There are a lot of milestones in your child’s life, and we tend to think of most of them happening either when a child is very young (first step, first word, first tooth) or older (driver’s license, high school graduation), but let’s not forget about the stuff that happens in the middle, like the first lost tooth or THE FIRST SLEEPOVER. Now, my daughter had her first “sleepover” with relatives when she was about two-and-a-half. My husband and I took a trip to Disney World so I could run the Disney Princess Half Marathon and we could enjoy a kid-free vacation. (You do you, but I am not taking a non-potty-trained, still-napping kid to spend four days at a theme park.) We left the kid behind, and frankly, she didn’t even notice we were gone. She’s been doing family sleepovers with a couple different relatives ever since, and we’ve only ever had one brief issue. And by the time we got the message that she was missing us and called back, she was over it and didn’t want to talk to us because she was watching The Little Mermaid with her big cousin and there were snacks. Well then. There you go, sleepover tips one and two and three: Good friends, movies, and snacks.
Seriously, though. Your child’s first sleepover—especially their first sleepover with friends—is a pretty big milestone. And while some kids may be ready for it sooner than others, and it may not be a big deal for some (even if it is for you!), other children may need to ease into it. Here are some tips for helping your child prepare for their first sleepover.
When will your child be ready? Well, one sign is when your child is capable of doing their bed time routine on their own. Can they get into their pajamas and brush their teeth by themselves? Can they fall asleep on their own? That is, do they still need a story or a long bed time routine (which is different from liking a story; my daughter prefers a bedtime story and to be tucked in, but she can fall asleep without those things)? What this means is that readiness isn’t necessarily based on a set age.
Test drive the idea with a “sleep under.” If this is would be your child’s first time away from home—especially if they’ve never even spent a night away from home with family—try a sleep under. Pack up all their sleepover gear. Get the kids together for dinner and sleepover activities or playtime, go through the bedtime routine, and spend some time hanging out in pajamas and snuggled in sleeping bags. Then at an agreed-upon time (depending on your child’s age, this could be their regular bedtime, or maybe even a bit later), you’ll pick up your child, so they can go home and sleep in their own bed.
Keep test driving. More test-driving ideas include:
- Spend the night at a relative’s house. This lets your child spend the night away from home somewhere they’re already familiar with, and with people they know well.
- When you both agree that they’re ready to try a night away with a friend, pick a close family friend, rather than the school friend who’s hosting a sleepover birthday party. Again, it’s likely to be a house they’re comfortable in, which gives them a better chance for a success—because even a child who feels like a sleepover is no big deal might find out that they’re more nervous or uncomfortable than they think once they’re in the situation.
- Try the first sleepover with just one friend, rather than a large group. And consider being the host, so your child gets a feeling for what it’s like sleeping and waking up with a “stranger” in their space.
Talk with the hosts. This is just common sense from a safety standpoint, to get to know the family where your child will be staying, if you don’t already. But it’s also nice to know who will be home when your child is there, whether there are pets, whether there are guns in the home and whether/how they are secured, whether there is a landline and, if not, how a phone is available for the children to use in an emergency. Ask questions like whether the children will be sleeping in a bedroom or in a public space like the living room. This can prepare your child for what to expect. I know for my child, who doesn’t like surprises and who likes to know exactly what to expect, this can go a long way to making her feel comfortable with new situations.
Make sure your child knows you’re there for them. Be sure your child knows they can call you and you’ll come and get them if they get scared, or—and this is important for older kids—if something goes on that they’re uncomfortable with. (And be sure to communicate that to the adult hosts, too—especially for younger children who made need help using the phone.) No matter how well you think your child knows your contact information and home address, pack a copy of your contact information in their bag so they have it in case they want to come home. It’s easy to blank out on that kind of information when you’re stressed out.
And when it’s all over, chat with your child about how their sleepover went. You don’t need your kid to dish about the whole thing. After all, at least some of what happens at the sleepover stays at the sleepover, right? Still, check in and see how they felt and whether they had fun. Ask if they were nervous, and if they were, whether there was anything they’d change to feel better next time, or whether they’d rather wait a bit before doing it again. It’s easy for you to play the bad guy and let your child to blame you (“My mom says I can’t come.”) if they want some time.
By the way, to those parents out there who were nervous about the sleepover, congrats to you on letting go, too. It can be just as tough to let them go as it was for them to be brave enough to give a it a try in the first place.