Get ready to break the rules…and sleep better.
After a hot, sunny day on the Green River in Colorado, my two sons (5 and 2), and my 10-month-old daughter all snoozed deeply, sprawled across our tent. My husband and I settled in beside them as the last light of the sun left the canyon walls, and the Milky Way blazed above us. All five of us slept like rocks until after daybreak.
This is the experience parents dream of when camping with kids. But it didn’t always look this way.
Flash back to five years ago.
The early evening desert sun beat down on my tent, and despite the half-mesh walls, the air inside was hot and stuffy. I couldn’t unzip the doors because of the ravenous mosquitoes swarming outside. Beside me, my one-year-old son slept lightly while sweating profusely. It was supposed to be my husband’s turn in here, and I was, yet again, missing out on that precious adult social time that new mothers crave. I knew from several previous attempts that the moment I started unzipping the tent to make my exit, my son would wake up screaming. Again.
So I sat there; trapped, sweating, and generally feeling sorry for myself as the sun took its sweet time setting.
I’ve since learned how to have more of the first scenario and less of the second.
When parents think about any overnight trip, especially one spent in the outdoors, sleep is often a serious concern. But I want to share with you that there is hope, along with a few logistical suggestions that may dramatically increase the likelihood that everyone in your family will sleep better beneath the stars.
Sleep Better by Freeing the Nap
First of all, you’re going to need to free the nap. That’s right, when you pull out of your driveway with more stuff crammed next to you than you thought could possibly fit in a car, just forget about naptime. And bedtime for that matter. When you are camping with kids, remember that they will sleep when they sleep. It is just easier that way.
Right now, I know, many of the moms out there are vigorously shaking their heads. They’re saying what I did about my kid at first: “Without proper rest, my child will turn into a fun-sucking monster, and likely have a nuclear level tantrum.”
But here’s the amazing thing that took me far too long to realize: They probably won’t, actually.
As our children connect more deeply with nature, they will find a natural balance of rest all on their own.
Once I finally listened to mothers wiser than myself, and freed the nap on a camping trip in the high desert in Eastern Utah, my world was changed. I saw my then 18-month-old find this beautiful rhythm with the outdoors. He ran and played hard while the sun was up. He occasionally fell asleep in his food. But we got to spend the best hours of the day together as a family, enjoying that cool and mysterious time between dinner and complete dark when you can catch toads, roast marshmallows, and tell stories.
They will be exhausted, yes. But instead of rushing in to scoop up your cheerful, fully-engaged child and whisk him or her off to an isolated, boring place to try and force the nap… don’t.
The kind of healthy stimulation found in outdoor play leads to a healthy depth of sleep. On our last camping trip, my 10-month-old was able to sleep better through the night, even bringing that habit home with us!
Remember, you’re camping now. You intentionally left those clocks, emails, and appointments behind. So why shouldn’t your child get the same chance? In the outdoors there isn’t the same concept of time. As our children connect more deeply with nature, they will find a natural balance of rest all on their own.
Keep Infants Close
Babies who can’t easily roll across the floor are sometimes the easiest to camp with. At this age they don’t need sleeping bags, so you can just swaddle them and lay them down somewhere to sleep.
It is important to remember that blankets and rolling siblings can be a hazard to sleeping infants. So, it is best to place them in the tent between you and the tent wall. This will prevent any of their older siblings from rolling over them in the night, your closeness will make them feel secure, and you’ll probably sleep better too. As always, educate yourself on risks associated with co-sleeping in order to avoid SIDS and other sleep-related dangers.
Have Bottles Ready Beforehand
For nursing mothers, midnight feedings require no explanation, but for bottle-fed babies, there is a simple solution. Make sure your bottles are prepared nearby with dry formula already inside. Then, before bedtime, heat some water up and pour it into a Hydroflask, or some equally insulated beverage container. Then it is ready to mix whenever you need it. Be sure to add some cool water and test the temperature as usual before feeding.
Sleep Better with a Pack and Play
When kids are anywhere from eight months old to almost two years old, pack-and-plays are a must when camping. These are easy to pack and provide your baby with the perfect place to sleep comfortably. Our pack and play has been to at least ten different campsites already and we love it.
Again, it is very important not to pile blankets and sleeping bags around your child while they are inside the pack and play. For extra warmth camping in colder months, you can insulate below by filling in the space with bags, which will prevent air flow. Your little one still needs a reliable bunting, fleece or synthetic, and close fitting layers underneath if the temps are cold.
Get Them Their Own Sleeping Bags
It was amazing to see how early our boys became comfortable with their own sleeping bags. By two years old, our middle child was absolutely thrilled to receive his bright pink, child-sized sleeping bag. It was his very own and his big brother already had one. Needless to say, you could not pry him out of it for awhile. His excitement about it made it much easier to convince him to get inside and go to sleep each night.
Sleep Between Them
If at all possible, place mom or dad between siblings. If you have kids, you know exactly why I mention this. The rolling, and tickling, and giggling is funny for about five minutes and then someone usually ends up in tears. It is also comforting for a child to know that mom and dad are right next to them throughout the night.
I’m not going to lie, camping with kids is rarely restful, even when it goes well. Just remember to give yourself a break if it doesn’t work out the first time and know that you’ll sleep better when you get home. You do your best, nothing more or less. With practice, you will find the unique rhythm that works for your family.