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Sleep Training 101: Camping Out


Mom and baby reading in a tent

Did you know that there are numerous effective sleep training approaches, including some that allow you to stay in the room with your child? Camping Out doesn't actually involve setting up a tent in your room (but that can be fun!). Instead, Camping Out is a sleep training method that allows parents to remain present while promoting independent sleep. In this post, we'll explore the science behind the Camping Out method, how it works, and whether it might be the right fit for your family. Our Sleep Training 101 series reviews the science behind each method so that you can make an informed decision about how to manage your child's sleep. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on Instagram or Facebook to be updated when we publish a new blog!


The Science:

Camping out was first scientifically tested by Dr. Avi Sadeh (one of the most well-respected pediatric sleep researchers in the field) in 1994. A study from Dr. Sadeh’s lab in 2020 examined a version where parents slept in their baby’s room for the entire night and provided intermittent soothing during night waking. Other studies used Camping Out as an alternative sleep training approach when parents felt uncomfortable with other methods. Collectively, these studies found that babies fell asleep faster, woke less, and had longer sleep duration after one week compared with prior to the intervention.


Dr. Sadeh's work has also demonstrated that this method is particularly effective for babies who are in a phase of separation anxiety (often between 8-10 months and again between 16-20 months). This is because watching a parent leave the room can be a trigger for stress during these phases of development.


How Does Camping Out Work?

Several versions of this approach exist. The most common is to put your baby into the crib awake, sitting nearby until your little one falls asleep. However, there are several variations that you can implement to suit your child's temperament and your parenting style. Some examples include:


  • Temporarily sleeping in your child's room so that you can respond right away during night waking.

  • Sitting in a chair next to your child's crib to provide physical comfort (touch is very powerful) and gradually moving your chair a little farther from your child each night, exchanging physical comforts for verbal reassurance.

  • Doing "check ins" from within the room (e.g., sitting out of sight and intermittently soothing your child as is done with the Ferber Method).


You can either work on teaching your baby to fall asleep or repeat this method during night wakings (but PLEASE do not sleep train through hunger! See this blog to organize your baby's feedings first).


You can also use this approach for naps, but we rarely recommend working on nights and naps at the same time (see more on that here). You may find that your baby is more stimulated by having you in the room. It is ok to use a different strategy for naps if you find that your child responds differently than at night.


How long does Camping Out take?

It typically takes 40-60 minutes for a child to fall asleep at bedtime and at least once overnight on the first 3-4 nights of implementation. However, toddlers can stay awake for 2-3 hours simply because they have a stronger capacity to stay awake compared with babies.


It typically takes 1-3 weeks to reach complete resolution of sleep problems, although the hardest nights should be limited to the first week.


What age is it appropriate to use Camping Out?

The studies that have been done only evaluated babies between 9 and 24 months. However, other less interactive methods have been evaluated in babies as young as six months old. Given that this method involves staying near your baby, it is ok to use it for babies as young as six months. We don't recommend sleep training under six months unless your pediatrician has explicitly said that it's appropriate for you to sleep train. If you do sleep train before six months, please consider a phased approach, only working on one aspect of sleep at a time to minimize your baby's sleep loss.


This method may work better than approaches that involve repeatedly leaving your child's room during phases of separation anxiety.


What else should you know?

If you don’t have the stamina to implement a baby-led approach, but don't feel comfortable leaving your child, Camping Out might be a reasonable middle-ground for you.


Weirdly, we find that many parents find this approach very hard to implement because sitting in the room right next to your baby without providing the same amount of support that you usually do can be challenging. We also find that some babies will cry harder with a parent sitting nearby. Before considering this strategy, you should think carefully about whether it’s a good fit for you and your child's temperament.


You should also know that you may have to do "reminder" sleep training after travel or illness if your baby re-develops sleep associations.


If you know that you want to try some sort of sleep training, but aren't sure how to handle feedings, schedules, and all of the other little details that are important for success, then you might consider taking our class. The class offers four different approaches to sleep training, including two versions of Camping Out. We designed it so that you could understand each option and pick the strategy and implementation approach that best suits your situation.


References:

Sadeh, A., 1994. Assessment of intervention for infant night waking: parental reports and activity-based home monitoring. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 62(1), p.63.


Kahn, M., Juda-Hanael, M., Livne-Karp, E., Tikotzky, L., Anders, T.F. and Sadeh, A., 2020. Behavioral interventions for pediatric insomnia: one treatment may not fit all. Sleep, 43(4), p.zsz268.


Whittall, H., Kahn, M., Pillion, M. and Gradisar, M., 2021. Parents matter: barriers and solutions when implementing behavioural sleep interventions for infant sleep problems. Sleep Medicine, 84, pp.244-252.

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