By Kylie Dawson
A friend asked me this question the other day in relation to her 3.5 year old, as the parents of her child’s best friend suggested that they have a sleepover. (Please note, I am referring to sleepovers with friends, not with well-known family members). I must admit that I was a bit taken aback, as my child didn’t have his first sleepover till recently, and he is 8 years old. However, on reflection, I thought about how each child and each situation is different and there is not one answer to the “When should sleepovers start?” question. I would however encourage anyone thinking about sleepovers to consider the following:
Is this right for your child right now?
It is important to consider your child’s age, developmental level, needs and wants, when considering sleepovers. Yes, others might be doing this, and yes, their best friend (and their parents) might want the sleepover to happen, but if this is not right for your child at this moment, then we must respect that. There are lots of other things friends can do together that aren’t sleepovers.
Have your child’s wishes been considered?
A lot of children might initially get excited and be very keen on the idea of a sleepover, but make sure you take some time to explain what that means. You might ask them one morning what they think, and they might be super keen, and then later that night when you are supporting them through the bedtime routine you say “If you stayed at your friend’s house you would be brushing your teeth, and getting into your PJs, and reading a story with them, and probably laying on a mattress on the floor next to your friend – how does that sound to you?” We aren’t trying to make it sound scary, but we do want to make sure they know what a sleepover actually means. And remember, you can ask your child and consider their wishes, but you still might decide against what they want (which seems to occur a lot when you are a parent)
The other family
How comfortable and confident do you feel in regard to the other family caring for your child? Do you trust the other people in the family? Do you have a relationship where you can respectfully share your wishes and expectations and trust that they will be met? For example, you might have specific beliefs about screentime that you would like the other family to uphold whilst your child is at their place. Or you might have approaches to food that you would like to see followed. If you are going to entrust your child into the care of another family when you are not present, you have to trust them, be confident that they will respect your requests, and be comfortable asking for them to be followed.
Others in the home
Find out who else will be at the home, because when you ask the question, you might find out that the father’s brother and two older children are coming for the night as well, and knowing this might change your mind, as you might not want your child there with strangers without you.
Verbal language skills
Can your child clearly communicate their needs and wants, or do you do a lot of interpreting for them? (Note: this is very common and is usually not anything to worry about). If your child is still developing their verbal language skills, perhaps give them some more time before they are in another space without you. Not only is this important to ensure they can be clear about what they might want or need (for example, “No, I don’t need any help, I can go to the toilet on my own”) but will also help to make the experience more enjoyable for everyone, because we can all become pretty angry and upset if others don’t understand us, and managing the big emotions that come along with that anger can be overwhelming for all of us, especially young children.
You also want to ensure your child can come home and clearly tell you about their sleepover experience. They will want to share all the fun (popcorn and a movie, ice-cream after dinner, looking at the moon through their friend’s telescope) but they also may want and need to share some other things to get your support – maybe they watched a scary TV show, maybe an older sibling was mean and pushed your child, maybe there was no nightlight and they took a long time to get to sleep, or maybe something sad happened, like their friend’s fish died. Whatever it is, you want your child to be able to share it with you so you can help them to manage their feelings and process their experience. (And yep, I am sure the other parents will tell you if anything eventful happened, but that is through their lens and perspective; you want to make sure you can get your child’s interpretation of the experience as well).
Most of us have a bedtime routine (granted, as adults we might not have someone read us a fairy tale and sing us a lullaby while they tickle our backs), but we all do rely on key activities and experiences to help our body and mind feel safe and ready to settle in for sleep. And some of us rely heavily on that routine, and others just seem to go a bit more with the flow; so, do consider how your child responds when they are not able to engage in their normal bedtime routine.
Night-time toilet training
Is your child night-time toilet trained? Or are they in the process of doing this, with some nights being dry nights, and others not. Or are they wearing a nappy? And if they are, can they get into and out of it themselves? If you are in the middle of night-time toilet training, don’t put that extra pressure or stress on them, or yourself, or the other parents, by having them attend a sleepover. There will be plenty of years for sleepovers; let them have the comfort of routine during this transitionary time.
Is your little one prone to waking in the night and needing your support to get back to sleep? Most likely, “YES”, as I haven’t met many parents who don’t experience this on a fairly regular basis. If this is your little one, maybe give them some more time and opportunities to practice getting back to sleep during the night before going to another person’s place (and hopefully this will save you from a 2am phone call to come and collect your child).
The final thing
Ultimately your decision will depend on your child, their needs and developmental stage, what you are comfortable with, and the other family that is involved. The important thing to remember is that if you decide this is not the right time for your child, they aren’t missing out – they have years and years ahead of them for sleepovers and it is vital that you, and your child, are confident, comfortable, and ready for the experience.