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As school continues, new friendships will bud, and that usually means new playdates and the ever-so-dreaded sleepovers.

Sleeping away from your parents can be a frightful experience for some children. There are countless “what if’s” a child faces while apart from their parents: What if their house has noises? What if I don’t like the food they serve? What if I have to go potty? The list goes on and on!

But spending time away from parents can be a rewarding and positive growth experience for both parents and child. It helps cultivate confidence, independence and improves their ability to navigate social situations on their own.

Tips for Hosting a Sleepover

When hosting a sleepover, here are a few suggestions to ensure your child and their guests have a positive experience.

The right time for a sleepover.

It is best to wait until your child is 7 - 8 years of age before hosting a sleepover. This can be adjusted if your child has expressed interest in sleepovers or has spent nights apart from you, such as staying with grandparents or a relative’s home.

Talk to the other parents before the night.

It’s important to understand the quirks and idiosyncrasies of other children who will be in your care. Get to know their family rules so you can maintain some consistency and structure they are accustomed to. Perhaps a child is not allowed caffeine or sugar. Or is prone to nightmares when watching certain types of shows. This information will be valuable as you plan their evening. Don’t be shy inquiring about children’s nighttime wetting habits or fears. Knowing this in advance can help you prepare accordingly in case an incident occurs. This is also a good time to share expectations you have: when to drop off, what they should bring, when to pick up, etc.

Limit the number of children.

Start small. Maybe 1 or 2 friends at first, then increase the number as you and your child become more comfortable with sleepovers. For larger groups of children, it is best to have two adults (or an older responsible teen) to watch over the group.

Consider the guest list carefully.

Introducing new children to an established group of children will probably yield a bad experience for the new child. Take into consideration personalities. Are the quiet, introverted kids being overwhelmed by loud outgoing children? Do all the children play well together? Are there cliques where one child may be left out or targeted?

Healthy food is a must.

The last thing you want to do is clean up vomit or nurse an upset stomach of a nervous young child. Limit snacks to low-sugar/non-caffeinated beverages and light snacks. Take into consideration allergies, especially nut allergies. Be sure to give plenty of time for children to digest their snacks before bedtime.

Structure activities.

For younger groups of children, having structured activities will help keep children engaged. But don’t force children who don’t want to do an activity to participate. You may want to have crayons or other activities an individual can do while others are engaged.

You can also create a fun schedule with your child while you plan the evening. A poster decorated with bright colors that lays out the evening activities can be a fun project leading up to the sleepover. It is also a good way to introduce expectations to your child and to the guests.

Bedtime expectations.

Establish a lights-out time and communicate that to the group well in advance. Understand that children will not go to sleep right away. There will still be whispers, chatter and even some “rule breaking” in the cloak of darkness. Younger children should have a lights out time approximately 30 minutes later than their normal bedtime, and a firm “go to sleep” 60 minutes after lights out. This will create a sense of getting to stay up real late and also let them challenge the rule a bit. For older children, you may need to have a bit firmer “go to sleep” or even a threat that you will sleep with them if they don’t go to bed.

All children should sleep on the same level. Meaning everyone is on the floor in sleeping bags and no individual gets to sleep on the bed above everyone else.

Preparing Your Child for Their First Sleepover

If your child is sleeping away from home for the first time, here are a few suggestions that can make your child’s experience a memorable one!

When they are ready.

It’s important to not force your child to participate in sleepovers. Some children have no desire sleep at another’s home or even to have friends overnight. It is recommended that sleepovers start at 7 or 8 years of age and only if they express the desire to do so.

Mock-sleepovers.

It could be fun for you and your child to have a mock sleepover. Set up sleeping bags in the family room and sleep there overnight. This will help your child get used to being outside the comfort of their own bed.

Give your child a charged cell phone.

Let your child know they can call you at any time. Practice having them call you on the phone.

Rest up.

Have your child go to bed a bit earlier the nights leading up to the big event. Being well rested beforehand can help mitigate stress and emotional moments that may happen during the overnight.

Talk to your child.

Explain what a sleepover is like. Share your experience. Talk about some of the possible things that could happen and how to deal with them. A couple of examples: food your child doesn’t like and how they can politely decline. Having to use a strange bathroom. Different smells and sounds in a strange house.

Try out an overnight with a family member.

Maybe have your child sleep over at a cousin or grandparent’s house first before trying an overnight at a friend’s house.

Keep the "day after" light.

Your child will come home tired. They may also be cranky. Try not to pack the following day with lots of activities and give him or her the chance to rest.

Talk to your child about boundaries.

For their safety, instruct your child to stay out of other bedrooms or go anywhere alone with an adult. Tell them that they are not to go with any adult other than the hosting child’s parents. Let them know they can call you at any time to come get them if they feel unsafe or scared.

Talk to the hosting parents.

Find out how many children will be there. What other adults or older children will be home. What plans are the hosting parent’s making for the overnight. Share your child’s bedtime quirks; nighttime bathroom habits; etc. Be sure to get clear times for drop off and pick up. Let them know your child will have a cell phone to call home or that they will need to use their phone to call home.

Sleepovers are suppose to be a time of growth and independence with a small dose of fear. All of these experiences help your child develop emotionally, intellectually and socially. But your child should never be forced to participate in a sleepover. Listen to your child and honor their level of interest.

Jessica McCool, MD

Methodist Physicians Clinic Council Bluffs

Dr. Jessica McCool is a Family Medicine Physician who strives to get to know the whole family and care for every member from the children to the grandparents.       KETV Mommy Minutes ...

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