Don't lose sleep over slumber parties

I’m a pushover for sleepovers. Unless our family has a scheduling conflict, I’m usually open to the idea of hosting an overnight guest or two on a weekend night, or to allowing my children to spend the night at a close friend’s. It’s probably because I have fond memories from my own childhood of evenings spent baking cookies, whispering secrets and watching movies with friends, and I’d like my kids to have similar experiences.

But I do sometimes have sleepover remorse. As the mom of three children, now ages 15, 13, and 11, I have learned through trial and error that not all sleepovers are created equal. Some go so smoothly, one is tempted to extend them for several more hours, while others are so chaotic and stressful that they have no business being associated with the word “sleep.”

What can parents do to improve the chances of having a positive sleepover experience for their child?

Consider your child’s age, personality, and maturity level.

According to PBS Parents, sleepovers are most popular among kids aged eight to 14, at a developmental stage when they are seeking to be more independent and are building self-confidence as they develop friendships with peers. If kids are younger than eight but have had experience staying overnight with a cousin, or a grandparent, they may be ready to stay with a good friend.

Be prepared in case a child wants to go home early; if you are the host, have a way to reach the parents; or, if your child is the one who’s new to sleepovers, make sure the host parents know how to contact you.

For kids with separation anxiety, the fear of the unknown can lead to worry and physical symptoms like nausea and headaches. The NYC Child Study Center recommends that parents allow children to express their concerns, answer their questions calmly, and help them develop a plan of action for when they feel homesick; don’t give excessive reassurance or ignore the problem.

Even in sleepover situations where the host parents enforce a set bedtime, kids may not get enough sleep. If your child is one of those kids who can’t bounce back quickly from a night of disrupted sleep, you could consider the half-sleepover option, where you pick up your child at bedtime, or you could host the sleepover at your house.

Communicate with 
the other parents.

It sounds like common sense, but some parents think nothing of dropping off a child at a friend’s house without establishing the basics. Who will be supervising the children? What time will the sleepover end? Where can the parent(s) be reached during the night? Does the child have any allergies? If you have restrictions about particular movies or video games, be sure to mention them, and don’t be afraid to ask specific questions.

Clear communication is especially important when a friend hails from a different cultural background. Sleepovers are considered a normal part of adolescence in the United States, but parents who were raised in other countries may have specific concerns about what the children will be doing and how they will be supervised.

Set and enforce ground rules.

If you’re the hosting parent, establish expectations from the beginning after discussing them with your child, such as where everyone will sleep, and what time the lights will go out. Are guests allowed to have cell phones and electronic games during the night? Or will you collect them at the door, and monitor their use? Don’t hover, but let the kids know that you are present, and be willing to act on signals that a guest is feeling excluded or uncomfortable.

Plan ahead.

Most tweens don’t need any help figuring out how to spend their time, but it doesn’t hurt to have a few back-up activities in mind, like some kind of physical activity that will tire them out and aid sleep. Involve your child in this, as well as in the planning of the snacks and beverages you’ll serve. A make-your-own pizza or a sundae-topping bar can be a way of feeding and entertaining guests at the same time.

Take some time after the sleepover to discuss it with 
your child.

What did he or she enjoy most? What would have made it a better experience? Use this information to help you plan the next event, or to evaluate whether your child is ready for another sleepover.