Babyhood is a fleeting moment in life, but if you’re in charge of a very small child, you’ll know that being able to spend time outside and give your baby fresh air and exposure to nature is the best. You’ll also know how specific a baby’s needs are once outside — and how quickly these change as they go from lying down to sitting to crawling and beyond.
Your garden may just need a few quick tweaks to make it a welcoming environment for a baby, or it may require some larger adjustments before it’s ready. We spoke with three landscaping professionals — Amanda Shipman of Amanda Shipman Designs, Laara Copely-Smith of Laara Copley-Smith Garden & Landscape Design and Simon Orchard of Simon Orchard Garden Design — on how to create a safe, inviting baby-friendly yard.
Grass — super soft on tiny knees and a good cushion for even thin blankets — and dappled shade come high on garden designer Amanda Shipman’s list of features for babies in gardens.
This garden has plenty of both. The shade hits the back of the house, which can be a desirable spot for someone spending a lot of time at home with a baby.
Keep scrolling for more tips on adding shade and soft surfaces to your garden.
2. Focus on Smooth Flooring
A soft, green lawn isn’t the only flooring option. “Professionally laid, smooth paving with solid joints is also a nice thing for a baby,” Shipman says. It’s perfect for crawling unhindered, and also provides a flat surface for bouncers to sit on.
Area rugs can soften outdoor floors that aren’t as smooth as the pavers in this patio. Layer a few children’s rugs, which often come backed with rubber to make them nonslip. Or look for larger outdoor rugs that can stay put after playtime is over and pretty much live outside until your little one is walking.
Gravel is one flooring material you may want to think twice about. “A baby might eat it and it may hurt knees or the soles of their bare feet when they’re crawling or just starting to walk,” Shipman says.
If you can’t temporarily hide existing gravel under rugs or cover it completely, it might be worth replacing it with another softer material. Alternatively, consider a large, flexible wooden playpen that you can configure to keep your child safely out of the way.
3. Inspect Your Decking
Decking can also be a suitable flooring surface, as it’s softer and warmer than stone. Make sure yours is in good condition. “Check for splinters and wide joints that could trap fingers or toes,” Shipman says, “although, with proper installation by a professional, you shouldn’t get splinters with hardwood.”
Algae can make the surface slippery too, so give it a good power wash when necessary. (Shipman also suggests a sweep of garden furniture — get rid of anything broken that could be dangerous.)
Garden designer Laara Copley-Smith suggests looking beyond soft- and hardwood decking too. “Some of the composite decking is really nice,” she says, adding that composite decks feel nice on your feet, are good surfaces for blankets, don’t have splinters and are long-lasting.
4. Choose Child- and Butterfly-Friendly Plants
Keep in mind child safety when adding or replacing existing plantings. “Choose soft plants over spiky ones (such as yucca or pyracanthus) or those that shed spiky leaves (such as holly),” Shipman says. “Also beware plants that have poisonous leaves or berries (such as laburnum seeds that drop on the ground) or leaves that can cause skin irritation (such as euphorbia).”
Shipman also suggests avoiding passion flower and other plants that typically attract wasps. Fruit trees with fallen rotting fruit, such as plums and apples, can also be a bit of a wasp magnet.
Copley-Smith echoes that sentiment. “In a cottage garden, avoid foxgloves, as certain ones are poisonous. Yew hedging has toxic berries, and the blades of some grasses — such as phormium — can be sharp.”
Rather than ripping out established plants, you might be able to plant barriers to make them hard for little fingers to reach.
“Plants that attract butterflies are perfect for babies, though,” Shipman says. Lying in the shade, looking up at colorful wings flapping about could keep them occupied for ages.
5. Be Mindful of the Bees
While plants that attract bees offer beneficial wildlife value, they could pose problems in a garden with very young children. “I’d perhaps be careful with plants that are very attractive to bees, such as lavender,” Copley-Smith says. “Even if your baby is safely contained, bees fly.”
A compromise, especially if you have lavender and other bee-friendly blooms in pots, is to relocate them farther away from the part of the garden where you’ll be spending the most time together.
As babies grow, garden designer Simon Orchard suggests embracing nature boldly. “Young kids are fascinated by all small creatures — ants, centipedes, woodlice, bees…. We should embrace this early interest in nature and not make them fearful. As parents, we teach toddlers not to touch radiators or stick fingers into sockets,” he says. “Likewise, it’s up to us to teach them not to touch bees and to watch at a safe distance.”
6. Set Up a Shady Lounge Corner
This kind of spot, beneath a good source of shade, is perfect for very small babies, whose carriers can sit on the cushions while you (if you’re lucky) lie down in the same spot and catch a much-needed rest.
As your baby grows, seats like this will be perfect for him or her to cruise along and practice walking. A big table could be a hindrance here. Consider folding tables you can get out in the evenings for visiting friends or meals in the garden.
7. Hang a Shade Sail
Consider adding a shade sail if you’re short on tree shade or a naturally cooler patch in the garden. “Shade sails are very cool and really flexible,” Copley-Smith says. “You can suspend them over a lawn or seating area, or attach them to a building. There are different colors and you could choose a bright one a baby would enjoy. Make sure it’s big enough to provide adequate shade.”
Alternatively, she suggests a pop-up gazebo or a patio umbrella. “There are some very good cantilevered parasols — really big,” Copley-Smith says. “But get the correct base and potentially tie it to something too, to ensure it won’t blow over. You can also get little parasols you just put on the lawn, under which your baby can lie — great if you have a newborn.”
8. Let Them Touch
“Show and talk to them about wildlife and the natural world,” Shipman says. “Let them feel different textures. Show them different leaves and flowers — you could pick examples and arrange them in patterns together.”
The area just outside the back door is a great spot to have some plants with soft leaves and interesting textures to play with.
An herb garden is a nice idea here. Add a planter like the one in this photo, perhaps only filling the highest shelves until your baby is old enough to know not to eat compost. This way, you can carry your little one outside while you’re cooking and let them help pick the herbs for tea. Babies of a suitable age can have a taste too.
9. Add a Roof or Waterproof Cover
Think about adding a waterproof cover so rain won’t stop outdoor play. Waterproof shade sails are an option, though they are pricier. “You pay more for a waterproof sail shade and need to have the posts at different heights, so the water runs off and doesn’t pool,” Orchard says. “Retractable awnings next to the house are also great for rain and shade and mean the kids are in view. Gazebos are also good and can be moved around the garden easily.”
He adds that maybe a cover isn’t necessary at all. “At the end of the day, though, children and babies don’t want to be confined and they don’t dislike rain either — it’s normally the parents who are averse to it,” Orchard says. “Stick kids in a waterproof suit and wellies and let them roam freely.”
“Outdoor playhouses are also great, or convert an unused shed into a den for them,” Orchard suggests.
Alternatively, seek out a ready-made structure like the woven one in this garden, or put up a teepee you can easily bring indoors. You can fill it with their favorite toys and, as they grow, put tiny furniture and a blackboard inside.
Smaller children and babies will need to be supervised, of course, so a portable den would need to be under a larger waterproof area if you don’t want to get wet — or be big enough that you can all get inside.
10. Include a Sand Pit
A built-in sand pit, like the one shown here, isn’t a quick fix, but it can contribute to garden enjoyment for years.
“The benefits of this design include a lid that can be put over it to protect the sand from the elements,” Copely-Smith says, preventing soggy play. It’s good to cover your sand pit when not in use, even in fine weather, as it could attract cats, foxes and other unwanted wildlife.
Note the size of the decorative pebbles around the tree in this photo — too large for a baby to put in his or her mouth.