Going to your first sleepover is a Big Kid Rite of Passage. It means you've officially crossed the threshold from "I go to playdates my mum set up" to "I have my own legit social life."
But for many kids, sleepovers can be equal parts exciting and anxiety-inducing. What if I'm the first one to fall asleep? What if I can't fall asleep at all? What if I get scared? What if I want to come home?
We don't have to toss them headfirst into the land of sleepovers, though. We can let them wade into it slowly and confidently.
Start with an un-slumber party
An un-slumber party is basically a late night pyjama party. It has all the makings of a real slumber party — the pizza, the movies, the popcorn, the pyjamas, the sugar, the shrieking — except that nobody actually sleeps over. You pick the kids up extra late when they're just at the point of collapse. They've had their fill of slumber-party fun without the added stress of figuring out how to sleep on an air mattress or in a sleeping bag.
Take turns doing this with a trusted friend so that your child gets the almost-sleepover experience and the other child does, too. If all goes well, it's time to try the real deal.
Talk about what to expect
Kids like to know what's coming up next. Visualising something ahead of time can help lessen their anxiety over a new situation. So talk about any details about the sleepover that you know — and don't be afraid to ask the host for more information.
Talk about who is coming, when you'll drop them off and when you'll be back to pick them up. And definitely talk about where they'll sleep.
My son was recently invited to his first real sleepover. A backyard birthday party, complete with glow games, marshmallows and an extra-large tent where he and four other boys would sleep. My first reaction was, "Wow that sounds REALLY fun. Also, there is absolutely no way my son will stay in a tent outside all night, let alone sleep in said tent."
He has always had a hard time falling asleep if conditions aren't exactly right. He's not the kind of kid who falls asleep in a car or on a couch, no matter how exhausted he might be. He falls asleep in a bed, preferably his own, The End.
After the initial excitement about the invitation wore off, he recognised that falling asleep on an air mattress in a tent might difficult for him. So we talked about it. He wasn't going to be among the first to fall asleep, we knew that. He'd probably be the last, and that was OK. We talked about how eventually, when it's nice and quiet and dark, he could close his eyes, count backward from 100 and let himself drift off.
Worst case scenario, we told him, was that he didn't sleep at ALL. Even if that happened, we'd be there first thing in the morning to escort him straight to his bed. Once we gave him permission to not sleep, his anxiety about falling asleep seemed to lessen.
Pack the essentials
There's the obvious stuff, like a toothbrush, pyjamas and clothes for the next day. But also pack an extra set of clothes in case they spill a whole glass of juice in their lap five minutes after they arrive. If they're picky eaters, pack a couple of snacks they love, just in case.
Ask them whether they want to bring that special blanket or stuffed bear they usually snuggle with to fall asleep. If they're afraid they'll be embarrassed by it, you can always stick it in a plastic bag and bury it at the bottom. It'll be there if they need it.
Be on call
Finally, especially for the first full sleepover, be ready for a midnight phone call. Let them know that you understand this is new and if they're not having fun or they just need to hear your voice, they can call you. I told my son that he could call me anytime if he was really struggling to sleep and wanted to come home. Knowing he had that option took some of the pressure off.
And guess what? He had a blast and then fell asleep. (Eventually.)