In a viral TikTok last year, dad of six and double board-certified child and adult psychiatrist Dr. Larry Mitnaul (@doctormitnaul) lists the five things he’d never do with his own kids—and number 5 is letting them have sleepovers.
In a follow-up video, Dr. Mitnaul explains his reasoning behind his no sleepovers rule, drawing a hard line in the sand about what some still consider to be a childhood rite of passage: the up-all-night, candy-fueled, multiple-movies-screened sleepover at a friend’s house. For many, his thinking really resonated.
While some experts view sleepovers as key for developing independence and flexibility in kids, the “no sleepovers rule” has been gaining traction in some parenting circles, given that sleepovers open the door for risky decisions, loss of sleep, as well as bullying or abuse—especially sexual abuse.
A child safety expert answers our biggest questions about sleepover safety—and how parents can weigh whether to adopt a “no sleepovers allowed” approach for their family.
What are the dangers of sleepovers? Here’s what parents need to know
Are sleepovers safe?
“It’s not so much about whether the sleepover is safe. It’s more about whether the environment is safe,” says Pattie Fitzgerald, a child safety advocate and founder of safelyeverafter.com. “My philosophy is that sleepovers can be a slippery slope.”
There are a lot of extra elements involved when kids stay up late, she explains. There’s the temptation of technology use when the parents go to bed. There could be older siblings and their friends sleeping over at the house. There could be the possibility of the parents being out of the house and hiring a babysitter. “And late at night, when it’s quiet, a child may not know how to seek help if something goes wrong.”
The main issue is that there’s minimal parental supervision over a long period of time, which opens kids up to more risk.
Watch out for the ‘corners’
In his TikTok, Dr. Mitnaul explains this phenomenon as the “corners” of kids’ experiences—slightly outside the normal parameters of their daily routines.
“Often the stories that come into us about trauma, about exposures, about inappropriate things in the lives of kids are often at the corners of experiences for our kids,” he states.
“And by corners, I mean those places where there’s less adult supervision, there are a group of kids together maybe doing more impulsive things or things they wouldn’t otherwise do under the careful watch and gaze of a loving adult watching over them. And so sleepovers often provide the right opportunity for kids to get into things that are way over their head, whether they intend to or not,” he says.
“And so if my intention is for my child to have a wonderful and close relationship with their peers, and for me to have a close relationship with my child, I’m going to make sure that they do that in a situation and time that is most likely to be profitable for them, and less likely to be one in which there’s trauma, from which they need to heal for the rest of their lives.”
Setting up safe sleepover rules
Dr. Mitnaul received a lot of pushback in the comments about his “no sleepovers” rule. But Fitzgerald takes a softer approach, saying parents have two choices:
To be a family that doesn’t do sleepovers
To be a family that allows sleepovers only at a very short list of two to three “approved” houses
“Many parents have fond memories of sleepovers when they were kids and would like their children to be able to enjoy the same thing,” notes Fitzgerald. “Which is fine, provided that you use common sense, ask the right questions beforehand, and make sure your child knows what to do if the sleepover starts to go in the wrong direction and they don’t feel comfortable.”
Here’s what Fitzgerald recommends doing if you choose to allow sleepovers—while keeping the tradition alive safely.
Do your due diligence
According to Fitzgerald, “sleepovers run a high risk for childhood sexual abuse,” especially considering that in most instances, child sexual predators are known to the family.
To determine your list of “approved” sleepover houses, create a checklist based on the following criteria:
How long have you known the family?
Have you been in the family’s home numerous times?
What is the family dynamic? Is there anyone in that household (adults or other kids) with bully issues or other aggressive traits?
Are there older siblings?
Do the parents have similar values and parenting styles as you?
What are the household rules on using technology or screen time?
Is it the parents or a babysitter watching the kids tonight?
Start at an appropriate age
Fitzgerald recommends not starting sleepovers before age 8, but in some cases, it’s even later than that—it depends on the child. “Sleepovers can foster independence, definitely, but we have to make sure our kid is ready for independence,” she notes. “It’s more about asking, ‘What is my child capable of right now?’”
It’s also about making sure you’ve had regular conversations with your child about what Fitzgerald calls “thumbs-up or thumbs-down touches”—and sometimes those body safety conversations aren’t fully in a kid’s developmental toolbox until at least age 8, she says.
Give kids a script
While it’s important to have those body safety conversations ahead of time, “it’s not enough to tell your child ‘no one is allowed to touch your private parts,’” says Fitzgerald. “Kids need to know what to do and say if this happens.” She offers a few scripted responses to provide your child with:
“I don’t let anyone touch me there, not even my friends.”
“It’s MY body and I said NO.”
“Hands off my body NOW.”
Practice running through these with your child, she says. Then, your child should know it’s time to get support—whether that’s from the grownup in charge or by calling their parent.
Make sure they have access to a phone
Ensure there’s an exit strategy your child can use. “You have to give your kid an out, in case the sleepover isn’t going well and they want to come home,” she says. “They need to be able to call you directly.”
But now that landlines are a relic of the past, if your kid doesn’t have a cellphone, help them get permission from the hosting parent to use their phone at any time. “Here’s my advice: You go into the house when you’re dropping your kid off, and you say right in front of your child and the parent, ‘Ava has permission to call me anytime she would like, so could you let her use your cellphone?’” Fitzgerald shares. Saying that both in front of your child and the hosting parent empowers your child to call at any time.
Have a family safeword
But the second part of that, Fitzgerald says, is having a family code or safeword that signals when something’s wrong and they need to be picked up. “That’s important, because they don’t want to feel embarrassed in front of their friends,” she notes.
“A simple code question could be having them call you to ask, ‘Hey Mom, did you feed the GOLDFISH tonight?’” If you can set up the safeword ahead of time, then it’s a great way to build trust—and your kid doesn’t have to feel embarrassed about wanting to go home.
Try the sleepover alternative: A “sleepunder”
If you’re still anxious about sleepovers, try the alternative: The ‘sleepunder’. Essentially, for a sleepunder, a child will head to a friend’s house for dinner in their pajamas, eat dinner with the friend and their family, watch a movie and play together, but then will get picked up before bedtime, Fitzgerald explains. It’s like a nighttime play date, without the chance of staying up late without supervision.
“The later it gets the riskier it gets—so a sleepunder gives your kid all the benefits of a sleepover, but without the sleeping part,” she notes. It’s a safe way to have fun—with fewer risks all around.
A version of this story was originally published on Aug. 19, 2022. It has been updated.