First Sleepovers

Kids this age are eager to spend the night with their friends, but it’s not always easy for them–or you.

Your child’s been chattering all day about spending the night at her friend’s house–she’s bursting with anticipation. You drop her off with all her nighttime necessities–her favorite bear, a book and her pillow. A few hours later, just as you and your beloved are preparing for your own sleepover celebration, the phone rings. On the other end is your child begging and pleading, “Mommy, I want to come home!” Let’s face it: With 6- to 8-year-olds, the word “sleepover” is often a misnomer.

Grade-schoolers are drawn to the big-kid aspects of sleepovers. They get to be with their friends all night, play new games, eat different foods and do things they’re not normally allowed to do, like stay up late. But when it’s time to turn out the lights, it’s common for kids this age to regress and long for the security of home, says Lane Tanner, M.D., associate director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the Children’s Hospital and Research Center in Oakland, California.

Though it might seem easier to put off sleepovers until your child’s a little older, she’ll probably get her first invitation before age 8. And if she’s enthusiastic about giving it a go, you should be too. To help everyone enjoy sweet dreams, here are answers to some common sleepover questions:

Q: How can I prepare my child for his first night away from home?

A: Before your child stays at a friend’s house, he should be used to staying overnight with grandparents or other close relatives. Some experts find it helpful for kids to first try a “day over” with a friend. “Your child needs to feel comfortable playing at his friend’s house for several hours without you there,” says Jan Faust, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This lets him become familiar with the new surroundings, get to know his friend’s parents and learn their house rules.

Q: My daughter often says she wants to spend the night with her friend, but each time she ends up calling us to pick her up. What should I do?

A: Tell her she can call you from her friend’s house to chat, and encourage her to bring a special memento from home. For 8-year-old McKenzie Aubrey of Greenwood, Indiana, a framed photograph of her parents does the trick. “As long as she has that picture, she’s fine,” says her mom, Crystal. “But if she forgets it, our phone tends to ring a lot, and she almost always ends up back home.” “There are no benefits to forcing your child to stay all night,” Dr. Tanner says. “If she calls begging to come home, that means she’s not having fun anymore–and if you refuse to get her, she’ll be much more reluctant to go the next time.” But if your child has a record of failed sleepovers, you might want to decline future invitations until she’s a little older. In the meantime, if she’s still eager to go, try “sleep-unders”–dress her in pj’s, bring her to a friend’s for the evening and pick her up around 9 p.m.

Q: My son loves going on sleepovers, but he stays up too late and is exhausted and irritable for days afterward. Should I not let him go?

A: “This kind of sleepover fallout is not surprising,” Dr. Faust says. Kids this age need an average of 10 to 11 hours of sleep every night, and sleepovers definitely leave them with a deficit. Limit sleepovers to no more than two per month and say “no” if your child–or you–has a particularly busy week ahead. It’s best to schedule a sleepover for a Friday instead of a Saturday so your child has more time to recuperate before returning to school. Plan the next day’s activities with plenty of downtime and perhaps even a nap. If your child wants to have more sleepovers than you think is wise, plan more weekend playdates instead of all-nighters.

Q: I don’t know the host family very well, and I’m concerned that my child might participate in activities that are off-limits at my house. How should I handle this?

A: Postpone the sleepover until you feel comfortable. Let the kids have playdates at your home and at the friend’s so you can get to know the parents, the child and their home. When you do make a plan, find out in advance about the night’s activities. Ask about their house rules and share your own such as no PG-13 movies, no violent video games and no unsupervised time on the computer. It’s also important to ask whether there are guns in the house and if so, how they are stored. It’s your responsibility to protect your child. If anything makes you uneasy, don’t hesitate to call off the sleepover–or suggest that the kids stay at your house instead.

Host a Super Sleepover

Here are five ways to make sure your child’s friends are comfortable when they spend the night at your house:

  • Chat with the other parents beforehand. See whether there’s anything special you should know about such as allergies to pets or certain foods, bedwetting, fear of the dark or sleepwalking.
  • Leave plenty of lights on. That includes the hall, the kitchen and the bathroom–so no one walks into walls or gets spooked by unfamiliar surroundings. You might also want to give each child a mini flashlight.
  • Set–and stick to–a reasonable bedtime. Or at least make sure the lights are out at a decent hour.
  • Plan a wind-down activity. Have the kids read to each other, tell stories or sing songs.
  • Set a pickup time. That way the child knows exactly when to expect his parents the next day.

Copyright© 2005. Reprinted with permission from the May 2005 issue of Parents magazine.