I have thought a lot about when a child can go to sleepovers because I was asked this frequently by my oldest daughter when she was 5 years old. At first when she started to ask this question, I threw out random ages that seemed “old” in my head, like 7 or 8. I will admit that there have been more times than there should where a “how old” question gets a postponed decision by tossing out a number that I hope she forgets by the time it rolls around! I should know better than to be surprised that her memory is better than mine.

However, I think the reason I’ve found it hard to answer this question for my own daughter is that the real answer is “it depends.”

Every child gets to this point at a different time and there is no magic age at which a sleepover is appropriate. Generally speaking, the child has to be old enough to go to sleep on his/her own without a long, specific ritual from a parent. Children who have a lot of anxieties about sleep or the dark, who have significant separation anxiety or who have nighttime enuresis, or bedwetting, which causes distress, may need to wait a little longer than children without these concerns.

Honestly, as a parent you just have to give it a try in order to find out whether your child is ready or not. I’ve seen a number of children appear ready and then panic when the time comes. I’ve seen others that I thought wouldn’t last 10 minutes stick it out and enjoy it. So, to help parents, here are my top five tips for a trial run to see if your child is ready for their first sleepover.

1. Start with a known quantity
Pick a family member (a cousin, for example), or close family friend whom your child already knows well.

2. Practice
A good way to practice is to do it together. For example, when vacationing with extended family or with friends, allow your child to share a room with another to see if they can even sleep in the same room as someone with whom they’d rather play than sleep.

3. Talk about it ahead of time
It is important to prepare your child for what to expect, potential difficulties, and how to handle them. Read a book about sleepovers (there are a lot out there) to show your child that it is okay to be nervous and how to ask for help. Talk about who they can go to at their friend’s house if they are scared. Discuss a plan for what happens if they wake up in the middle of the night afraid. Let the parent of the other child know the plan.

4. Don’t set your expectations too high
Your child may do just fine, but don’t be surprised if you need to pick them up early or if they come home tired and cranky. Don’t plan a lot for the next day to allow them to recuperate.

5. Praise success
Even if your child isn’t as successful as you may have expected or hoped, praise them for any success they had and reassure them that it takes practice and time, but that you will help them get there.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eleanor Mackey, PhD, is a child psychologist and works primarily with the Obesity Institute and Children’s Research Institute. Dr. Mackey is also a mother of two girls.

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