | It’s good for mom and dad, too
For those dealing with postpartum blues, one of the official recommendations from the March of Dimes is to get outside. Another study published in Extreme Physiology & Medicine recommended taking exercise outdoors, which has been found to “improve self-esteem and negative mood subscales, such as tension, anger and depression.”
Using it as bonding time with baby just makes it a win-win situation.
If health and safety concerns still give pause, rest assured that pediatricians agree most newborns can benefit from time outside. The key is to take a few precautions for young outdoor adventurers, including staying out of direct sunlight, dressing in appropriate layers, and avoiding places where people are known to be ill.