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If you’re against sleepovers, give ‘sleepunders’ a try

best friends in pajamas playing karaoke - what is a sleepunder
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There are many reasons why more and more parents are opting out of sleepovers nowadays, with all the risks associated with them. But what about still wanting our kids to create memorable childhood moments with their friends?

For parents with the no sleepover rule, what if I told you that there is an alternative to sleepovers? It’s called a sleepunder.

What is a sleepunder?

In short, a sleepunder is a sleepover… minus the sleeping over. Kids still get to enjoy all the benefits associated with a sleepover: playing games, eating tons of snacks and food, watching movies, wearing their pajamas and staying up late-ish. But, before the night is said and done, parents can pick their kids up to sleep in the safety of their own homes.

Parents can even take it a step further and bring their kids back early in the morning to enjoy more fun like making breakfast or playing games. So basically, all they miss is the sleeping portion.

My parents actually did this a few times with me and my siblings growing up. They were never really comfortable with allowing us to stay the night anywhere (though there were moments they were more relaxed and caved in). But instead of us missing out on the fun altogether, we’d be allowed to go and enjoy the festivities of sleepovers and our parents would return and pick us up before it got extremely late.

While I didn’t fully understand my parents’ reluctancy against sleepovers at the time, I was grateful for them allowing us to have this alternative option. And I now understand that it was an option that posed less risks.

I had the opportunity to speak with Pattie Fitzgerald, founder of Safely Ever After, Inc., about why sleepunders can be a good substitution for sleepovers.

She mentioned that the later it gets, the more the vibe changes at a sleepover.

“Parents start winding down and leave kids to their own devices (literally and figuratively), there is less supervision overall because a sleepover usually takes place on weekends when parents may be worn out from a busy week, and if there are older siblings at that sleepover, sometimes it’s easy for them to ‘convince’ the younger ones to something inappropriate.  Younger kids may be impressed with the older sibs in that household and be eager to comply with things the older kids might think are ‘funny.’

“Sometimes older sibs have their own age-developmental curiosity about bodies, intimacy, and other things. They also sometimes have their friends sleeping over as well. Once the supervision starts waning, it’s easier for risky behaviors to start up.

Fitzgerald went on to discuss how most kids even prefer sleeping in their own beds at night because it can feel scary being in an unfamiliar household in the dark once the lights go out. But sleepunders, while still encompassing all the fun of sleepovers, allow kids to return to the familiar setting of their homes for bedtime.

“Sleepunders (which are basically a nighttime playdate) include all the fun components that kids like in a ‘sleepover’ but they’re over at 8:00 or 9:00 pm before things get too ‘loosey-goosey’ or nonchalant for everyone.”

So how can you prepare to host a sleepunder or to allow your child to attend one? Fitzgerald offered seven tips for wondering parents.

7 tips for sleepunders

1. Stand by your decision

While it’s easy for your child to try to convince you of all the reasons why they should be able to stay the night elsewhere, Fitzgerald stated that parents should stand firm in their decision.

“Let your child know this is your family policy. Simply, “Our family does sleepunders,” so that kids don’t try to renegotiate the terms.”

2. Have your kid prepared

What’s a better way to send your kid off to a sleepunder than having them already ready? This way, there’s less chance of running into unnecessary situations.

“Bring your child to their friend’s home already wearing their PJ’s. They should not have to take a bath or shower, or change clothes while they’re there,” Fitzgerald shared.

“You can even let the other parents know you’ve already prepped your kid for bed so that no one tries to tell your kid to jump into the tub with their friend who may be getting their own bath!”

3. Be aware of where the sleepunder is being hosted

Even though your child isn’t staying the night, it’s still important to have information about who is hosting the sleepunder.

“Make smart decisions before allowing the sleepunder at certain households,” Fitzgerald said. “For example: Who’s supervising? Will the parents be there or a babysitter instead? Are there other guests in the home? Are the parents having any kind of party or social guests over themselves that would cause them to be less watchful of the kids? Are there much older siblings there? Does the other household’s parenting style differ dramatically from yours?”

4. Assure your child that they can be leave at anytime

One thing you want to make sure you do is let your child know that they don’t have to stay any longer than they want to be there. In the case that they get uncomfortable, nervous, or just are simply ready to come home, you should assure them that you’re a phone call away.

“Let your child know that they can call you anytime if they want to get picked up early. And make sure you tell the other parent the same thing ahead of time so that if your child asks to call you, the other parent doesn’t try to persuade them not to,” Fitzgerald said.

It also helps that your child has a way to contact you. If they have a phone, make sure they have it fully charged before leaving the house. If they don’t have a phone, make sure they know that they can ask the hosts to use theirs.

5. Have a conversation about bodily autonomy

A huge risk associated with sleepovers is sexual abuse. Having a conversation with your kids beforehand can make them more prepared if an uncomfortable situation arises.

“Give your child permission to be the ‘boss of their own body’ at a sleepunder, which basically means teaching your child that they have permission to say to anyone (adults or other kids) things like: ‘That’s not OK’ or ‘Don’t touch my body’ or ‘Hey, that’s inappropriate’ if someone or something just doesn’t seem right.”

6. Calm your anxiety

It’s not always easy for parents to leave their child under someone else’s supervision—even if just for a few hours. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done! Taking small steps can help you to become more at ease when your child is going over a friend’s house.

“Drop your child off with a smile and don’t let your own possible sleepover anxiety spill onto your child. It can be hard dropping your kid off for the first few sleepunders until you get used to the idea yourself!”

7. Have a family safe word

“Create a family codeword or code question that your child can use on the phone with you in case they want to get picked up right away, but aren’t sure how to say it in front of the other kids and adults,” Fitzgerald advised.

“For example, your child can call you and say: ‘Hey (mom/dad), did you feed the goldfish tonight?’ or ‘Hey (mom/dad), can we call Grandma tomorrow?’ This is a fun way, in which kids feel a special connection to you if they need you in an emergency.”

So while sleepovers may be completely out of the question for your family, sleepunders are a great alternative to giving your kids the chance to have fun childhood memories. And they can still enjoy every ounce of fun, all without the “sleeping over” part!

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A version of this story was published in February 2023. It has been updated.