The fun and excitement of a good old-fashioned sleepover never seems to go out of style. Between staying up late, watching movies or playing video games, talking, taking pictures and eating all kinds of food, what’s not to like? Children’s sleepovers are a rite of passage, and the upcoming holiday break is a popular time for youngsters to spend the night away from home.
Usually parents are concerned their child might not make it through the sleepover and come home in the middle of the night. But for parents with a gluten-free child, that first sleepover away from home can lead to a whole new set of worries.
Sometimes parents of gluten-free kids put the first sleepover off as long as possible. We don’t want our kids to get sick from accidental gluten ingestion. We may feel we are burdening the host parent with gluten-free demands, such as worrying about cross-contamination and making sure to buy the right brand and flavor of chips or ice cream.
However, we all know that at some point we need to let go and finally say “yes” when our child asks to spend the night at a friend’s house. Here are some tips to prepare your child, the hosts and yourselves for the big overnight outing.
The first sleepover
“Aurora and her friend came running into the house, as 8-year-olds do, saying ‘Mommy, can I please go to [my friend’s] slumber party [for her birthday] on Saturday,’” Elizabeth Roach of Eagan, Minnesota, recalls about her daughter’s excitement about her first sleepover a few months ago. Aurora was diagnosed with celiac disease three years ago, and Roach had many concerns about the overnight adventure. “They both looked at me with those big, innocent eyes full of excitement. I couldn’t say no,” she explains.
I, too, remember those days and the looks from the kids who desperately want to stay over at a friend’s house. It is hard to say “no.”
Teagan Ott, a 10-year-old from Saint Paul, Minnesota, has both celiac disease and Type 1 diabetes, which adds another layer of complexity. “Teagan has to give herself insulin for any carbohydrates she eats. So knowing exactly how much she eats is super important,” says Michelle Ott, Teagan’s mom. If Teagan doesn’t get enough insulin or gets too much, her blood glucose level could be too high or too low and lead to serious consequences, Ott explains.
Still Teagan had her first sleepover at the age of 9. Concerns about her daughter managing two conditions dependent on diet “have led to sleepless nights for us when she is at a sleepover,” her mom says.
Preparation and communication
Managing expectations of everyone involved in the slumber party is an important first step. “I told Aurora and her friend that I would have to speak to her mom because Aurora has to have special food,” Roach recalls. The two moms discussed Aurora’s celiac disease, gluten-free diet and cross-contamination.
Roach was nervous because she wasn’t sure if the mom would really get the importance of the gluten-free diet. But it turns out, she did. “[The other mom] was just as interested in keeping Aurora safe as I was. It made me a little bit more comfortable with the whole thing,” she says.
After discussing the party, the moms agreed Roach would make gluten-free birthday cupcakes for all of the kids. “I also sent along frosting and a dozen different types of fun gluten-free sprinkles and decorations for each girl to top her cupcake with,” Roach says. “They had a decorating contest, and no one knew the cupcakes were gluten free.”
When Teagan had her sleepover, Ott sent the host parents instructions for dealing with Type 1 diabetes and list of a gluten-free foods. She also asked the parents what they were having for dinner, snack and breakfast.
“I sent the gluten-free equivalent and labeled the number of carbs on the foods when I could,” Ott says. Teagan’s parents also require her to keep in contact with them when she tests her blood glucose, including right before bed. “I don’t like it when I have to text my parents,” Teagan says. But her parents say this is non-negotiable.
Looking back on it, Ott says she didn’t need to be as detailed with instructions for the parents. A text or call from them would have been just fine, she realized. She says labeling the food does seem to help, however.
Whatever you work out with the host parents, fill your child in on the plan. This can help manage expectations at the sleepover and reduce any anxiety, even if your child does not seem to be worried.
Both Aurora and Teagan had their first sleepovers with families they knew pretty well. It’s a little scarier for parents when the child is going to a new friend’s house. In that case, you might need to have a more thorough discussion about your child’s dietary needs. And sending along gluten-free snacks and a breakfast option will make things easier for everyone.
It’s also a good idea to try having sleepovers at your house first. You will get a feel for how they go, what children like to do and what kinds of foods they like. This may better equip you for when you send your child elsewhere for the first time.
Sometimes children head to the friend’s house before dinner, which is often pizza, tacos, burgers or another kid-friendly, but not necessarily gluten-free, choice. If you can’t work out the details for making sure your child can eat dinner safely, you can send him or her over after dinner. But I would only make this choice if it was absolutely necessary, since it could result in your child feeling less a part of the entire sleepover experience.
Even now, my 17-year-old daughter Emma, who has celiac disease, sleeps over at her friends’ houses. By the time she was in middle school, she was deciding what food she was going to take along. She always grabbed some cereal from the pantry for breakfast and packed a bag of chips. As she has gotten older, she has simplified this process even more. Now she just takes a bag of microwave popcorn and comes home in the morning to eat breakfast.
Parents do need to prepare gluten-free children for the possibility that things won’t go as planned.
For example the host parents might have said they would take the children to a pizza place that has gluten-free pizza but end up going somewhere else that’s not as accommodating. The snack the parent thought was gluten free might not be, or another child might have brought an unexpected treat for everyone that’s not gluten free.
“I recommend having a conversation with your son or daughter [so he or she knows] it is OK to say ‘no thank you’ to something they should not eat or are unsure about,” Ott says. You can discuss the risk that if they eat something with gluten they could get sick and have to come home, something no child wants to have to do.
Sometimes a phone call from the host parent can help straighten things out if they are not going as planned, though this is probably best used when a child is young and won’t be embarrassed. You have to trust older children to handle this kind of situation on their own by simply telling a host parent when they can’t have something.
You might run into a parent who is reluctant to invite your child to a sleepover because of the gluten-free diet. The best thing you can do is assure the parent that your child will come prepared with safe food.
If you communicate that you and your child are comfortable with the plan, the parents will likely be more comfortable, too. At the other end of the spectrum are parents who really go out of their way to make your child feel welcome and included, making sure to get gluten-free foods and taking care to prepare them safely. These parents are always appreciated.
Ultimately communication is the key ingredient to making a sleepover successful for your child and the parents playing host. Once all of the food questions are answered, the kids can focus on being up all night and having fun. GF
Amy Leger is the family editor of Gluten-Free Living. She blogs about the gluten-free lifestyle at thesavyceliac.com.