Navigating the Complexities of Sleepovers

By Published On: March 9th, 2023Tags:

Whether your kid is always eager to RSVP yes to a slumber party, you’re a hard no on sleepovers, or you’re wavering somewhere in the middle, experts want you to consider some things.

When I think back on my childhood, some of my favorite memories involve me and my best friends staying up way too late in my basement, eating pizza, playing games, and watching our favorite movies. By the time I reached the third grade, it seemed like every weekend I’d either have a friend sleeping over, or I was spending the night at their home. Slumber parties were a major part of my life as a kid. 

Despite these happy memories, I don’t allow my 3-year-old and 6-year-old to have sleepovers with anyone aside from their grandparents or cousins—at least for now. 

Over the last couple of years, there has been a growing debate among parents over whether or not we should allow our kids to attend sleepovers and slumber parties. While some parents want their children to have the opportunity to create memories of late-night laughter with their friends, others are more hesitant, wondering if the risks are worth the reward.

As with all things in parenting, there is no right answer—which makes this issue all the more difficult to work through. How do you know if sleepovers are a good idea for your individual child? How can you help your kid understand why you won’t allow them to attend? Or, what’s the right way to prepare them for potential risks if you agree? Why is something that seemed so innocent to us as kids so incredibly complicated now that we’re the ones in charge? 

If you’ve found yourself feeling overwhelmed by this topic, you aren’t alone. But as much as we appreciate real parents sharing their takes on social media (well, sometimes), it’s always important to balance out this info with some advice from experts, so we spoke to three psychologists who shared their thoughts and tips on all of the biggest questions on parents’ minds when it comes to sleepovers. 

What Are The Risks of Sleepovers for Young Children? 

As someone who came out of childhood completely unscathed by sleepovers, I didn’t quite understand what the big deal was when my husband brought the topic up a few years back. But once we started talking about potential dangers (and how fortunate we both are to have avoided them as kids), I found myself reevaluating a parental decision I thought I had already figured out—or, rather, what I had never paused to truly consider. 

“Most parents and professionals would agree that ensuring the safety and well-being of young children is of utmost importance when considering sleepovers,” says Tish Taylor, PhD, a child psychologist in Kansas City, Kansas. 

Regarding general safety, Dr. Taylor says it’s important to consider who will be in the home where a child is staying—including all adults, teens, and other children. Caregivers should also consider where their child would be sleeping during the sleepover—would they be sharing a room or a bed with someone else? If so, who? 

These details are extremely important when you consider the risk of sexual abuse or assault. The KidSafe Foundation reports that 90% of the time a child is harmed, it’s by someone they know, such as a family member, coach, or neighbor. 

Another factor to consider is routine disruptions. While not as dire as potential abuse, injury, or death, Dr. Taylor encourages caregivers to weigh the associated consequences. 

“Disrupting sleep routines and general routines can take a toll on the mood and behavior of young children,” she explains, adding, “If a young child is not getting consistent sleep or if they are having difficulty sleeping away from their parents, sleepovers may cause some disruption and require a few days to return to a normal sleep pattern and a rested state.” 

She notes that this is less likely to occur when a child is sleeping in a familiar place with familiar people. 

Other possible risks include access to alcohol and/or drugs, food allergy safety, extended screen time, and exposure to illness (especially important for immunocompromised kids or their family members). Bullying is also a concern, especially as kids get closer to middle school years. Bullying can happen at large slumber parties, one-on-one, or even online if the kids have access to the internet during their overnight. 

Finally, there is also the risk of guns in the home. An estimated 30 million kids in America live in a house with at least one gun, and 4.6 million of them have access to one that is loaded and unlocked. In 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) said at least 125 toddlers 5 years old or younger shot themselves or someone else by accessing unsecured, loaded guns, and according to Everytown, between 2015 and 2020, there were more than 2,000 unintentional shootings by kids under the age of 18.

While you may do your best to control these potential hazards under your own roof, how can you ensure your child’s safety and well-being once your child is sleeping under someone else’s? 

What about sleepovers with family members?

“Assuming that the child knows the family members and their homes well, the risks [of a sleepover] may be lower,” says Dr. Taylor. She says this is particularly true with family members who have a good understanding of the child’s routines, temperaments, and preferences. “If a child is comforted by the family member(s) and shows some attachment to them, this is a positive sign that a sleepover could be successful.” 

For caregivers who want to test the waters with sleepovers, a slumber party with a close relative or a same-age cousin may be the perfect way to do it, according to Maryam Abdullah, PhD, a developmental psychologist and the Parenting Program director at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “This smaller step can give parents a better understanding of their child’s flexibility outside their typical routine and the chance to think about how their child’s unique needs can be met when they’re in a different setting,” she explains. 

Keep in mind, however, that you should still be selective about which family member(s) you entrust with your child overnight. “Relative risk needs to be assessed on an individual basis,” says Mona Delahooke, PhD,  child psychologist and author of Brain-Body Parenting: How to Stop Managing Behaviors and Start Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids, adding “Being a family member doesn’t mean they are less ‘risky’ from an emotional or another safety perspective.” 

Are sleepovers safer for older children?

As kids get older, their social needs and wants evolve right alongside their maturity, so they may become increasingly interested in slumber parties as they rise through elementary school (and beyond!). Unfortunately, there is no magic age when sleepover risks disappear, but some kids might be more equipped to deal with them as they get older. 

“A child’s ability to problem solve, accurately report a situation, and have access to the parent if something doesn’t feel right can minimize the risk [of sleepovers],” says Dr. Delahooke. “If the parent feels like their child has a plan to connect with them if they feel uncomfortable [at the sleepover] for any reason (cell phones can help here), this would be a child who is developmentally sophisticated.” 

In addition to their development of general maturity, as kids get older they also become better at communicating, so they’ll be able to tell a caregiver whether or not they even want to attend a sleepover. “The more that a child is able to express themselves, their basic feelings and emotions, and their desires, the more likely they are also able to express their comfort with a sleepover,” says Dr. Taylor. 

What Are the Benefits of Sleepovers? 

The risks of sleepovers for young children are real, but overnights away from home can also be beneficial. Dr. Delahooke explains, “Safe sleepovers can provide opportunities for kids to develop additional flexibility and resilience.” She acknowledges that there are certainly concerns parents should consider, but that under the right circumstances, “Sleepovers can be awesome!”

According to the Child Mind Institute, overnights can also help build confidence and independence. Additionally, sleepovers can be good for developing social skills and forging closer bonds and friendships. Spending the night outside the home also has the potential to help kids strengthen their problem-solving skills and even improve their self-esteem. 

Another great benefit of sleepovers is exposure to new experiences. Depending on where they are spending the night, a child may get a first-hand look at a different type of family from their own or witness practices from another culture or religion. A kid may also have the opportunity to try new foods, hear a different language, or simply find out what it’s like to follow the rules in someone else’s home. 

Are Sleepovers Right for Your Child?

Suppose you’re wavering on whether or not to allow sleepovers. In that case, it’s important to remember that no matter what you decide, you’re doing right by your child by simply putting thought into the decision. “At the root of this question is an understandable instinct that parents have to protect their kids,” says Dr. Delahooke.

Still, frustratingly, the answer to this question isn’t straightforward. Every family, child, and situation is different. 

“Sleepovers are not at all part of some families’ cultural traditions, but it may be a rite of passage for other families,” says Dr. Abdullah. “For some children, they may be eager for the opportunity to have a sleepover at their friends’ homes, but other children might feel an intense sense of pressure around this possibility.”

When you’re trying to decide whether or not slumber parties are a good idea, remember that how your child will handle the situation is just as important as their general safety. 

Dr. Taylor notes, for young children anxiety is a key factor to consider—and likely an indicator of how successful (or unsuccessful) a sleepover could be. 

“[Elevated anxiety] often looks like more intense emotional reactions and increased fears around sleeping alone, being separated from parents, or being out of their comfort zone. If your child has increased anxiety in these areas, sleepovers would likely increase their anxiety and have the strong potential to disrupt their routine, mood, and sleeping routines once back home.” 

Talking to Your Child About Sleepovers

No matter what you decide, you’re very likely going to have to have a conversation with your child about sleepovers—whether it’s to prepare them for possible dangers or to explain why they aren’t allowed to stay over at a friend’s house for a night. It’s a delicate topic that has to be covered compassionately. 

For caregivers who want to allow sleepovers, some tips our experts shared include:

  • Prepare your child for the basic schedule they can anticipate at their sleepover. Include times for drop-off and pickup, as well as what types of activities they’ll do while they’re there. 
  • Talk to your child about trusting their instincts, and provide them with a way to get in touch with you in the event that something doesn’t feel or seem right while they’re at the slumber party. 
  • Teach or reiterate “good touch and bad touch.” Make sure they understand body boundaries, the anatomically correct names of their private body parts, and what is safe in terms of touching—particularly if they will need help using the bathroom or taking a bath.
  • Prepare your child for what kinds of emotional interactions are inappropriate and signal the need to tell a parent.
  • Have a discussion with your child about guns (in a manner that makes sense for their age). Remind them that if they come across one they should stay away from it and tell an adult. (Before agreeing to a sleepover, it’s also a good idea to ask the adults who are keeping your child whether or not they have guns in the home and inquire about safe storage.)

Additionally, Dr. Delahooke emphasizes the importance of keeping the conversation age-appropriate. “Sometimes, reporting the actual reasons [why you’re discussing sleepover safety] to a younger child can burden them if they’re not developmentally ready to process information in that way.” 

If you don’t think that now is the right time to explore sleepovers, Drs. Taylor and Abdullah share these tips for talking with them about it: 

  • Before the conversation, reflect on your reasons for this decision, and share those reasons with your child in a clear, developmentally appropriate way.
  • If your child pushes back, listen to what they have to say. Ask them why they’d like to have a sleepover, and what wishes would it fulfill. Then explore alternative activities that could help fulfill these wishes instead. For example, if your child wants to experience pizza and a late-night movie at their friend’s house, you could offer to pick them up after the movie, so they can sleep at home without missing out on the activities they find important.
  • If you’re open to sleepovers when they’re a bit older, explain that to them. Set basic rules or expectations, such as “sleepovers are a special event once you are [insert age or milestone].” 
  • Show empathy, and let them know it’s OK to feel disappointed or upset. 

When it comes to sleepovers there’s no one-size-fits-all decision, but consistency is key for helping your child know what to expect. Whatever side you lean toward in this discussion, remember that you are the best person to make the tough calls for your family.