What is “camping out” in sleep training?
As babies grow up, parents often wonder how to help them learn to fall asleep independently. One method, known as “camping out,” is a gradual approach to helping your baby learn to fall asleep independently. This is a great method to consider if your baby is soothed by you being in the room at bedtime and wants to be close to you or touch you while falling asleep. It has also been found to be a better approach for some babies, especially those who are highly anxious.
The first goal of camping out is to teach your baby to fall asleep in her crib while maintaining that comforting contact with you through gentle touch. Once that is established, the next goal is to reduce the amount of touch your baby needs to fall asleep. Finally, the goal is to reduce your presence near them while they fall asleep.
What might that look like?
1) To start, make sure you have a consistent bedtime routine that begins with feeding (if your baby still has a feeding at bedtime) and ends in the room where you would like your baby to sleep overnight. If you don’t have that in place yet, start there for several days to a week, simply holding your little one until she falls asleep (or having her fall asleep however she usually does).
2) Set up a mattress or chair next to your baby’s crib. After finishing the bedtime routine and laying your baby in her crib while she is still awake, lie or sit next to your baby and provide comforting, gentle strokes until she falls asleep. You may wish to say soothing words during this process if that is something your baby enjoys. Your baby may fuss or cry at first; maintaining that ongoing, soothing comfort from your voice and touch should help her to settle. Once she is asleep, you can leave the room.
3) Once your little one is used to falling asleep in her crib with your gentle touch (this may take several nights), gradually reduce the amount of touching. This could mean taking longer pauses between each touch and/or reducing how much and where you touch her. The ultimate goal is for your baby to fall asleep with you next to her but not touching her. Stay in the room until she is asleep, then leave quietly.
4) The last stage of camping out is to gradually remove yourself from the room. Either every few nights or each night – depending on how slowly you would like to make changes, increase the space between you and the crib by moving your chair or mattress closer to the door. This gives your baby the comfort of your presence in her room while falling asleep but without direct contact from you. Stay on your mattress or chair until your baby falls asleep each night. If you were using verbal soothing, you can either continue to use those consistent statements or you can start to reduce those as well. Eventually, you will want to lie quietly on the mattress or in the chair so your little one becomes used to falling asleep in a quiet room. Once your baby is able to fall asleep easily in her crib without your help, you can start slowly moving yourself farther away every few nights. You can move halfway across her room for a few nights, then at the doorway for a few nights, and then outside of her room. Your ultimate goal is to be out of the room. So, by the end of this process, your baby should be falling asleep with you no longer in the room!
Any other tips and tricks?
While your little one is falling asleep at bedtime, try to avoid eye contact or any conversation. If you are using camping out with your toddler who can try to engage you in other exciting ways – like by trying to talk about her day or doing things like throwing a lovey out of a crib or standing up in her crib, do your best to give as little attention as possible. If you respond with words, be as calm and consistent as possible, and keep things as dark and as boring as possible.
During the camping out process, if your baby wakes overnight, you can either respond as you usually do or to stick with the camping out approach of only giving gentle pats and soothing words while your baby stays in her crib. Falling asleep independently at bedtime can generalize to those overnight wakings, which all babies have. That is, once your baby has mastered being able to fall asleep on her own at bedtime, she may start doing the same after she naturally awakens at night.
What else should I know?
With its gradual nature, camping out can take several weeks (around 2-3) to complete. It may be best to start this method when you are able to be as consistent as possible at bedtime, as maintaining consistency is important for communicating with your baby what you are helping them learn (to fall asleep calmly on her own!). Also, consider explaining these changes to your baby or child ahead of time, as a baby can often understand more than she can communicate, and she may appreciate the heads up that changes are coming!
Also, trust your baby’s ability to learn to fall asleep independently in this process. Watch her cues that she can she do this, and allow yourself to move closer to the door at increasing distances.
Finally, watching your baby or toddler learn this new skill can be very rewarding both for her development and for improving sleep for the whole family. However, some babies may be more upset by the presence of you being in the room without being held than they are by you not being in the room at all. If that is the case, your baby may do better with a different approach, such as you simply leaving at bedtime and checking on her at various intervals.
If this method is not working for you and your baby, consult with your baby’s healthcare provider to determine an alternative approach that works for your family.