Staying home alone

Advice to help you decide when your child is ready to be left alone and how to keep them safe when you aren’t there.

Worried about a child?

If you're worried about a child, even if you're unsure, contact our helpline to speak to one of our counsellors. Call us on 0808 800 5000, email help@nspcc.org.uk or fill in our online form.

Call the police on the non-emergency number 101. You can choose to do this anonymously.

You may not know the child's name or exact age but if you're able to give the child's address, officers will be able to carry out a routine Safe and Well check to make sure the child is safe.

The police will handle the situation sensitively. Like you, they only want what's best for the child.

If you’d prefer not to call the police, call the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 as soon as possible. Your call will be free. One of our experienced Helpline counsellors can listen to your concern, and take action if necessary to help protect the child.

If the child is in immediate danger, call the police on 999 immediately.

If you're worried about a child who’s been left at home alone before or believe they are going to be left again, please contact our helpline.

You can discuss your concerns with a helpline counsellor who can offer confidential advice.

You don't have to say who you are if you don't want to. But if we decide a child is at risk of harm or their needs aren't being met we’ll ask you for the child's details so we can make a referral to the appropriate agency, such as Children's Services, to help keep the child safe.

Find out what happens when you contact us.

What age can a child be left home alone?

Learning to be independent is an important part of growing up. Between work, appointments and other family commitments – every parent will have to leave their child home alone at some point so it’s good to have a plan in place. Every child is different so build up their independence at their pace – and check in with them to make sure they feel safe.

Infants and young children aged 0-3 years old should never be left alone – even for 15 minutes while you pop down the road. This applies not just to leaving them home alone but also in your car while you run into the shops or in another room on their own.

For more detail, please see our advice on baby and toddler safety.

While every child is different, we wouldn't recommend leaving a child under 12 years old home alone, particularly for longer periods of time.

Children in primary school aged 6-12 are usually too young to walk home from school alone, babysit or cook for themselves without adult supervision. If you need to leave them home, it's worth considering leaving them at a friend's house, with family or finding some suitable childcare. We have advice about this below.

As children start secondary school they might ask for more independence – walking themselves home from school, travelling alone, or having friends over while you're away. 

Keep talking to your child. Whether they're 12 years old or almost 18 years old, there might be reasons that they don’t feel safe in the house alone. Just because your child is older doesn’t necessarily mean they‘re ready to look after themselves or know what to do in an emergency. It can help to go over the ground rules and remind them how to stay safe at home.

Remember – you should never leave a child home alone if they don’t feel ready, or if you don’t feel they’re ready. Sometimes it’s just better to leave them with someone – particularly if they’re nervous or have complex needs. We have advice about this below.

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Checking your child feels safe home alone

As your child gets older, talk to them about how they feel about being left home alone. If they're worried, work out what parts of being home alone worry them. Do they feel safe in the neighbourhood? Are they afraid of the dark?

Talk about anything that’s bothering them and discuss a solution. Understanding why they don’t feel comfortable will give you an idea of how to help – or why they might not be ready to be left alone.

We would always recommend leaving a child younger than 12 years old with family, a friend or in childcare. Read our advice abou this below.

Our tips to keep your child safe home alone

Being home alone for the first time is probably going to be just as worrying for them as it is for you. It can help to think about:

  • Would they know what to do if the phone rang or someone came to the door?
  • Do they know how and when to contact you if they need to? Write down all your numbers and the numbers of friends and family in case you can't be reached.
  • Are there any activities that could be dangerous without an adult in the house? Some activities – like cooking, climbing furniture, lighting candles – might not be safe without an adult at home.
  • Where does your child spend time online? Are there games or sites that you're worried they'll access while you're out, that might upset them or put them in danger? You can visit our Net Aware site for tips and advice.
  • Are your children allowed to have friends over while you are gone? Agree some rules together to make sure you're both comfortable.

It’s a good idea to talk about what they’re going to do while you’re out. For example, agree whether they can have a friend round or even go over to a friend’s house. You both might feel more comfortable with a plan in place.

It's to talk about what your child is doing online whilst you're away.

Remind them before you leave that they should never give any personal information away online or meet someone in person without discussing this with you or a trusted adult first.

Read more of our advice on Net Aware and sign up to our newsletter for helpful tips about keeping your children safe online delivered straight to your inbox each week.

However unlikely, it’s safest to prepare for anything to go wrong whilst you're out. From accidental fires to burglaries, you need to feel comfortable your child knows what to do in an emergency.

Come up with a safety plan for different scenarios. Talk to your child about their concerns about being left alone and come up with plans for what to do if something like that happens.

Make sure they’re clear about what time you’ll be getting back and how you’ll let them know if your plans change.

You should leave all the numbers that you can be contacted on, as well as the numbers of family members, neighbours or friends in case they can’t reach you or need some help straight away.

Make sure to list the emergency services as well in case they need help urgently.

Give your child a call every so often. If it's the first time they've been left alone, try to check in regularly. Even if your child is older and has been left home alone before, you should still check in once every few hours, particularly if you're out late.

You could also ask a friend or neighbour to pop in and check, to put your mind at rest.

Make sure that any potentially dangerous things like tools, knives and prescription medicines are safely out of harm's way before you go out. If they have allergies, be careful that there's nothing in the house that could trigger a reaction. If you have pets, think about whether it's safe to leave your child home with them unsupervised.

Being left alone is an opportunity for your child to experiment with things like alcohol or drugs (however unlikely it might seem) – so it's a good idea to have a conversation about safety and what to do in an emergency.

For more details on how to make your home safer, RoSPA provide information and advice for parents on preventing accidents and safety in the home.

Depending on the child, being left home alone can be a big change to get used to. It's better to leave them for a short time at first, no more than 20 minutes, then build this up over time.

As you build up to leaving your child alone for longer stretches, keep checking in and making sure they're comfortable. Being left home alone for an hour is very different to being alone for a whole afternoon or overnight.

We wouldn't recommend leaving your child home alone overnight if they're under 16 years old.

Leaving a child alone with siblings

If your child has an older sibling or step-sibling, you might feel more comfortable leaving them home together, especially if one child is older.

There’s no legal age a child can babysit – but if you leave your children with someone who’s under 16 you’re still responsible for their wellbeing. 

You should also think carefully about leaving your child alone with an older brother or sister. If they fall out, you won’t be around to make the peace.

  • Consider how well your children get on. Do they fight when you aren't there? Are they able to resolve a conflict between them peacefully? 
  • Talk to your older child before leaving them in charge. Ask if they feel comfortable looking after their younger brother or sister alone. You shouldn't leave them in charge if they don't feel comfortable.
  • Does one of your children have complex needs? Think carefully about whether your child needs adult supervision, in case something goes wrong and they need support.
  • Agree some house rules. We have some suggestions to help with these above. 
  • Check your older child knows what to do in an emergency. And come up with a safety plan for them to follow when you aren't there.
  • Leave them a list of contact numbers. Include all your contact numbers, friends or family members, any trusted neighbours and the emergency services.
  • Do a trial run. Try leaving them together for a short period of time, while you're still close by, and build this up over time. 
  • Plan some activities for them to do while you're out. Both you and your children might feel more comfortable if they're focused on an activity – like watching a film or playing a board game.

Finding the right babysitter for you


Sometimes it might be better to arrange for someone to stay with your child instead of leaving them home alone. This doesn't have to be an extra cost - family and friends that you know and trust may be able to help.  

If your children are younger, nurseries look after children up to school age. You can find a nursery school place on GOV.UK if you live in England or Wales, mygov.scot in Scotland and NI Direct in Northern Ireland.

If your children are older, sports, clubs and other activities could be a fun way of keeping them supervised for longer after school. You could talk to your school about what's available, or have a look for one near you on GOV.UK.

  

Our tips for finding childcare

Choosing the right kind of childcare depends on your child's age and what they're comfortable with. It can also depend on when you need it, for how long and how regularly.

Childminders take care of children in their own home for a range of ages – unlike babysitters who’ll come to your house. You can find a registered Childminder in Wales or England on GOV.UK, in Scotland on SCMA, or on NI Direct in Northern Ireland.

Babysitting agencies can help if you only need occasional help – like watching your kids for an evening while you’re out. They’re a quick and easy way of getting a babysitter who has passed the agency’s background checks– but be aware that different agencies have different vetting processes. You should check you're happy with these before using them.

Ask a few questions before you hire someone to check they're qualified and will be a good fit for both you and your child. If you aren't sure what to ask, try going through our checklist (anchor link).

You can find information about childcare in your area at the following sites:

England

  • Follow the steps laid out in GOV.UK’s guide to getting the right childcare for your family.
  • Some SureStart centres provide early learning and full day care for pre-school children.
  • Search for registered childminders and babysitters on childcare.co.uk.

Wales

Northern Ireland

Scotland

    • If you have family members living nearby, you could try asking them for help when you need support. 
    • Babysitting circles can be a great free way to take it in turns to babysit with other parents you know and trust. You could join a circle near you, or set one up with neighbours or other parents who you know through your child’s school.
    • If you have a child between 2 and 4 years old, you may be able to get free childcare from the government. Take a look at gov.uk/freechildcare
    • You can get help from the government to pay for any type of 'registered' childcare – you can read through different options on childcarechoices.gov.uk. Try using their childcare calculator to get an idea of how much help you could get.

The decision about who to leave your child with comes down to you and your best judgement. There are no legal restrictions on what age a babysitter or caregiver must be to be left in charge of a child, but there are laws about employing children.

It’s important to know that if you hire a babysitter who is under the age of 16, they’re too young to be legally responsible if harm comes to your child. If you’ve left your child with someone who isn’t able to take care of them, this could be seen as neglect under the law.

If you are leaving your child home alone with a babysitter under 16, make sure that they are comfortable with what to do in case of emergency, and are mature enough to take action if needed. It may be safest to let a neighbour or friend know your plans, in case help is needed and you can’t get home in time.

Finding the right babysitter or childminder for a child with complex needs depends on your child and their specific requirements. As special needs vary so widely from child to child, there's no one place to find the right childminder or babysitter for your family.

If you have a child with disabilities, your local council has a duty to provide help and support. This includes short break services, holiday play schemes, care at home and financial help. GOV.UK provides more detail on what's available.

When looking for a specialist childminder or childcare, you can try:

    • Finding out what support is available from your local authority, such as an Early Help Service or Children with Disabilities team.
    • Using your local Family Information Service to find out if there specialist caregivers in the area
    • The Family and Childcare Trust's Childcare and Family Services Finder to find registered childcare and family services locally

You should make sure that any carer or childminder has the right training, qualifications, and experience to look after your child safely. Look for someone with experience caring for someone with the same or similar needs, who communicates well with your child and who they're comfortable with.

It is also helpful to consider a trial period, so that you can be sure that both you and your child are happy with their care.

What to ask your babysitter or childminder

  • Think about your needs and check whether your babysitter or childminder has the availability to support you when you need some help.
  • Will they be able to support you in future if your needs change and you need more help, or if you unexpectedly need cover? It is a good idea to try to limit the number of caregivers so your child can get comfortable with the person.
  • If they're a childminder, ask them what qualifications they have.
  • If they are a babysitter, ask for recommendations and reviews from past clients. If you're unsure, call and ask what their experience was like.
  • Ask them how they'd deal with situations like your child refusing to go to bed, to check if you are comfortable with their methods.
  • Introduce them to your child, and even do a short trial run to check whether your child feels comfortable alone with them.
  • Remember, there's nothing quite like a parent's intuition. If you've got any doubts at all about a possible babysitter, it's always best to find someone else.

Contact numbers
Leave them with all your contact numbers, emergency service numbers, and specialist support numbers if required.

Medical information
Write down their allergies and any medical information about your child, and where medication is stored in case of emergency.


References

  1. 1. Under 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, you can be fined or even sent to prison if you are judged to have placed your child at risk of harm by leaving them unsupervised.