The week my son turned 7, he received yet another invite to sleep at a friend's house. I'd always politely declined, but after much pleading on Jack's part I reluctantly agreed this time. That night, I couldn't sleep. Was Jack okay? Was he scared? Was I going to get a call at 2 a.m. to pick him up? The good news: He made it through the night. The bad: He stayed up late playing Legos, woke up even earlier than usual, and was a cranky monster the next day.
Your child has most likely spent the night at his grandparents' house or with his cousins. But taking the next step and staying at a friend's home can be intimidating for both children and parents. Before you dig out the sleeping bag, find out what child-development experts say about whether a 7- or 8-year-old is mature enough to handle an overnight playdate (or -- gasp! -- a slumber party) at his BFF's.
Ready or Not?
Many kids go on their first sleepover at this age, but the question of whether your child is ready to spend the night away from you is really up to you. "It depends on your child's temperament and sleep habits. If she's outgoing, self-sufficient, and can sleep independently, she's probably ready for a sleepover at a friend's house," says Cynthia Harbeck-Weber, Ph.D., cochair of the division of child psychology and psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. "On the other hand, if she still gets up several times during the night or is really anxious about sleeping away from you, you might want to wait for her first sleepover." Consider it again in three to six months.
If you think your child is ready, it's key to pick the right friend for the first sleepover. "Even if your son really wants to stay over at Ian's house, ask yourself, 'Has he had extended playdates with Ian that haven't ended in arguments? Or if they do fight sometimes, are they able to work it out themselves?'" says Rebecca Dingfelder, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Durham, North Carolina. "It's also important that you know the family well and are comfortable with them."
Talk to the child's parents about who'll be home the night of the planned sleepover (your only child may be overwhelmed in a house with two siblings), any safety concerns you might have, and their routines. Find out from the other family how late their child stays up when he has a friend over. "At this age, I wouldn't push your child's bedtime more than half an hour beyond what it normally is," says Parents advisor Jennifer Shu, M.D., a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Also inquire about when his friend normally wakes up. If your kid likes to sleep late on the weekend and he's staying at the house of an early riser, you're going to end up with a child who is overtired the next day.
On the day of the sleepover, ask your child if he has any questions or concerns about spending the night away from you. And reassure him that he can call you at any time if he's uncomfortable or wants to come home. Then set up a time for the other parents to phone or text you and let you know how things are going. You'll also want to pack a favorite stuffed animal or anything that will make him feel more at home.
Of course, doing all this doesn't guarantee a successful sleepover. Kristen Bulkley, of Darien, Connecticut, did everything right to prepare her 7-year-old son, Jake, for his first sleepover. She got a text message at 9 p.m. saying that Jake was having a wonderful time. "But somewhere between 9 and 9:30 p.m., when it was time for bed, it went from 'I'm okay!' to 'I want my mom!'" recalls Bulkley.
If you don't think your child is ready for a sleepover, opt for a "sleep-under" either at your house or at a friend's. It's basically an evening playdate: A child goes to a friend's to play, has dinner, and even changes into her pajamas, but you pick her up just before bedtime. "A child gets to experience the best parts of a sleepover but then goes home to sleep in her own bed," explains Dr. Shu. Once your child has gotten a few mock sleepovers under her belt, you may decide to try a traditional one.
Another option if you're on the fence about your child spending the night at a friend's is to host a sleepover at your place. "There are a lot of positives to being on your home turf. Your child can look to you for guidance as she learns how to do bedtime with someone else there," says Dr. Dingfelder.
The Thompson family, of Rye, New York, tried a twist on this idea when their 7-year-old daughter begged for her first sleepover. Sydney and her dad, BJ, invited her best friend, Amelia, and her father over to spend the night in a tent in the backyard. "The girls had a blast putting up the tent and making s'mores over the fire," says BJ. "I think it was comforting to the girls to have both dads there."
Unless your kid has slept at the birthday child's house a couple of times without a problem, it's probably best to hold off on slumber parties until he is 9 or 10 years old. "There are a lot of social complications -- like fighting and feeling left out -- that can happen as a result of several overtired 7- and 8-year-olds being together," says Dr. Dingfelder. "Plus, they're likely to disrupt each other as they try to fall asleep." Of course, if your child receives an invitation to a sleepover, you could suggest that he go to enjoy many of the fun evening activities but come home before bedtime.
Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Parents magazine.