If your child is struggling with sleep (either problems fall asleep, or staying asleep) they may benefit from sleep training. Cry-it-out (also known as CIO or extinction sleep training) is the most famous flavor of sleep training. It definitely works (and entails less crying than parents think) it’s not for everyone. “Camping out” sleep training, also known as the “chair method”, “sleep lady shuffle” or extinction with parental presence, is a technique work well for families who want to stay with their child during the training process.
What Is Camping Out Sleep Training?
Like all sleep training methods, “camping out” sleep training (which I will refer to simply as camping out for simplicity) is a technique for teaching your child to fall asleep independently. It is actually a form of extinction sleep training— extinction meaning that you are.
Note that I did not come up with the term “camping out”. I believe it was Dr. Harriet Hiscock in Australia who introduced the term.
- Gentler than regular extinction/CIO
- Works well with anxious kids and parents
- Generally less crying (but not necessarily NO crying)
- Works well with older kids, not just babies
- Takes longer to implement than CIO
- Time consuming and thus difficult to implement in the middle of the night
- There are some clear sticking points (see below)
Which Children Benefit from Camping Out?
I actually like camping out for a pretty broad range of kids. You can use it with infants (starting from 4-6 months of age which is the sleep training window). It can work well for toddlers and preschoolers (or even nervous elementary schoolers as well, although other techniques like the Yale Plan to Get Your Child to Sleep in His Own bed will work better for school age kids and up (about three quarters down the page in this article on stopping cosleeping).
What to do before sleep training
Like all sleep training techniques, you want to make sure you have a set bedtime every night, with a set bedtime routine.
Pick a night to start and have a good plan. Fridays nights work well. Don’t start if you have travel plans in the next month.
Like all extinction methods, you are working to get rid of a behavior (in this case, your child needing you present to fall asleep and stay asleep) by reducing the amount of attention you provide to your child at bedtime. (To understand why this works, read this post on breaking bad sleep habits in kids). CIO is a brute force method— you are essentially placing your child in the crib. In camping out, you are staying with your child but providing the minimum amount of interaction.
How to performing camping out.
No matter the age of your child, here is the most critical part: although you are present, the goal of this method is still removal of your involvement for sleep onset. This means that you will need to provide minimal attention to your child. You should not get in a discussion with your child, but simply sit with her and repeat your final bedtime cue: “I love you. It’s time to go to sleep. Good night.” The interaction you provide should be basic and boring. It’s even ok to read your kindle or your phone (or pretending to be asleep.
Infant protocol (ages 4-12 months)
For infants, the procedure is pretty simple. You will simply just move a mattress into your baby’s room. You will be in there for about a week.
- Perform your bedtime routine and place your child in the crib drowsy but awake.
- Lie down on the mattress near your child’s crib and pretend to be asleep. They may cry but usually less than with CIO.
- When your child goes to sleep, you can leave the room.
- Go to bed in your child’s room.
- If your child is crying excessively you can calm them down a bit and put them down.
- Usually sleep will improve within four days. By night eight you should be able to return to your own room.
- If there is an uptick in crying when you move out you can move back into her room for a few nights.
If this feels too difficult, you can adapt the chair method as noted below.
Toddler/Preschooler Method— the Chair Method (1 year- 5 years)
As with infants, you will stay in your child’s room until he falls asleep.
For toddlers (and especially kids in beds who can get up and leave), the general principle is the same, but the execution is slightly different.
Just as previously described, you will stay in your child’s room until he falls asleep. Over the course of a week or two, you will gradually increase your distance from your child’s bed.
Older kids may need more of an explanation for why you are sitting there ignoring them. Otherwise, the five-year-old is going to give you a look that says, “What the hell are you doing?” The time to have the conversation about what you are doing and why should occur well before bedtime. My older son was like a tiny lawyer who would interrogate me whenever we we implemented any sort of change in the rules. Be open about the fact that you know he is a big kid but needs a little help falling asleep. It’s fine to say that you have to do a bit of work while you are waiting for him to fall asleep. This is one of the few situations where it would be OK for you to sit with your phone while ignoring your child. Make sure you have the brightness turned down, and recognize that this initially may be distracting to your child.
You should not engage in conversation after lights out; simply repeat your bedtime mantra: “I love you. It’s time to go to sleep. Good night.”
Every few days, when your child has begun to fall asleep fairly easily, you can move a step further out. Each step should take about two to five days. After one night of sleep onset within fifteen minutes of lights-out, you can move to the next step. Here’s a sample schedule based on making changes every three days.
- Days 1–3: You stand by his crib and rub his back.
- Days 4–6: You sit by your child’s bedside but do not touch him.
- Days 7–9: You move your chair to midway between your child’s bedside and the door.
- Days 10–12: You sit in your chair by the door to the room.
- Days 13–15: You sit outside the door but where your child can still see you.
- Days 16–18: You sit out of sight but provide verbal reassurance, either by sitting just outside the room or by using a two-way monitor.
When To Start Training
Before you start, make sure you have a set bedtime routine at a consistent time. Usually I recommend starting when you have a month of time without planned interruptions (vacations, visits from relatives, moving house, etc.) Here’s an article on when not to sleep train.
When To Stop Training
When your child is falling asleep independently OR you have been doing this for a week with no progress.
What do you do if your child wakes up in the middle of the night?
If you like, you can repeat whatever you are doing at bedtime. So if you are sitting two feet from your child’s bed, you can go back in and stay until he falls back asleep.
HOWEVER, given the fact that this is a gentler, slower method, you might be up in the middle of the night frequently if you do so. I also think it is OK to do whatever you need to do to soothe your child back to sleep quickly so you can go back to bed.
As with all sleep training techniques, the goal is to have your child fall asleep without you present. Once you do so, the night time awakenings tend to improve over several weeks.
Usually the most difficult step is when you are no longer in the view of your child. If your child is crying at this point, you have two options. You can move back to an earlier step (such as moving your chair back into the room) for longer— up to seven days).
Alternatively, for older children (three and up) if your child is in a bed and following you out of the room, you can do what my mentor Dr. Judy Owens recommends. Tell your child you need to do some work while he is falling asleep, but that you can’t get interrupted. If your child will not stay in his bed, leave the room and close the door for one minute. When you open the door, the expectation is that he is back in his bed. If he is not, close the door for two minutes. Repeat as necessary, adding a minute each time, until your child is in bed when you reopen the door. As you can imagine, this can get ugly on the first few nights you try it. There can be some crying, or even an extinction burst, as this is an extinction-based method (you are ignoring behaviors you don’t like).
I don’t really recommend this for children who are very anxious or who struggle with attachment, as it can be very traumatic.
For older children who are very anxious, I would recommend “The Yale Plan for Getting Your Kid To Sleep In His Own Bed” in this post.
What to expect
Generally this method will take 2-4 weeks to get your child to fall asleep independently. Once she is doing so, night time awakenings will typically drop out in 2-4 weeks.
If you are looking for a comprehensive guide on how to implement camping out, as well as understanding all of the other steps required for a successful sleep plan, I highly recommend checking out my book It’s Never Too Late to Sleep Train: The Low Stress Way to High-Quality Sleep for Babies, Kids, and Parents(affiliate link). It is chock full of high quality info so you and your child can start sleeping better ASAP.
Meta: Discover the gentle magic of camping out sleep training! A tear-free approach to peaceful nights, using extinction with parental presence.