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Sleeping Under the Stars: A Guide to managing sleep while Camping with Babies and Toddlers

Mom and toddler in a tent: sleep while camping

Image credit: Serhii Yevdokymov via Canva

Camping with your little ones can be a wonderful adventure, offering opportunities for bonding with nature and creating lasting family memories. However, the change in environment and the absence of familiar routines can present challenges when it comes to managing your child's sleep. In this blog post, we will explore the science behind how sleep and circadian rhythms are affected in outdoor settings, particularly during camping trips. We will also provide you with practical tips on how to manage sleep while camping with your child.

The Science

Understanding how sleep and circadian rhythms are influenced by the outdoor environment is essential for effectively managing your child's sleep during camping trips. Research conducted by Dr. Ken Wright and his team has shed light (pun intended!) on these effects. Dr. Wright's studies have shown that exposure to natural light and the absence of artificial lighting during camping can cause a shift in circadian rhythms, leading to earlier bedtimes and wake-up times that align with the natural photoperiod. The increase in natural light exposure during the summer also reduces the duration of melatonin production, which may reduce sleep duration in the summer (for more on how light affects circadian rhythms check out this blog). Finally, other research by Dr. Monique LeBourgeios and her team has shown that toddlers are much more sensitive to light than adults. Therefore, it's important to consider these factors when planning your child's sleep routine while camping.

In addition, the sleep environment and safety play a crucial role in ensuring restful sleep for your child. While camping, the quality of sleep can be impacted by factors such as temperature, noise, and reaction to unfamiliar surroundings. Understanding how the unique conditions of camping influence sleep will help you create an environment that promotes better sleep for your child.

How Can You Manage Sleep While Camping with Your Child?

Practice Camping at Home. If your child has never been camping, then consider setting up your tent or gear in your back yard or living room for a practice run. This will help you understand what things you might need to bring to help make the camping experience easier and it will help your child get used to the camping sleep environment before you are out in the wild.

Plan Ahead and Bring the Right Gear. Here is a checklist of the items that we think are essential for a successful camping trip with a baby or toddler:

  • A travel crib or portable bassinet (Yes, there are travel cribs that can fit inside a tent or camper. We like the Phil and Ted's, Lotus, and Baby Bjorn options). Having a safe sleep space for your child is essential because typical camping gear is not made for babies and toddlers and poses risk of entrapment or suffocation. Not only will a travel crib provide a safe space for your child, but it will also provide a familiar sleep environment, increasing the likelihood of restful sleep.

    • If you will be in a tent or a camper without any way to darken the sleep environment, then consider bringing a slumberpod to make a nice dark environment for your child to nap (more on naps in general, here).

  • Comfortable sleepwear suitable for camping. Remember, nighttime temperatures can drop tremendously compared to daytime highs, even in warm climates. Check the weather forecast and make sure you have appropriate insulation for your child, including a sleep sack. You might need to bring a winter-weight sleep sack that is insulated or wool if nighttime temperatures are low.

  • Key components of your bedtime routine. If you always read the same book before bed, then be sure to bring it with you. If your child uses a lovey or pacifier, then he or she will certainly expect it for sleep while camping. Make sure that you pack anything that your child associates with sleep.

  • Consider using a white noise app. I know, I know, part of the wonder of sleeping outside is being able to listen to the gentle trickle of a stream or the singing of crickets and frogs, but consider this, other campers might be up late talking or playing music. Having white noise to block out those sounds will minimize your child waking up unnecessarily.

  • A comfortable baby carrier or hiking backpack carrier. It's ok if your little one naps on the go during your camping adventure. Just make sure the carrier you bring is comfortable for you and comfortable for you to carry and comfortable for your child to sleep (we've seen many little ones napping with their heads tilted in uncomfortable positions in hiking carriers. Test a few out to find one that works for you.

  • If you have a toddler who is not contained by a crib, consider bringing a bell or other alarm on your tent zipper or camper door. Remember, toddlers are curious and it's important to ensure that you are alerted if your toddler tries to leave your camping space while you are sleeping.

Maintain a consistent routine. Your bedtime routine is a cue to your child that it's time to sleep. Complete familiar activities, such as reading a book or singing lullabies to help your child understand that it's time to sleep. (More on building routines here)

Consider Your Child's Typical Schedule Sleeping outside will likely mean that your child will be up with sunrise and may not be able to fall asleep until after sunset. This means that your child's naps will need to compensate for potentially shorter nights. Consider putting your child down a little earlier for naps or allowing your child to nap in a carrier or stroller as noted above. If your child doesn't get enough daytime sleep, then attempt an earlier bedtime. Your child will transition into deep sleep at the beginning of the night, so it will be easier for your child to fall asleep earlier than to sleep later in the morning when it's light out. Also, make sure you go to bed early to be ready to start the day with the sun! If you aren't sure about the best schedule for your child, check out this blog.

Be Flexible! Recognize that the camping experience will differ from the comforts of home. It's okay to take a nap with your child or offer extra soothing measures if he or she struggles to settle. If your child is in the midst of the a sleep regression (~4-month regression, ~9-month regression, ~16-18-month regression), then sleep may be particularly difficult. If your child isn't able to settle into camping, then do what works as long as it's safe. When you get home, you can use the tips in this blog to get back on track.

In conclusion, camping with babies and toddlers can be a rewarding experience, even when it comes to managing their sleep. Understanding the impact of outdoor environments on sleep and implementing practical strategies will help ensure a restful experience for your child while creating lasting family memories. By planning ahead, adapting to the environment, and considering your child's individual needs, you can make camping a successful and enjoyable adventure for the whole family.

We hope this blog helps you manage sleep while camping with your child. If you're new to us, welcome! We're moms with backgrounds in sleep medicine, public health, nursing, and behavior analysis (Ph.D. and master's level). Our passion is translating the scientific literature into actionable strategies that you can use to achieve better sleep.

As always, we are here to help. Let us know if you don't see a blog on an issue that you are facing by contacting us on social media or through (note that while our goal is to help, we can't keep up with personal questions via e-mail. It takes away from our time with our own little ones). If you are struggling, then feel free to book a one-on-one consultation with us or check out our sleep class. We developed the class based on our work with parents and offer many different approaches to sleep problems. We have lots of positive feedback on the class and you can join our private Facebook group for extra support while taking the class.

  1. Wright, K.P., McHill, A.W., Birks, B.R., Griffin, B.R., Rusterholz, T. and Chinoy, E.D., 2013. Entrainment of the human circadian clock to the natural light-dark cycle. Current Biology, 23(16), pp.1554-1558.

  2. Stothard, E.R., McHill, A.W., Depner, C.M., Birks, B.R., Moehlman, T.M., Ritchie, H.K., Guzzetti, J.R., Chinoy, E.D., LeBourgeois, M.K., Axelsson, J. and Wright, K.P., 2017. Circadian entrainment to the natural light-dark cycle across seasons and the weekend. Current Biology, 27(4), pp.508-513.

  3. Akacem, L.D., Wright Jr, K.P. and LeBourgeois, M.K., 2016. Bedtime and evening light exposure influence circadian timing in preschool-age children: a field study. Neurobiology of sleep and circadian rhythms, 1(2), pp.27-31.

  4. Zeitzer, J.M., Dijk, D.J., Kronauer, R.E., Brown, E.N. and Czeisler, C.A., 2000. Sensitivity of the human circadian pacemaker to nocturnal light: melatonin phase resetting and suppression. The Journal of physiology, 526(3), pp.695-702.


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