There are no specific "have-to's" when it comes to first sleepovers and there's no "right age" to start overnights. Spending time apart, particularly at night, can be an experience fraught with worry for both parents and kids. From the mundane -- "What if I don't like the dinner they serve?" -- to the more serious -- "How can I feel comfortable putting other adults in charge of my child?" -- the concerns are real on both sides of the aisle. Sleepovers "shouldn't be parent-driven," shares Heather Wittenberg, Psy.D., a parenting psychologist in Maui, Hawaii, but "flow from the child's interest." If your child is never interested in sleepovers or if he tries but fails in being comfortable the first few times, it's all okay. We've got an easy guide to help parents prepare for a child's first sleepover in seven steps.
Is your child a flexible frequent flyer or a cautious fan of the familiar? "A child who has a long history of sleeping in different beds -- due to travel or family transitions -- may find the idea of sleeping at a pal's house quite comfortable," says Elizabeth Berger, M.D., author of Raising Kids with Character. Other children may thrive on routine and hate the idea of change. For them, a sleepover may require a lot of mental preparation. Or, it may just not be their thing, and that's all right. "A child who begs for permission is more likely to be ready than a child who seems intimidated by the whole idea," says Dr. Berger.
A good indicator that your child is ready for a sleepover is "if they've been separated before and handled it well," explains Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Trust Me, Mom -- Everyone Else is Going. Having a trial run with relatives such as grandparents is a good stepping stone to spending the night with another family. Kids who get up ten times or more in the middle of the night for a cup of water and reassurance from mom will need more time before they're ready to weather the dark hours with a friend's family. Plus, you may not want to inflict your child's active overnights on others.
Even the most easygoing children will want to stay close to home when times are turbulent. If your family is going through a divorce, grieving a death, moving, or welcoming a new child, your kid may crave a little extra security, and it's probably not the best time to test out the sleepover waters. If your child doesn't seem ready to spend a night apart, "there is no need to force her," says Wittenberg. "You have to pick your parenting battles and this should not be one of them." There is no developmental reason that they need to experience a sleepover.
Try hosting an overnight first and invite just one of your child's good friends. Cohen-Sandler recommends picking a friend your child is comfortable with and who has been to your house before. This way your child can get a good idea of what a sleepover is like before experiencing one at someone else's house. You can also try other trial runs to get your child comfortable with the idea of being away from home. "Lead up to the sleepover with briefer visits to the friends' home or smaller trips away from parents, such as shopping trips with other families or an overnight with close relatives," Dr. Berger suggests.
"No matter how much you explain the concept of a sleepover, it won't sink in until the sun sets," explains Wittenberg. "Nighttime is always dicey for kids. They don't really understand what happens when they sleep; they can't distinguish dreams and reality. It's fraught, and having an unusual sleep situation just compounds that anxiety." Ask your child what concerns her about her first overnight. "A lot of times when my kids changed their mind, I found out later that they were afraid of an older brother or were worried about the food that would be served," Wittenberg recalls. "You have to be a detective as a parent. Ask, listen, and figure out what the concerns are." Ease your child into the transition by telling them to call if they feel uncomfortable, and that it's okay either way if they want to go home or stay until the morning. You're giving them power in that moment to work through the anxiety and make a choice that's good for them.
Come up with a plan in case your child can't fall asleep, needs to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, wets the bed, or just doesn't want to eat the broccoli casserole. Cohen-Sandler recommends role-playing any conversation that might be hard for your child, such as telling a parent they don't want to eat something that's been served or that they miss you and want to call home. Make sure you pack any loveys, special pillows and blankets, and special medications that will make your child feel at home and safe in a new bed and strange environment. This is especially helpful for younger kids (ages 3 to 5) and kids who are more nervous than usual about being away from home for the first time. Plan an "escape" route, just in case your child wants to go home later in the night. "Let her know it's no big deal and that you will pick her up. Don't set it up as some big test she has to pass," says Cohen-Sandler.
Now that you've done what you can to comfort your child, it's time to take a few steps to put yourself at ease. "A good parent will put herself in your position and make you feel comfortable. If you're not feeling reassured, that may give you pause about whether you want to go for it," says Wittenberg. Ask about the evening: Will older siblings be around? What time will the kids go to bed? Do they plan to show any movies? It's not unreasonable to want to know how your child's evening will go. If your child doesn't like scary movies but is too afraid to say something, speak up ahead of time and let the parents know of any other potential trouble spots, including allergies to food and pets. Wittenberg says, "When I'm hosting, I put it all out there. I say, 'We have no guns, we have no dog, we have no pool. We are going to watch this cartoon, eat pizza, and go to bed.'" Tell them you want your kids to be able to call home whenever they need to do so.
Sure, you may end up picking up a sleepy kid in pajamas, but teaching your kids to take risks and trust their instincts will pay off down the road. "You're validating your child's right to let you know (and your desire to know) their needs at any given time," Cohen-Sandler affirms. "It might be an inconvenience to pick them up at two in the morning, but when they're at a party as teenagers and call you at 2 a.m., you'd rather get that call than not." Don't forget, you can always try again. "If you have to make that pick-up run, don't worry. Most kids will be able to do it the next time," says Wittenberg. After one or two false starts, most kids will start feeling comfortable, self-assured, and have successful sleepovers.