Camping out is a sleep technique that can help you gradually teach babies of at least 6 months to fall asleep by themselves. It usually takes about 3 weeks.
What is 'camping out'?
When babies are very little, many parents help them to sleep by patting, rocking or holding them. The problem is that babies start to depend on these things to fall asleep. If they wake up during the night, they won’t be able to get back to sleep without them.
Camping out is a technique you can use to gradually teach your baby how to go to sleep by themselves. The idea is that you are still by their side to provide reassurance, but you don’t physically help them to fall asleep.
Camping out is different from controlled comforting, where you comfort your baby and then leave them alone in the room.
Who is camping out for?
You might consider camping out if your baby is having ongoing problems falling asleep, or is waking up and crying repeatedly during the night.
Step-by-step guide to camping out
Before you start, it’s important to have a good sleep routine in place. You could also consider talking to a maternal child health nurse. That’s because any new sleep strategy is more likely to succeed if you do it with professional help.
When you’re ready, follow these steps:
- Place a mattress or chair next to the baby’s cot.
- When it’s bedtime, put your baby in the cot and stroke or pat them until they fall asleep. When they are asleep, leave the room. Repeat this step every time they wake up through the night. It usually takes 3 nights for your baby to learn to fall asleep like this.
- Once your baby can fall asleep like this, start to gradually reduce the time you pat or stroke them. The idea is for your baby to learn to fall asleep as you sit or lie quietly next to them, without touching them. Repeat this step every time they wake up through the night. It will probably take another 3 nights for your baby to learn to fall asleep like this.
- When your baby can fall asleep without you touching them, move the mattress or chair about 50cm away from the cot. Stay there quietly until your baby falls asleep. Return to the mattress or chair in the same position if they wake up during the night, and stay there until they go back to sleep.
- Over the next few weeks, gradually move the mattress or chair further away from the cot and out of the door.
Tips for making camping out work
Camping out will work best if you follow the routine consistently. Make sure everyone who puts your baby to bed uses the technique in exactly the same way.
Make sure things are calm and quiet and that the room is dim. Reassure your baby that you won’t leave them, but try not to interact too much. This is a time for sleeping, not for play. Try to avoid making eye contact with your baby while they are trying to go to sleep. You could close your eyes, too.
If your baby starts to cry, pat them to comfort them. If they are very upset you can pick them up and comfort them. When they are calm, start the process again.
Will camping out work?
Every baby is different. Some babies learn to settle themselves quickly with this technique, while others take longer. Don’t rush things, just try to be consistent.
Sometimes babies sleep well for a few nights and then go back to their old behaviour. Their sleep can also be affected by illness, holidays or visitors. Most of these changes will be temporary. Stick to the routine, keep using the technique, and things should sort themselves out.
Camping out works for most babies after 2 to 3 weeks. If your baby isn’t settling any better after this time, talk to your doctor or maternal child health nurse about what else you can do.
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to speak to a maternal child health nurse.
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Last reviewed: February 2019