How to sleep well at summer camp

By Amelia Willson | 5 Minute Read Date 06/06/18

Ah, summer camp. Sunny days spent with new friends swimming, making crafts, and playing games. Nights spent telling ghost stories by the campfire and roasting s’mores.

Summer camp is a lot of fun. But it can also be challenging for kids to adjust to being away from home. They’re in a new environment, without their parents, and sharing a room with several children they just met. Fears, anxiety, and homesickness may come up. Before they know it, they’re having trouble sleeping.

As any parent can attest, a kid functioning on less sleep is an unhappy one. Follow these tips to help your child sleep well at summer camp.

7 sleep tips for summer camp

1. Choose a sleep-healthy summer camp.

It may not be the first thing on your list, but ideally you choose a camp that’s educated about children’s sleep needs. While adults may need as few as 7 hours a night, camp-age children actually need between 9 to 10, and it varies by age. Ask the camp counselors about the sleep schedule, and make sure it provides room for that to conceivably happen (but don’t be surprised if you hear about late nights spent dreaming up adventures and trading camp secrets!)

Be frank with the camp counselors about any sleep issues your child has, too. You want them to have the information they need so they can help ensure your child has a successful time at camp. Let them know if your child might wet the bed, or if they’re prone to nightmares or sleepwalking.

2. Visit camp ahead of time.

If your child visits the campsite beforehand, it gives them an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the place and get excited about going. Since they’ve seen it already, at least the fear of the unknown is out of the way from day one. During your visit, introduce them to the camp director or counselor, so they recognize a familiar face on the first day.

Walk around the place. Take a special look at the cabins, so you’ll have an idea of what the bunk beds are like. This way you can work with your child to choose their camp bedding, how many stuffed animals they can bring, and so on. Note if they’ll have to walk through the dark to get to the bathroom, and if so, pack at least one flashlight and plenty of batteries.

Have your child test out the bunk and assess its comfort level. Beyond bedding, you may want to bring along a mattress topper, a sleeping bag, or a camping mattress to give them a bit more cushion. Go shopping for these items together, allowing your child to select their favorite designs. By involving them in the preparation process, you give them control over the situation, helping prevent homesickness later on.

3. Make their camp bed feel like home.

Part of why it’s tough to sleep the first few days at camp is all the new information, excitement, and anxiety from all the activities and new faces. But sometimes it comes down to not sleeping in your own bed. Even adults experience this sometimes when they travel.

So do what you can to make your child’s camp bed feel like their bed at home. Make sure they have their favorite pajamas, trusty stuffed animal sidekick, and a blanket. However, it’s common for stuff to get lost at camp, so you might want to have your child select a new, designated “camp” toy or stuffed animal, get used to sleeping with it in the weeks before camp, and take that with them instead. It will be less devastating than losing their all-time favorite.

If they’ll be using a sleeping bag, encourage your child to sleep in it the week before camp, so they get used to the feel of it. If it ends up being uncomfortable or itchy, you’ll be able to buy a new one before they leave for camp.

4. Practice with sleepovers.

One of the best ways to prepare your child for summer camp is to have them practice spending the night in a new place. Fun, right?

Ask family friends and relatives if your child can spend the night at their place. Better yet, see if one of your fellow parents is up for hosting a group sleepover. Having multiple kids sleep in a room will better mimic the camp dorm environment. You’ll want to repay the favor with a sleepover hosted at your place, of course.

During these sleepovers, have your child sleep using the bedding they’ll be using at camp, or something similar, to further recreate the camp experience.

5. Learn a bedtime routine.

Work with your child to establish a healthy bedtime routine that they can follow at home and at camp. Encourage them to follow the same set of activities each night, like going to the restroom, brushing their teeth and hair, getting into their pajamas, and reading a book or writing in a diary by a flashlight.

Following a routine not only makes it easier for your child to remember these essential grooming needs, but it also helps train their mind to recognize these activities as a signal that bedtime is coming, so it should start preparing for sleep.

Also review other camp etiquette with your child, such as how to keep their belongings and toiletries organized, in good condition, and out of other people’s space. This prevents them from losing something, which could cause anxiety.

6. Set expectations.

The best way to mentally prepare your child for camp, and increase their likelihood of sleeping well while they’re there, is to head off any anxieties before they leave for camp. In the weeks before camp, talk with your child about what they might expect from camp, and share your own experiences from summer camp as a child.

Discuss actionable ideas for how they can make friends at camp and connect with people. Use examples of how they’ve successfully made friends at school before. Tell them how proud you are of them for being independent enough to go to camp on their own. They’re brave!

Be real with them. Let them know it’s totally normal if the first few days are a bit weird, confusing, or challenging. Assure them that once they make it through that, they are going to have a blast and you can’t wait to hear about their adventures.

When you talk about camp, do not focus on anything sad or guilt-inducing, like how much you’ll miss them. And above all, DO NOT CRY.

7. Prepare for the worst.

It’s expected that your child will get homesick, even with all of the tips above. In that case, you’ll want to be prepared with a plan to ease their fears and help them feel comfortable.

Make plans for how often you’ll communicate with each other and via what medium (phone, text, email, snail mail, etc.) – and then stick to that plan. Always show up for these moments with your child, but don’t be hurt if they miss a few themselves from having too much fun!

In the weeks before camp, create a scrapbook together that they can look back on whenever they get homesick. Encourage them to keep it by their bed.

Sleep is tough when you’re dealing with allergies, a wound, or a rash – all of which can be common camp experiences. Review the camp’s first aid procedures and educate your child on how to prevent themselves from getting injured in the first place.

Finally, pack following a checklist so you don’t forget anything, and include that checklist with their luggage. This way, they can follow the same checklist to ensure they don’t leave anything behind.

Additional resources

  • Learn about healthy sleep amounts for children by age, how to educate your child about the importance of sleep, and more in our Parent’s Guide to Healthy Sleep.
  • For advice on buying a high-quality sleeping bag, check out our blog post on getting good sleep while camping.
  • KidsHealth shares educational, health-related resources written for kids, to kids. Their primer on camp helps introduces children to sleepaway camp and explains what they can expect.