Sleepovers have long been considered a rite of passage of the American childhood. But sending your child off for her first all-night affair can be a daunting experience. Is she ready? Are you ready? How do you make sure it’s a safe, fun experience that will foster her social development?
These worries are perfectly natural. The sleepover was born—according to Paula Fass’ Encyclopedia of Children—in the bucolic 50s and 60s. Today parents have much more modern concerns. But that doesn’t mean that kids have to miss out. With the right preparation and discussion, you can easily gauge whether your child is ready for her first sleepover and all the pillow fighting fun you remember.
- Don’t dwell on age. Not even the American Academy of Pediatrics has identified any such thing as “too young” for a sleepover if a child is emotionally ready for a night away from home. Deciding the appropriate age for a sleepover is totally your call. A great first step is to ask. If she’s excited by the prospect of her first overnight adventure, she’s probably ready to hit the sleeping bags.
- Talk it out. It’s natural for first-timers to have a few worries—even if they don’t voice them. Grab a snack and start the conversation with excited sleepover talk. Then ask if she has any questions or worries—or suggest a few to gauge her response. If she seems worried, tackle concerns with a concrete escape plan. What if she won’t like the food? Put snacks in her bag. Scared at night? You’ll hop in the car and come get her. When she knows that there’s no worry you can’t fix, she’ll go forth with Napoleonic determination.
- Test run. Everything’s easier the second time around—especially sleepovers. If she’s interested in sleepovers but the unknown is giving her anxiety, start small. Invite a friend over to spend the night at your place for a preliminary taste of how sleepovers work. Then let her try again at the home of relatives her age that she knows well. The test runs will help her work out her anxieties in a safe environment and feel more comfortable when it’s time for the real thing.
- Ask questions. Kids aren’t the only ones with sleepover worries. If you have concerns, ask the host questions—as many as you like, says clinical psychologist Roni Cohen-Sandler, author of Trust Me, Mom — Everyone Else is Going! From bedtime and meal plans to scheduled activities and where the kids will sleep, no question is too silly if it’ll help calm your nerves. Other parents understand your worries, and if they don’t, your kid should have her first sleepover somewhere else.
- Give a courtesy call. For the sake of transparency (and good manners), tell the host parents if your child sleepwalks, occasionally wets the bed or has other nighttime hiccups they should know about, says Dr. Jodi Mindell, associate director of the Sleep Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Your advice on how to handle flare-ups will help things go smoothly. If the host parents have concerns about handling a sensitive sleeping situation, move the next sleepover to your house.
- Stay awake. Even if you’re normally an early bird, it’s important to stay up—or at least keep the phone by your head with the ringer on high. You wouldn’t be the first parent to get the “Come get me” call after a bad dream at 3 a.m. Be cheerful and tell her you’ll be there right away so she knows she can rely on you. Save a few casual questions about her difficulties for the next day. If she doesn’t want to talk, let it go. If you don’t treat this hiccup like a big deal, she won’t either.
- Try again. The first time isn’t always a charm but the second or third time may be. If nothing more than mild separation anxiety or a nightmare made her abandon ship, encourage her to get back in the saddle. Come up with a game plan for how this time will be different: more calls home, nightmare management skill-practice at home or whatever she needs. Overcoming her fears will teach her that “If at first you don’t succeed…” is a great motto by which to live your life.
For anyone who grew up in the 1980s, sleepovers were like, totally necessary. But while sleepovers can be fun, there’s no reason why a child who isn’t ready should feel pushed into an all-night anxiety fest. If your child’s ready, a sleepover is a great way to foster a sense of independence and help her learn to bond with friends on their own terms. And don’t worry—no one has put training bras in the freezer since 1992.