Independence is essential to a child’s cognitive development. And the best way to push a child toward self-sufficient play is to allow him or her to have alone time. That can be a tough, especially for new parents who feel compelled to constantly hover over a baby. But at each stage of development children can, and should, be given a little alone time. The bonus? A kid’s alone time means downtime for parents.
How long a child can reasonably be left alone depends on developmental stage and circumstance. As with all things parenting, it’s a cloudy issue with a lot of factors are at play: maturity, propensities toward mischief, and cognitive development dictate the amount of unsupervised time a child can spend. There is no hard and fast rule, but at all stages, alone time can, and should, be utilized. That includes infants. And luckily, as technology advances, parents have more opportunities for downtime than ever.
How Long Can Babies Be Left Alone?
“Most parents have baby monitors. They can see everything their baby does on their phone or at least hear them on a monitor,” says Dr. Tasha Howe, assistant professor of psychology at Humboldt State University. “Babies can be left alone to nap, especially if they are on a firm mattress with no fluffy blankets or pillows, with snug clothing, as recommended to prevent SIDS.”
As for the amount of time babies can be left alone in a secure, safe area, that has less to do with the actual duration than how demanding a child actually is. A child with cautious temperament may need parents to stick closer to them than an adventurous baby.
“Some babies are happy cooing in a crib for a couple hours, others not even for 5 minutes. But it isn’t harmful to leave a baby for 30 minutes while you cook or read a book,” says Dr. Howe. “Their limbs need to move and they need face to face contact for proper brain development so they should have plenty of face time but also some down time to prevent overstimulation.” She suggests a structured schedule that cycles through feeding, nap, play, feeding, nap, play at specific times to help babies regulate their circadian rhythms and predict what’s coming.
How Long Can Toddlers Be Left Alone?
Once a child reaches toddler and preschool age, parents should feel comfortable letting children roam the house and yard (provided it’s all been childproofed) for as long as they like. Kids should be encouraged to explore on their own as discovery begins.
“Their main job in life is discovery and hypothesis testing (what would happen if I climbed here, opened this, or pulled on this?),” says Howe. “So they should be able to roam around the house and forbidden rooms should have closed doors with childproof knobs. If you have a small yard where they can’t get hurt or wander off, they can be out there alone but you should always be able to see and/or hear them.”
To that point, the definition for “alone” for a child under 7-years-old should absolutely include the parent being physically near a child and within earshot. Being in a different room than a calm baby or an exploratory toddler is completely fine for whatever interval the child is content with, but the second commotion or trouble can be detected, parents need to be ready to spring into action.
How Long Can Middle & Elementary Schoolers Be Left Alone?
It’s not until a child gets into the middle of his or her elementary years that parents should consider leaving them alone in the more literal sense. And even then, a massive number of factors — geography, maturity, etc. — dictate whether alone time should be implemented.
“In general, most children can be left alone for an hour or so between 8-10 years of age. If an 8-year old must be home after school alone, it’s best to have them call to check in, and have a structured schedule set for homework, chores, TV, etc. until parents get home,” says Howe. “It depends on the age and the temperament of the child: Some kids are content playing alone and are very mature or responsible. Others can’t be trusted. Also, each state has specific laws about the age when a child can be left alone.”
How Long Can Tweens and Teens Be Left Alone?
As for tweens and teens, the term “no two kids are the same” is taken to the extreme. As such, a parent’s willingness to let a kid stay home alone, babysit younger children, or go off into the world is wholly dependent on how much they trust them. A well-behaved, mature 13-year-old could feasibly stay home alone for an evening, while a rebellious and misbehaved 17-year-old might as well be leashed at all times. For parents, it all boils down to trust, trial, and error.
“If they’ve given you no reason to worry, start by trusting them until they prove you shouldn’t. Privileges should be earned by responsible behavior,” says Howe. “Most tweens can walk around the mall with their friends for an hour or so while the parents walk in other areas of the mall. They usually do ok by being dropped off and picked up from the movies.”
Howe stresses that leaving tweens and teens alone should be paired with structure in order to keep them in line rather than just letting them roam wild.
“Tweens and teens also need structured time to keep them out of trouble, but they also need downtime to just relax and hang out,” she says. “I typically let my 15-year-old make his own choices after school as long as he reports in hourly or so with where he is going and who he is with. When he ends up somewhere he didn’t tell me he’d be, he loses his city-wandering privileges for a while. Natural consequences teach them to use their freedom responsibly.”