How do I get my toddler to sleep in a tent?

Tent in a field

Getting a toddler to sleep anywhere can be tricky, but in a tent, surely that’s impossible? I had my doubts that it would ever happen as my two children go through periods of being night owls.

But with a little bit of trial and error and a lot of patience, we discovered some great tricks to help everyone get a restful night’s sleep.

Below we share our top tips for helping toddlers (and parents!) get the best night’s sleep possible when camping.

The two golden rules of getting toddlers to sleep in a tent are:

  • Practice before you go – this will give your kids the chance to get used to being in tent. Even if you don’t spend the night in it, put your tent up and let them try out their travel cot, self inflatable mattress (SIM) or airbed. If you don’t have room in your garden to put your tent up, put their travel cot, SIM or airbed up in their room and let them get used to laying on it, or even sleeping it on for a night or two.
  • Go to sleep when your toddlers do – this is especially important on your first night or two of camping. If your kids have never been camping before then it’s going be hard for them to get used to being in a tent, on a campsite and going to sleep on their own. Inevitably they’re going to want you to snuggle down with them. Let them go to bed later and then all go to sleep (hopefully!) together. It’s likely that your toddler will want to get up earlier than normal too, so going to bed early will mean you’re more prepared for their 5am wake-up!


Stick to their usual bedtime routine but be more relaxed

Some children (like our youngest) love a routine but when you’re camping, it’s tricky to recreate everything as it is at home. As long as you have some key bedtime cues, your toddler will be able to read the signals that it’s time for bed.

Some parts of the bedtime routine the are easy to recreate at a campsite include:

  • Dressing them in the same PJs and using the same sleeping bag, blanket or duvet they have at home. You might need to adjust how many layers they have on once they’re asleep, but the goal here is getting your toddler to recognise that sleeping bag or snuggle blanket means bedtime.
  • Giving them their usual cuddly or teddy
  • Taking a travel cot with you for younger toddlers will help them feel secure
  • Reading them one of the books they regularly have before bed
  • Singing the same songs as you would at home
  • Do as much as possible in the same order as you would at home

And there are a few things you should avoid:

  • Don’t try to put your kids to bed the same time you would at home. We’ve tried this and trust me, it just doesn’t work! Unless your kids love sleep and are ultra responsive to a bedtime routine, you’ll find trying to put them to bed when it’s light outside and everyone else is awake on the campsite will turn into a battle.
  • Avoid anything too exciting before bed. Running around the campsite, going on a nature trail, climbing, swimming, and anything else that your kids will love, should be saved for the daytime and not done just minute before bed.
  • Don’t give your kids anything too sugary to eat before bed. Our first camping trips were very disorganised so we ended up giving the kids Cheerios and biscuits before bed just to try and bribe them into keeping still. It wasn’t our finest parenting hour and backfired spectacularly when they hit a sugar high at 8pm!

Light and temperature are two of the most common obstacles to getting toddlers to sleep in a tent. Like adults, most toddlers will sleep better if the tent isn’t too bright and if the temperature is comfortable.

How to make a tent darker when it’s light outside

Buying a tent in a darker colour is one way to keep the light out of your tent and can actually help reduce any UV radiation, but this can mean that the tent absorbs more heat so be aware of this if you plan to camp in warm climates.

Alternatively, you can buy a blackout tent. Blackout tents can blockout up to 99% of daylight in the sleeping compartments – ideal if your toddlers are sensitive to light.

A four man blackout tent costs around £300 to £400, so it’s not too much more expensive than a decent regular four man tent.

If you’ve already bought your tent and want to make it darker, then one easy trick you can try is to put up an ‘inner tent’ in the bedroom where your toddler will be sleeping. You can buy blackout material and hang it from the top of the tent, a bit like you would a mosquito net, be careful not to let it touch the sides of the tent as this could cause condensation to drip down. You also need to ensure that there’s sufficient ventilation.

If you have the room in your tent, then it might be worth investing in a blackout pod. These are large free-standing pop-up pods that your toddler can sleep in. You’ll need to make sure enough air can circulate in the pod so it doesn’t get too hot though.

On the flip-side, you’ll want to make sure the tent isn’t too dark when your toddler is getting ready for bed and going to sleep. We’ve found that a lantern, hung out of reach (we tie ours to the tent door tie-backs) is better than giving them a torch or access to their own lantern. The first time Joni went camping we gave her a lantern with a dial that controlled the level of light. This resulted in 30 minutes of her fiddling with the dial and screaming every time I tried to take it off her.

Torches are great for going out and about after it’s dark, but children might prefer a head-torch so they have less to carry and can focus on not tripping over in the dark.

How to get a comfortable temperature in a tent

If you’ve been camping in summer in the UK before then you’ll know that a tent can be stiflingly hot in the day and freezing as soon as the sun goes down.

Keeping warm at night is much easier than keeping cool, all you need to do is make sure your toddler is well protected from any cold seeping in from the ground and layer them up with enough clothes, sleeping bags and blankets to keep them warm.

We dress our daughter in a fleecey onesie with a vest underneath to keep her warm. As you have to pretty much remove a onesie completely to go to the toilet, a vest is a must-have to avoid freezing-cold toilet trips in the night!

Hot water bottles are great for instant warmth on cold nights but make sure they have a fabric cover on them so they’re not too hot for your toddler. If you’re not comfortable with leaving a hot water bottle in bed with them, then just warm their sleeping bag up for half an hour or so before they get into bed.

Keeping them off the floor is one of the best ways to keep your kids warm in a tent. Self inflating mats (also known as SIMs) tend to be warmer than airbeds and are much easier to put up. There are kids’ airbeds available that have inflatable sides – we’ve used one of these for Joni before but it’s massive and took up half the tent. Plus it meant she couldn’t co-sleep properly so she ended up on our airbed anyway.

What should a toddler sleep in when camping

This is very much related to the temperature in the tent and their sleeping arrangements. If your toddler prefers to sleep in a travel cot or a bed separate from yours then they’re going to be much cooler than they would be if they were co-sleeping.

If your toddler prefers a travel cot or their own camp bed then opt for a child’s sleeping bag or duvet.

Evan, our two year old, still wears sleeping bags with no arms in them so we dress him in his long sleeve PJs and 2.5 tog sleeping bag and add a jumper if it’s particularly cold. He’s always preferred to sleep in a cot so there’s no danger of him wanting to co-sleep with us during the night.

Joni, our four year old, is the exact opposite – she has always liked to co-sleep and at home she’ll regularly get in our bed in the morning for snuggles. She also wriggles non-stop in the night so for this reason we don’t share an airbed or sleeping bag with her.

She has her own adult size inflating mat and her own duvet. But we position her in between me and my husband so she feels secure and won’t wriggle off too far in the night. She moves around too much to be constrained by a sleeping bag, so we’ve found a duvet is a more comfortable option for her. We dress her in a onesie, vest and socks so that she’s still warm, even if she throws the duvet off in the night.

If it’s warm during the night, we still go for long sleeves for the kids but will put Evan in a lighter sleeping bag and Joni in PJs rather than a fleecy onesie. Joni likes to go to sleep tucked under the duvet but on warm nights, we’ll pull this down after she’s gone to sleep so she doesn’t get too hot.

What to do when your toddler wakes up early when camping

There was a (terrible) time when our two year old would wake up so early that a 6am wake-up would feel like a lay-in. In a tent he’s marginally better, but it’s inevitable that children are going to wake up early and want to get going with the day – not ideal when it’s 6am!

We’ve found that when we’re all snuggled in bed together, the kids tend to be less bothered about getting out of bed as they don’t need to come racing into our room as we’re already with them. If we leave a few books out in the tent they’ll look at the books or doze while we try to drag ourselves out of bed. Another option for older toddlers is to pack a child’s walkman with headphones to keep them occupied.

If your kids like to eat as soon as they get up, then keep some snacks in the bedroom compartment for them to snack on. Dry cheerios and bananas work a treat with our kids and it buys you a few extra minutes of sleep.

Our daughter always needs the toilet as soon as she wakes up so we pack a potty with us. Even though she’s been potty trained for over a year, it avoids a trek to the toilet block at the break of dawn (or in the middle of the night0. It also means there’s more chance of her going back to sleep as we’ve noticed that once they leave the tent, our kids are impossible to get back to sleep. Just make sure to put a lantern next to the toilet to help your kids aim!

If your toddler is just out of nappies then consider popping a nappy on them at night to rule out any anxiety about needing the toilet in the night and to avoid any wet sleeping bags!

What to do about noise when camping with toddlers

Whether you’re worried about your kids keeping everyone else on the campsite awake or external noises keeping your kids awake, noise can be a major worry when camping with toddlers.

Firstly, choose a family campsite where other campers, many of whom will have children, will expect a certain amount of noise. Some campsites have noise restriction rules where campers are expected to be quiet from a certain time at night, so bear this in mind. A campsite with a curfew means that it’s less likely people will be up talking or playing music until the early hours.

It’s often in a morning when children tend to be awake and adults are asleep and are most likely to be disturbed by any noise. As above, keep some books and snacks in the bedroom compartment to keep them entertained and quiet if they get up really early.

As for external noise, if the campsite you’re staying on has a pub or entertainment area then try to camp as far away from this as possible. Pack a white noise machine or use an app on your phone to block out any louder noises.

Other than that there isn’t much you can do to keep external noise levels down. Our daughter is a very deep sleeper so once she’s asleep, very little wakes her up. One trick we’ve tried is to cover her ear while she falls to sleep to help block out any external noise.

What to do if your toddler won’t sleep in a tent

Sometimes no matter what you try, your toddler won’t sleep in a tent, or stay asleep! Teething, illness, external noises or just stubbornness can all result in a toddler that refuses to drop off.

When all else fails, you have a few options:

  • Pop them in a sling and bounce them to sleep

A quick walk round the campsite or even staying in the tent and bouncing them in a sling used to work when our kids were younger. Now they’re too heavy for this and are wise to the fact that getting in the sling means they’re expected to sleep! For younger toddlers though, is one of the most reliable ways to get them to sleep – although transferring them to their cot or mattress can be tricky!

  • Pop them in their pushchair and take them for a walk

Whether you can do this or not will depend on what kind of campsite you’re staying on, but even the smallest and busiest sites should have a quiet area you can pace about on with a pram. It’s not ideal, especially if it’s cold but at least if your toddler falls asleep in their pram, you can keep them in it back at the tent and not worry about transferring them.

  • Take them for a drive

This isn’t ideal if it’s the middle of the night and you’re tired, but hopeful a short drive will be enough to send them to sleep. The bonus for them is that they can stay asleep in their car seat, although you might not find it as comfortable!

  • Feed them to sleep

I breastfed Evan until he was 22 months and this was my go-to way of getting him to sleep wherever we were, including camping. If your toddler is still having a bottle or is breastfed, it’s worth trying to feed them to sleep. Warm milk and a low sugar snack such as crackers is a good option for older toddlers who might be struggling to sleep if they’re hungry.

  • Go home!

We’ve done this before but luckily we were camping only 25 minutes away from my mum’s house. Evan wouldn’t settle, no matter what we tried and seemed really distressed. Andrew, my husband, drove him back to my mum’s and they spent the night there while Joni and I spent the night in the tent. Obviously this won’t always be an option, but if you can stay somewhere nearby it’s well worth considering it!

So there you go, follow these tips and you should be able to enjoy a restful night’s sleep when camping with the kids!

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