The Sleepover Survival Guide

by Teri Cettina

The Sleepover Survival Guide

Everything you need to know about hosting a sleepover or slumber party—and if your kid's ready for one

Sleepover, noun: Also known as a "slumber party" in some locales, if multiple participants are included. A social gathering intended to entertain and promote interpersonal bonding among those involved. Primarily enjoyed by children and teens; greatly feared by many adults. Somewhat of a contradiction in terms, as very little sleep actually occurs during the event.

The Best-Laid Plans

For the uninitiated parent, it's downright intimidating to have other people's children to entertain, feed, put to bed (good luck with that), and wake up to the next morning. The successful slumber-party organizer will anticipate multiple challenges and be well prepared to face the highly energetic participants. Should you decide to accept this mission, here's what you'll need to know:

Choose participants wisely 

First, decide if this will be a one-on-one sleepover or a team event. Can your child entertain several guests over an extended time period? If he still struggles during singleton playdates, delay the group challenge a bit longer. Start with just one guest. Later, advance to three invitees, which is plenty tough. Especially brave parents can slowly work their way up to eight to ten children. Aim for an even number of participants for team activities and to prevent the "odd kid out" syndrome. Ideally, sleepover guests will be comfortable staying away from home overnight, which may occur as early as age 6 but more commonly around age 8 or 9.

If possible, invite children for sleepovers only after observing their behavior at a daytime playdate, says Adam Nelson, a Richmond, VA, dad of two daughters and a slumber-party veteran. "If a child is a 'wild one' on a playdate, she will likely be wild at a sleepover, too," he notes.

Select the best date 

Saturdays are considered the prime night for sleepovers, as young guests may have engaged in tiring sporting events earlier in the day (thus promoting the possibility of actual sleep). However, also consider Friday night: Challengers will be worn-out from a full day of school (another aid to sleep) and will have both Saturday and Sunday to recover from the overnight event. Plus, churchgoing families may require their kids to attend religious services earlyish on Sunday morning—thus thwarting plans for later wakeup (yours and theirs).

Prep the home squad 

Warn other family members of the impending event and arm them well. Rent special movies for siblings or corral a close friend to take them on an outing for a portion of the big night. Do not even think of having your partner take them out; you will need all hands on deck at home. Later in the evening, consider special dispensation for younger children to "sleep over" in your bedroom (on the floor in sleeping bags) if they feel left out of the action. Best bet: Just get 'em outta the way. Ask a relative to take younger siblings for a sleepover of their own so they're completely removed from the scene. At least some family members may get a bit of sleep.

Assemble provisions 

Less-than-healthy snacks are expected and encouraged at sleepovers. Offer easy-to-vacuum-up foods like popcorn, chips, and pretzels. If you must, round out your snack bar with fruit and cheese cubes (but don't expect anyone to actually eat them). The next morning, you may have visions of a hearty pancake or omelet breakfast they'll go home bragging about, but trust us: You're just going to want to get them out the door. Stick to the quick stuff—cereal, muffins, bagels, frozen waffles—served on paper plates, of course.

Establishing Ground Rules

If you've got a group, post the "house rules" on paper in clear, friendly (but firm) language for the kids to read, suggests mom Penny Warner of Danville, CA, the author of Slumber Parties: 25 Fun-Filled Party Themes. (If you're hosting only a friend or two, however, a verbal rundown is probably enough.) Some good guidelines:

No leaving the house without asking

One parent reported the story of a guest getting homesick in the middle of the night, privately texting her mom that she wanted to leave, and then setting off the house burglar alarm when she went outside. Only then did the host parents find out something was wrong—not cool and not safe!

No calling or texting other parents about an issue

(homesickness, fighting) until you've talked to the host parent. Refer to item one about the burglar alarm. You don't want to discover you're missing a child in the morning!

No making prank phone calls 

Letting them know you'll take away their cell phones if you catch them is usually all that needs to be said.

Stay in designated areas or rooms 

Give them the run of the house and you'll have that much more to clean up tomorrow.

Handling Sticky Situations

What's a sleepover without some sort of crisis? Count on at least one of these scenarios if you've got a biggish group.


You can attempt to comfort the sufferer, but don't expect it to work. Experienced parents call the child's family right away. If you can hold down the fort, have your partner drive the child home; it takes less time than waiting for the other parents to get there, and the distressed child will feel immediately reassured.


As a precaution, require all the kids to use the bathroom before lights-out. If the unthinkable still occurs, help the victim maintain his/her dignity by feigning a tipped-over water bottle or soda can. Mom Jessica Gottlieb of Los Angeles went along with a story about her dog peeing on a guest during the night — "even though my dog weighs only five pounds and that was a lot of pee," she recalls.

Your child, overwhelmed

Ask him to come "help you" in the kitchen for a few minutes. It gives him some time to collect himself and for you to give him a pep talk. If this happens more than once, your child might need a reprieve from sleepovers for a while.

Arguments or teasing 

Teasing is never okay. Immediately let participants know you have a no-tolerance policy. Otherwise, avoid the urge to mediate unless the behavior continues or sounds serious. For group arguments over, say, choosing a movie or a game, take a vote: Let the majority group pick two possible movies, then allow the minority group to make the final choice from that pair. (Of course, you can always threaten lights-out in these situations, too.)

Taking Safety Measures

With any luck, you won't actually have to deal with illness or injury, but you know the old adage.

Get critical info

Obtain cell and home phone numbers for every parent. Inquire about guests' potential food allergies or other health issues. And, for goodness' sake, get clear directions on how to use a guest's EpiPen—an epinephrine injector to treat an allergic reaction—before her parents leave, so you don't accidentally inject your own thumb. Happens all the time—Google it, or just ask my husband about his very embarrassing visit to the ER with a completely white, swollen digit!

Check in regularly

Under the guise of "bringing more snacks," pop in every hour or so to be sure that 1) all guests are indeed still present and 2) everyone is generally getting along.

Light their way

Strategically place nightlights in the bathrooms, near the stairs, and in other key spots. Even older kids get disoriented in the dark.

Set a bedtime 

Pretend you expect them to sleep, so you can at least get guests calmed down by turning lights low and putting on a quiet movie. Of course they'll protest, but some party-goers will be secretly relieved they don't have to "pull an all-nighter" to seem cool. Some older kids may never completely sack out—they'll fake sleep until you go to bed and then get up again—so resign yourself to the fact that you'll be coming back throughout the night to settle them down.

Show them how to find you

Every child should know the route to your bedroom, in case of emergency. Reassure everyone they can wake you if they are scared, sick or otherwise need some assistance.

Setting a Schedule

No slumber party goes like clockwork, but having a general idea of what to do when will help you keep your cool.

Keep it short

The earliest that guests should arrive is 5 P.M. Let the parents know what you're serving (take-out pizza is the unanimous recommendation), so the allergy-prone or picky eaters are forewarned. You can also start the event later—7 or 8 P.M.—so the pajama-wearing and snack-eating portion of the program can begin immediately. And always state a pick-up time—11 a.m. is ideal, not too early but you're not stuck with guests for long after breakfast, either.

Have an opening act 

Direct kids to the Ping-Pong table, outdoor play structure, or a craft project as soon as they arrive. Save the best activities for later, because someone will inevitably arrive after the party has started.

Pace the fun

Kids who lack purpose (boys in particular) are more likely to wreak havoc. "Our favorite trick is to do something active—like swimming and a movie, or bowling and soccer at the park—to wear them out," says seasoned sleepover mom Valerie Mutton of Bowmanville, Ontario. But she also warns: "Boys like to wrestle at sleep-overs, and they smell like goats. Have plenty of air freshener for the next day."

Nix morning-after mayhem 

Parents in the know provide comic books and other quiet-time items for early risers. It's also wise to set out cereal or muffins they can help themselves to. Caution: Approach late sleepers gently; if startled, they may vocalize loudly and continuously. A full-scale morning cleanup is unrealistic. However, do ask participants to help you toss trash and put away videos, games, and the like. Assemble sleeping bags and other gear near your front door for an easy exit.

Keeping the Tribe Busy

Themed sleepovers may sound like they're for overachieving-parent types, but they can also be a clever way of keeping everything—and everyone—under some semblance of control. Note: Favors are necessary only if it's a birthday party.


Sing traditional camp songs (do an online search if you can't remember any), make s'mores in the microwave, lead the kids in telling not-too-scary ghost stories, and have a flashlight scavenger hunt in the dark. Take-home party favor: funky flashlight or scary-stories book (homemade or purchased).

Dream-team sleepover 

Have guests wear favorite sports jerseys. Little guys can compete in games like the Sleeping-Bag Wiggle (they get inside their sleeping bags and wiggle on their stomachs to a finish line); bigger guests can divide into teams and actually play a soccer, basketball or baseball game (head to a local court or field). Take-home favor: baseball caps, sports trading cards, trophies for skills like "loudest laugh" or "fastest eater."

Beauty makeover 

Set out some not-too-wild makeup products (lip gloss, eye shadow, sparkly moisturizer, blush) and disposable applicators. Adult guidance isn't recommended. The fun is in letting the kids make over each other. Snap before-and-after pictures. Take-home favor: their photos, one small makeup item.

Krazy karaoke

Rent or borrow a machine and let guests pick the music they want to sing and dance to. If you can do so without being mauled, videotape the performances to watch later. Ask assigned "judges" to make funny (not Simon Cowell-like!) comments about participants, à la American Idol. Take-home favor: a performance DVD, rock-star sunglasses.

Is Your Child Ready for a Sleepover?

Ask yourself these five simple questions before packing your kid's sleeping bag:

1. Is she mostly independent at bedtime, or does she still rely on you for special cuddles and tuck-ins?

2. Has she slept over at a relative's home? Staying with grandparents or cousins can be a useful dry run.

3. Is your child comfortable with the other family? For a first sleepover, she'll do better staying with a close friend rather than a casual pal.

4. Does your child separate from you with ease? With clingy kids or those who stress out in new situations, there's a high likelihood you'll get a middle-of-the-night "I want to come home" call.

5. Can your child survive on very little sleep? Some kids cope better than others. 'Nuf said.


Teri Cettina, of Portland, OR, has two daughters and five backyard chickens.