When is it Ok to leave my child home alone?
This is a question that is very confusing for many parents and as it stands, there is no set ‘law’ as such on when it is appropriate to leave your child at home alone. However, the gov.uk website does say that it’s an offence to leave your child alone if it places them at risk, and that you should use your judgement on how mature your child is before you decide to leave them alone – either at home or in a car.
This blog aims to address the challenges for parents in deciding when they think their children are most responsible to be left at home for a few hours, overnight and right up to a week or more!
What DOES the law say?
Children mature at different rates and therefore there is no ‘one size fits all’ law that encompasses the appropriate age a child should be when they are left alone. As a parent or carer, the choice is yours to judge as you should know your child well enough to make that decision.
However, the Children and Young Persons (England and Wales) Act 1933, the Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act 1937 and the Children and Young Persons (Northern Ireland) Act 1968, as a parent and carer you can be prosecuted for neglect and receive a fine or be sent to prison if it is judged that you have placed your child at risk of harm by leaving them at home alone, regardless of where they live in the UK.
I’m only popping to the shops; can I leave my child alone for a short time?
When it comes to babies, toddlers and even young children you should never leave them alone. Any short period of time could be hazardous – such as leaving them in the bath to answer the door or the telephone.
Even if they are asleep at the time you want to pop out, bear in mind that they may wake up and become distressed; fall over and hurt themselves or worse; get hold of something in the house that could put them in danger.
At this stage you really need to know how your child would cope on their own without you for those ‘few minutes’ before you make the decision to leave them alone for this long. Children under 12 are rarely mature enough to cope in an emergency and should not be left at home alone for a long period of time.
If you are going out for a few hours, you should employ a babysitter or ask a friend or relative over 16 to look after your child if they are too young to be responsible for themselves for the time you are away.
What about overnight?
Children under the age of 16 should not be left alone overnight. If you need to leave your child alone overnight, then planning well in advance and getting a responsible babysitter (over 16) or relative to look after your child would be most appropriate in these circumstances. Older siblings could also fit into this role if you feel they are responsible enough to manage their younger siblings for this period of time.
In an emergency, where you may be called away at short notice and you cannot take your child with you, it is worthwhile knowing (in advance) any local childminders or overnight childcare services that you could use in this situation.
I have to go away for a week because of work, can my older child look after my younger one?
Again, I would say the same rules as leaving them overnight would apply. Although in this case as it is a prolonged period of time, someone 18 or over would most likely be the most sensible option as they will need to take over what you do (chores, shopping, cooking, taking your child to school etc), whilst you are away.
What other things should I consider before leaving my child home alone?
No one knows your child better than you do, but when it comes to making that important decision of whether they can or should be left home alone, the following questions will help you to decide?
- Is your child responsible and mature for their age?
- Does he or she always do what you tell them?
- Are they able to understand and follow instructions when explained to them?
- Are they able to make themselves something to eat and drink whilst you are away?
- Are you happy for them to use the cooker or microwave to prepare hot food?
- Do you know how they would cope in an emergency?
- What would they do if they received a phone call or someone knocked on the door?
- Would they know to contact you, another family member or friend in an emergency and would they know where to find these numbers?
- How do they feel about being left alone – happy to be trusted with that responsibility or too scared to take care of themselves?
As I said, this is probably one of the most difficult decision to make, and whilst there are guidelines available, ultimately, the decision is down to you as the parent or carer.
When the times comes that you think your child is old enough to be left alone for a few minutes, hours, overnight or longer, if any of the questions above leave you with doubts, it is wise to make an alternative arrangement for your and their peace of mind.