How can newborns benefit from being introduced to nature?
It is widely known that incorporating nature into the lives of adults can help increase mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing. Most studies focus on age groups from childhood through the elderly. But can newborns and infants benefit from being introduced to nature at such a young age? Research has found that newborns can benefit from nature in similar ways to older age groups. In addition, aspects of nature may be able to facilitate the acquisition of certain skills which older people have already developed.
The acquisition of sensory skills in infants can greatly benefit from early experiences in nature. Infants have the ability to experience and organize all different forms of sensory information and even seemingly simple experiences like touching grass, can be a very complex sensory experience for them. The experiences of observation and experimentation build the neural connections within their brains which will go on to shape their view of the world around them (Hall et al., 2014). Being in nature activates all five of the senses and can be an easy way to build sensory skills and fine and gross motor skills. A recent study also found that infants who saw their caregivers interact with nature, were more likely to interact with nature themselves. Infants whose caregivers smelled and touched plants more frequently were more likely to do the same themselves (Fantasia et al., 2021). Interacting with your newborn in nature will help promote these skills in a comfortable way.
Experiences in nature can also help develop communication skills in infants. Infants experience relationships through observing and often imitating the behaviors of others. Speaking out loud to your infant about what you’re seeing and hearing. in nature can help them build their own communication skills. Infants are more likely to vocalize experiences they had in a nature related/outdoor setting (Fantasia et al., 2021). It is never too early to begin teaching and developing communication skills and nature-based experiences are a great place to start.
Infants who spend more time in sunlight during the day may also sleep better at night. A study conducted in the UK looked into the relationship between daytime sunlight exposure and quality of nighttime sleep in 6-12 week old babies. The study monitored single birth infants in their own home for three consecutive days at three separate points throughout the course of three months. The results clearly showed that babies who were exposed to light during the day had less activity during the night, better quality, and longer sleep than those who were not exposed to light. It was also found that babies who had good sleeping patterns at 6 weeks were highly likely to continue having good sleep into weeks 9-12 (Harrison, 2004). That’s why it’s important to set these good sleeping patterns early. Another explanation for these patterns could also be that parents/caregivers who, themselves, sleep well throughout the night will have more energy to encourage and participate in outdoor activities with their baby. Either way, it is beneficial for both infants and parents to expose themselves to sunlight during the day so that both parties can benefit from better quality sleep.
Another study conducted in Finland explored the relationship between infants sleeping outdoors in the winter and better quality, longer sleep (Tourula et al., 2010). In Finland, it is culturally appropriate and very common to sleep outdoors. The study found that the infants who slept longer were those who slept outdoors in the winter.This was most likely due to the fact that babies who slept in colder environments were able to be swaddled without the possibility of overheating because the natural setting was already cold. Swaddling restricts movement and has also been proven to increase the efficiency and duration of sleep (Tourula et al., 2010).
Incorporating bits of nature into areas like sleep and play can have large impacts on newborn and infant development. Sunlight can help increase the quality of sleep, as can outdoor sleep in colder weather. The five senses can be activated through gentle play in outdoor environments and communication skills can begin to develop through outdoor play, especially between infant and caregiver. Newborns and infants can benefit greatly from gaining experience with nature even from very young ages.
Harrison, Y. (2004), The relationship between daytime exposure to light and night-time sleep in 6–12-week-old infants. Journal of Sleep Research, 13: 345-352. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2869.2004.00435.x
Tourula, M., Isola, A., Hassi, J., Bloigu, R. and Rintamäki, H. (2010), Infants sleeping outdoors in a northern winter climate: skin temperature and duration of sleep. Acta Pædiatrica, 99: 1411-1417. https://doi-org.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/10.1111/j.1651-2227.2010.01814.x
Ellen Hall, Summer Linnea Howe, Sarah Roberts, Lauren Foster Shaffer, & Emily Williams. (2014). What Can We Learn through Careful Observation of Infants and Toddlers in Nature? Children, Youth and Environments, 24(2), 192–214. https://doi.org/10.7721/chilyoutenvi.24.2.0192
Valentina Fantasia, Linda S. Oña, Chelsea Wright, Annie E. Wertz, Learning blossoms: Caregiver-infant interactions in an outdoor garden setting, Infant Behavior and Development,Volume 64, 2021, 101601. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.infbeh.2021.101601