Sending any kid to summer camp can be nerve-wracking, but that’s particularly true if your child has type 1 diabetes. Will camp counselors and staff know what to do in the event of an emergency? How will your child manage without you … and how will YOU manage without your child?

Camp can be a great experience for kids with diabetes. It can boost their self-confidence tremendously. It also gives them independence with their diabetes self-care — and gives you a break, too. Will you choose a diabetes camp or a mainstream camp? Here’s what you need to know to make your choice.

Diabetes Camp: The Basics

Moira McCarthy, a mom of a daughter with type 1 diabetes, suggests checking out diabetes camps first. She sent her own daughter to one at age 6, the summer after she was diagnosed. For Moira, it felt like the safest choice. “Most have an endocrinologist on staff 24 hours a day, dietitians on staff, and a nurse in the cabins,” she explains. “For my daughter and her friends, it was the most amazing experience. She was just like everyone else. Everyone checked their blood sugar at night, and even the counselors had diabetes. They could all relate to each other, and discover they’re not alone.”

For information on diabetes camp, check out the American Diabetes Camp or search for “diabetes camp” in your area. Financial aid and scholarships are often available.

Mainstream Camp: The Basics

If you opt for a mainstream camp, it’s important to do your homework. Certified Diabetes Educator Marlisa Brown, RD, says the first thing you need to know is if there is a nurse or medical personnel available at the camp. “Are any of the camp members trained in giving children insulin?” she asks. “If you have an older child, are they going to allow her to give herself insulin, or are they going to have someone else do it?” How will they adjust insulin as activity levels rise, or make sure a meter is working in the summer heat? If it’s an overnight camp, will someone be able to help your child check her levels at night? Meet with the camp medical staff and see if they’ve ever had a child with type 1 diabetes at the camp before. See if you can contact the parents and ask about their experiences at camp. You need to feel confident your child will be in a safe environment. If you don’t, look for another camp.

Brown says it’s also important to discuss mealtime with camp administrators. Are meals and snacks served at the same time every day? Can they help your child with carb counting? Can you look over the meals and menus before your child goes to camp? Will they make special accommodations for your child if she can’t eat certain foods? Is anyone going to make your child feel embarrassed or uncomfortable if she is eating something the other kids aren’t? Although it’s something no parent wants to think about, Brown suggests discussing how the camp handles bullying. Sometimes, kids can be mean to children who are different. While bullying may occur for a variety of reasons, it is still important for children to let others know they have diabetes in case they need assistance.

If you can afford it, McCarthy says nurses or young adults with type 1 diabetes can sometimes be hired to look after your child at the camp. Check with your healthcare team for referrals. Having an experienced helper exclusively watching over your child can give you peace of mind (although — warning — older kids might balk at the prospect).

Christina Coleman, whose 7-year-old daughter, Brynn, has type 1 diabetes, says she got Brynn a cell phone before summer day camp so they could keep in touch. “We scheduled automatic alarms to go off on the cell phone, which she keeps in a fanny pack on her body so she hears it and feels the vibration,” Christina explains. “The texting function is disabled, and the phone only gets incoming calls or makes outgoing calls to numbers we program into it.”

How to Prepare…and What to Provide

Once you’ve decided on a camp, it’s time to prepare for the camp experience. If your child is going to sleep-away camp, try arranging sleepovers at friends’ houses before the summer. Pack at least double the amount of medical supplies you think your child will need. It’s better to have too much than not enough. Parents should also arrange for proper storage of insulin and diabetes supplies for their child at camp.

If you’re going to a non-diabetes camp, make sure you talk to the camp staff about diabetes care well in advance of arrival. This will help you rest easier once your child is there. Work with your healthcare team to provide education and materials for the camp staff, and to develop a treatment plan for while your child is at camp.

After a child is safely off to camp, it’s not uncommon for parents to feel guilty for taking a break from their child’s disease. But try not to. Instead, use this time to recharge your batteries, focus on your spouse or other children, and take some well deserved me time. This way, you can be an even stronger supporter of your child once camp ends.

Disclaimer: The experiences and suggestions recounted in these articles are not intended as medical advice, and they are not necessarily the “typical” experiences of families with a child who has type 1 diabetes. These situations are unique to the families depicted. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding the treatment of type 1 diabetes and the frequency of blood glucose monitoring.

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