Camping Adventures - Sleephaven Sleep Consultation: Helping Tired Families Sleep

We took our daughter camping for the first time when she was 3 months old.  I was a new mom and we were stumbling along when it came to figuring out baby sleep needs, so it was more by grace than good planning that our mountain adventure was a positive one.  We have spent many happy summer campouts together with our children since – first tenting, and later graduating to an ancient tent trailer.  I have also learned a lot more about setting babies and young children up for sleep success.  So, here’s some wisdom drawn from my own life experience and that of others – paired with my training as a Gentle Sleep Coach – to help make your camping adventures ones that you can look back on and smile.


Stick with Routine

Your little one’s sleep needs remain the same, whether you are at home or tucked away in a wilderness retreat.  Stick to your regular schedule as much as possible. Predictable meal times, activity times, bedtime and wake up times will keep his body clock running more smoothly.  He will still need to nap at roughly the same time that he naps at home.  “Down time” in the day is good for everyone and you may find an afternoon rest time together leaves everyone happier.  You might not see as much, but your travels will likely be more enjoyable!

What if your little camper refuses to nap in the tent or camper?  You may find it more challenging to get your child to sleep during the day in a new environment (we’ll talk more about that in a minute).  Or, perhaps you want to fit it in a longer hike that runs into naptime.  Go ahead and use motion sleep (i.e. in the baby carrier or outdoor stroller).  Get his nap in any way you can.  He may not get as deep and restorative a nap as he would in his own bed at home – but motion sleep is better than no sleep at all.  And if, despite your best efforts, he is still short on daytime sleep – plan for an earlier bedtime.


Bedtime Basics

As much as you can, keep your child’s bedtime and naptime routines the same.  Doing the same thing in the same order can create a sense of security even though he faces other changes around bedtime.  Bring along the familiar books and lovey that are part of your snuggle time before bed at home.


Talk about Change

Whether your child is just learning new sleep skills or is already a champion sleeper in his own bed, prepare him for your upcoming campout.  Talk about what will be the same, and what will be different.  Explain that the new sleeping arrangements will be “just for a little while”.  If you have the time and space, set up the tent or camper at home, and do a trial run for a couple of nights.  Give your little one an opportunity to play in his new space before you expect him to sleep there.

If you have been sleep coaching and are still working with him to get to sleep and back to sleep on his own, be realistic.   It is normal to provide more support while you are away – just try not to fall back into all the old sleep habits that you have recently overcome.


Meet Your Neighbors

Introduce your little one to your camping neighbors.  Prepare them for the possibility that that they may hear some disruption in the night or early morning.  A friendly word also gives them the opportunity to prepare if they want to have earplugs handy and goes a long way to preserving a respectful atmosphere.


Plan for Wakings

Think ahead and plan for night wakings.  Set yourself (and baby) up to stay warm and comfortable if you will be feeding in the night.  Have a back-up plan in place in case he has a fussy night and is difficult to console.  Some families I know have set up an alternate sleep space in the back of the truck or van (so that crying is muted), or gone for a drive in the middle of the night to help their little one get settled again.  You may not need to go to your “back-up”, but best to be prepared!


Stay Warm

Have separate sleep clothes for daytime and night time.  Start bedtime with clean, dry clothing.  Your baby sweats, too, and does not regulate his temperature as efficiently as you do until he is older.  As he cools off in his daytime clothing, he is more likely to become chilled.  Dress him in layers matching the temperature of your locale.  In the mountains, seasoned campers suggest dressing your little one in a fleece sleeper with feet (you can also add warm socks), a fleece bunting suit or a snow suit, a heavier sleep sack, and a hat and mittens.

Plan on bringing a separate sleeping bag for your little one.  If you dress him warmly in layers (as above), you may not need it.  But the last thing you want to discover in the night is that he is cold and turns out to be more restless when sharing a sleeping bag with you.  If you don’t end up using it, the extra bag becomes a cushion or a warm drape when feeding in the night.

Get off the ground with an insulated sleep mattress.  What is under your body is as important as what is over your body in keeping you warm and dry.  If you have the space, bring a separate pack ‘n play/ play pen or baby sleep tent for your little one to sleep in.  Besides keeping him off the ground, it doubles as a safe play space during the day when you are doing camp chores.

If you are investing in your own camping equipment or borrowing from others, look for a good 3-season tent.  Body heat will be contained better in a smaller space.


Get it Dark

We are designed to sleep best in cool, dark spaces.  The “cool” may not be an issue (especially if you are camping in the mountains or at beginning or end of camping season), but it may be challenging to get it dark enough.  Many parents can relate to the experience of rising (reluctantly) with the sun!  If you are tenting, you have a few options:  try draping a large, darker tarp over the tent to dim the light, or use clothes pegs to pin some emergency foil blankets over the exterior.  If your baby is sleeping in a pack ‘n play, you may also choose to drape a dark blanket over the entire assembly (just make sure the blanket is secured well so that it does not fall into baby’s sleep space.)


Adapting Your Trailer

Perhaps you are venturing out with a trailer and want to create a conducive sleep space for your child(ren).  As with tenting, consider using a pack n’ play/ playpen or travel sleep tent such as the Peapod or Phil and Ted’s escape-proof tent.  Some parents choose to bed share with baby, depending on the layout of their trailer bed space.  If you are worried that your older baby will roll or crawl off the edge of the mattress, try putting pool noodles under a fitted sheet as a barricade, or use a bedrail to contain him.  To create a dark sleep space, you can drape a playpen (as described above), or section off an end of the trailer with a dark curtain.  Try mounting the curtains on a tension rod: during the night you can create a dark “cave” space, and during the day you will have a privacy screen and dimmer nap space.


Bring a Bit of Home

Part of setting up your little one for success when you are away from home is making his sleep space as familiar as possible.  If you are using a baby sleep tent or playpen as sleep space, have him practice sleeping in it in his own bedroom first.  Bring along his crib sheets, lovey and favorite small blanket.  If you use a white noise machine at home and you have power at your campsite, make use of it to block out your camping neighbor’s activity.


Find Room for…

So, here’s my list of handy equipment to add to the usual camping supplies to make your outdoor adventure a happy one for everyone:

  • Pack ‘n Play/ Playpen or baby sleep tent: As I’ve mentioned above, this does double duty as a sleep space and safe play space for your littlest ones.  Don’t forget to bring along familiar crib sheets to make it feel more like home.  Secure a mosquito net over the top of a playpen/ pack n’ play to keep out pesky bugs.
  • Backpack/ Carrier: for naps-on-the-go and a chance to explore your amazing surroundings.
  • Sturdy stroller: for those long walks and early morning wakings, if needed.
  • Screen house: if you’ve got space, a screen house provides an extra clean, comfortable play space as well as a dry place to eat if it rains.
  • Large tarp or blanket: handy play surface for pre-crawlers (limits the amount of dirt ingested!).
  • Jolly jumper:  hang it from a sturdy branch to keep your little one amused while you are cooking or tending the fire.
  • Clamp on booster seat.
  • Plastic mat for the entrance to your tent or trailer: keeps the dirt outside and out of your sleeping bag.
  • Portable potty:  for you or your older kiddos.
  • A box of favorite toys/ books.
  • Large umbrella:  makes for a quick and easily shaded play space.
  • Large blue bin: once emptied, it transforms into a portable bathtub.
  • Old winter jackets for bigger campers: for sitting around the fire on cool evenings (or middle of the night feedings).  We tucked our 3-month-old daughter inside where she stayed warm as a bug.
  • Roll of reflective insulation: add to your sleeping mat, or line a camping chair for extra warmth.


Fire and Safety

Just a side note on campfire safety:  unfortunately, as an Occupational Therapist I witnessed the outcome when children fell into campfires.  If you have a choice, avoid camp grounds that only offer pit campfires (sunk into the ground).  Make sure you create a barrier around the fire, keep a watchful eye open and teach your child(ren) early about fire safety.  Your Pack ‘n Play and clamp on booster seat will also help contain your busy little one while you are tending to other chores.

Camping with small children takes some extra planning for sure, but don’t be daunted by the prospect of an outdoor adventure with your baby or toddler.  The memories that you forge together can be ones that you treasure for many years to come.  May you sleep well under the stars!

Margot Byer
Sleephaven Sleep Consultation
Helping Tired Families Sleep
… in Edmonton, Alberta and Beyond.