On my first Big Lap with my then four-week-old daughter on board, Maya slept in fitful bursts, waking every couple of hours throughout the night for exhausting, too-frequent feeds. It was impossible to keep her awake during the day on bumpy outback tracks, which I suspect exacerbated her excessive night-time waking.

Having spent the better part of the past five years trying to coax my child into REM, I have learnt a lot about encouraging good sleep patterns when you are travelling with children. Now five-years-old, Maya’s suggestion is to let kids stay up really, really late toasting marshmallows around the campfire so that they will sleep like owls the next day.

While there are few things more exciting for littlies than staying awake after dark, after long days on the road, the majority of young kids simply won’t endure too many hours around the campfire before sleepiness takes hold.

Travel is exceptionally good for kids of all ages, but the rigours of active exploring, the change of routine and the sensory overload of all those new experiences, landscapes, climates and people can be taxing. Here are some tips for encouraging sound sleep on the road that may work for your family too.

What does a paediatric sleep consultant say? Click here to find out.

  1. Rise and shineGetting kids to sleep while travelling

Early morning starts are synonymous with life on the road. With the old routines of home quickly abandoned, the excitement of the day ahead frequently entices even the sleepiest travellers out of bed in time for sunrise, lured by a hot chocolate around a campfire or a run on the beach at daybreak.

While my daughter will often drag her heels at home, she’s always the first one with her feet on the floor when we travel. Early starts equal early nights, so reset routines to allow for big, active days of exploring and simply follow the sun.

  1. Fresh air and exercisecanoeing with kids; travelling with kids

Kids naturally love to move and explore, and there’s nothing quite like burning plenty of energy to encourage sound sleep. On Aussie travels it’s easy to do, so pack plenty of toys that facilitate whatever activity you and your children enjoy: bikes, scooters, surfboards, a kayak, kites, snorkelling gear and more.

The extra load might seem like a hassle when you are trying to tie it all down and cram it in, but you’ll be thrilled to have your kids occupied and happy once you get travelling.

  1. Set up camp by mid-afternoon12

If possible, try to limit the distance you drive each day and aim to reach camp just after lunch to allow plenty of time to set up the rig and have some afternoon fun. Take plenty of breaks along the way to get your kids moving too. Find a playground, keep a ball handy or stop for a riverside swim or a walk on the beach – whatever you can do to break up the drive.

If you’ve got babies or toddlers on board, the hours in the car might pass more quickly if you drive during their nap times, perhaps using a familiar, soothing soundtrack and bedtime toy to trigger their sleep.

  1. Encourage quiet-timeGetting kids to sleep while travelling

For many children, the sensory overload that comes with travelling makes it difficult to switch off and fall asleep. With so much to do, some kids may well resist the idea of daily quiet time but I’ve found it provides an essential contrast at the end of each day and paves the way for sound sleep.

I usually take a lead from my child, allowing her to choose a way to fill an hour or so of downtime; anything from playing dolls to colouring in, tackling some schoolwork or simply sitting by a river to spot birds or enjoying a campfire and talking about what we’ve enjoyed most about our day. Older kids might enjoy an hour spent quietly fishing, reading a favourite book, playing cards or watching a movie – anything that allows their bodies to relax and their minds to quieten.

  1. Make sleeping spaces super cosyGetting kids to sleep while travelling

Caravans, motorhomes and camper trailers accommodate children with the greatest of ease (albeit in close confines), but it pays to make kids as comfy and secure as possible to encourage sound sleep. Family sleep scenarios are custom made, so go with what works for you. Co-sleeping with babies and toddlers often makes life easier (especially if you are feeding and changing night nappies), while preschool and primary-aged kids might enjoy keeping each other company in the other caravan double.

If you have pre-teen and teenagers on board (especially those of the opposite sex) you’ll need to allocate separate spaces, and pitching a tent outside may well appeal if your teenager savours their privacy.

Arm your kids with torches (especially if there are outside toilet runs during the night), and use solar garden lights or glow sticks as night lights. Pack your kids favourite sleep gear – PJs, pillows, cuddly toys and doonas or use kid-sized sleeping bags that keep little bodies super warm because they limit the amount of space a small body has to heat up.

  1. Enforce bedtimes6

After an early start and a day jam-packed with activity, every child needs time to process, rest and rejuvenate. My five-year-old is a pro at trying to coerce me into “another five minutes” of play before bedtime, but I know that there’s a limit on how long she can keep it together before the tasks involved in getting ready for bed become intolerably difficult to tackle.

Older kids and teens may well be able to handle a few hours’ night fishing or star gazing after dinner, and you’ll want your kids to witness nocturnal thrills such as watching little penguins or turtles coming ashore. Overall though, just like at home, it makes sense to enforce regular bedtimes.

One trick that helps is to break up the nightly bed routine into more manageable chunks. Tackle bath-time before dinner (even if you have to re-wash hands and feet just before bed), let them enjoy their meal and a storybook around the campfire or extra playtime on the beach, and when it’s time to get them horizontal, you can quickly move through the steps of teeth, toilet and goodnight cuddles.

  1. Don’t sweat the daytime sleepsKids sleeping while camping

Let sleepy kids sleep. It breaks all the rules but sometimes, despite all your best efforts to keep youngsters awake so they will sleep through the night, kids just need a catch-up. If you jump back into the car to drive on after a busy morning spent swimming, surfing of bushwalking, chances are the back seat will get mighty quiet.

Don’t sweat it, even if it means the daytime recharge will put bedtimes back an hour or so. Let them sleep for an hour, then crank up the stereo or find a playground or play space to get them back on their feet.

What do the experts say?

We spoke to Paediatric Sleep Consultant, Cheryl Fingleson – The Sleep Coach – about the science and research behind children’s sleep patterns, and how they can be affected by travel and camping trips. Find out exactly what she said by clicking here.

How do you get your kids to sleep soundly when caravanning or camping? Help other parents by commenting below.

Pictures by David Bristow and Angela Batty.

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