just asking

When Is It OK To Leave Your Kid In A Hotel Room Alone?

It’s one of the most controversial topics I’ve ever broached with my fellow parents.

Written by Sarah Wheeler
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When I was pregnant with my second child and my first was just starting to toddle around, the universe sent us a miracle: A kind, willowy young architect named Katherine moved into the apartment upstairs. After getting to know her, bringing her extra plates of lasagna and lending her our car for day trips, Katherine offered to babysit for us. Instead, we offered her a simpler proposition: let us put our baby to bed, bring her the baby monitor, and return in an hour or two. Sometimes we left for a walk around the block, but it did the trick. We’d even go out for a quick cocktail and some adult time, which, as many parents can attest, can make a world of difference.

Now my kids are seven and five, and we’re embarking on a ten-day road trip of the Pacific Northwest. And I’m wishing we had a Katherine at every stop. I don’t need a night on the town every time we check into a hotel, but the build-up of spending all day traveling with your kids begs for some small release valve out of the same room with them. Under what circumstances could we get a break?

As with most parenting conundrums, I turned to my friends. Even though I have posted on social media about open marriages, MDMA, and my love of democratic socialism, my call for opinions about if and when it’s okay to leave your kids alone for a bit on the road led to the most controversy that’s ever played out on my Facebook page. Some friends insisted they would under no circumstances leave their children in, say, a hotel room, and that if not child abuse, it at least constituted neglect. Others confidently proclaimed that this was doable, and more, that they had done it, and would do it again. I had clearly stepped on a parenting hornet’s nest.

The conversation quickly shifted to DMs, and there, I noticed some consistency. Of all the people I spoke to, and many were eager to give their take, not one would go on the record. If they didn’t believe they’d done anything wrong by sneaking away, or in some cases leaving their older children with a clear brief, they knew that others might judge them for it.

“We told ourselves it wasn’t that different than being on the other side of a big house, and if he needed us we could be there within a minute or so.”

One friend admitted to bringing a baby monitor down to the hotel bar several times when his son was younger, though only when he was contained in a crib and he couldn’t wander around the room and hurt himself. “We told ourselves it wasn’t that different than being on the other side of a big house, and if he needed us we could be there within a minute or so.”

Another mother echoed this argument, and added that she has talked to her children from the hotel restaurant through the two-way monitor to assure them that she’s close and coming back to check on them if they wake up. One mother of two admitted to frequently leaving her children asleep in her house while she and her husband hung out with the neighbors a few doors down. Her trick is to leave an open FaceTime call in the foyer, though they have never woken up. “It’s not child abuse,” she insists.

I have often used this same reasoning when I run around the corner to grab takeout, arguing that there must be nights when Kim Kardashian is raiding the refrigerator in a wing of her “futuristic Belgian Monastery” that is much farther from young Psalm’s bedroom than my apartment is from the sushi restaurant.

It’s not that some parents don’t have apprehensions. The dad who viewed the hotel as akin to a “big house” admitted that he did feel a little weird about going down to the bar with the monitor. Other parents didn’t think it was a dangerous thing to do, but just knew that they would be too nervous to have fun. Some pointed to the rare freak incident where something bad actually did happen, or to unforeseen hiccups, like the friend of a friend who didn’t hear a peep on the monitor while they ate downstairs, only to find when they returned to their floor that the monitor had malfunctioned and their child was wailing his head off. Another friend, who has done the monitor/hotel room move on several occasions, pointed out that she once woke up in the middle of the night to a drunk stranger standing at the foot of her hotel bed, to illustrate that even though she thinks the rewards are greater than the risks, anything can happen.

“Our kids (8 and 11) can message us and call us through their tablets and I think that's really valuable.”

Some parents are more worried about the legal repercussions than a freak accident. Though most states don’t have laws about when a child can be left home alone, Child Protective Services could get involved in the very unlikely event that something happened or you were ratted out. As Kim Brooks, author of Parenting in the Age of Fear and crusader for a parent’s right to responsibly leave their child to themselves has argued, some people are quick to criminalize such parents, especially women of color or those who are perceived to have fewer means.

When I asked a pediatrician friend, who also wanted to remain anonymous, what he thought was important to consider, he emphasized assessing for safety in new places. “Think about things like falls, electrical risks, chemicals and cleaners, sharp objects, pools, liquor cabinets,” he advises. He also believes in setting up a communication line. “Our kids (8 and 11) can message us and call us through their tablets and I think that's really valuable.” With that in mind, he believes kids can be safely left alone for short periods of time in these settings.

One father who admitted to leaving his son in a hotel room told me that he assessed the safety risks deeply, and with relativity. Anything that would have happened in the hotel could have also happened at home. And he set up a line of communication, as Dr. Reasonable suggested. They placed a call from his wife’s phone to his, left her phone in the room near the sleeping baby, and went down to the hotel bar. Another mother of a 6, 9, and 11-year-old, who felt she was too nervous to leave them when they were younger, does it now because her eldest has a smart watch and can call her if needed.

Dr. Reasonable also mentions that you should know your kid(s) and think about their developmental readiness, being sensitive to “even subtle signs that they are uncomfortable with a plan.” One mother of four recalled that before the age of two-and-a-half, when her kids couldn’t get out of the crib, she was fine with leaving them for a stretch. After age seven, she felt they could handle talking about it, and older siblings added reassurance. My own children are not particularly anxious, but I still don't think I could convince them to feel good about my leaving them in a hotel room awake for more than a few minutes. However, I could imagine coaching them to call me on the monitor if they woke up and I wasn’t there, especially when they are a bit older.

One dad pointed out that, like most things, hotels really aren’t set up for families: “Who wants to sit in a room in silent darkness at 7PM to put a baby to sleep!?” He and his wife have made small hacks that helped them get a little privacy within hotel rooms, like fashioning a bed for his baby out of an empty bathtub or on the floor of the closet. Other parents suggested getting a room with a balcony to chill on post-bedtime. Of course, this is why rental homes are often more attractive to families than hotel rooms, though they can be more cumbersome to arrange and don’t offer the same amenities. Some hotels and resorts, especially family-friendly ones, do offer babysitting services, and apps like Sittercity offer vetted babysitting all over the world, including those with experience with neurodivergent or disabled children.

“Who wants to sit in a room in silent darkness at 7PM to put a baby to sleep!?”

The physical set-up of a hotel can also make a big difference. One owner of a bed and breakfast in the Catskills, who is also a mother of two, says that parents often sneak out to their bar after bedtime with the baby monitor. The inn is small, single-story, and the furthest room from the bar is 200ft. Rooms are pretty visible from anywhere, and the only surrounding dangers might be the occasional bear. With these ideal conditions, “I can't say I frown upon it,” she admits. While I may not leave my kids in their room at our Vancouver hotel, we might feel good about going to the common area of the campground we’re staying in while they snooze in our cabin, especially if there’s a direct sight line and we’ve instructed to them to talk into one of our phones (probably plugged in so the battery doesn’t die) if they wake up and need us.

In the end, life is full of risks, some we are accustomed to taking (climbing into the car every morning, say) and others we are not. Every parent has different thresholds, and various particulars, both well-founded and completely arbitrary, that trigger our fears for our children. Some of my friends heavily monitor their children’s sugar intake; we keep a bucket of candy in our kitchen. Some of my son’s buddies bike in the street; I am terrified of cars barreling through his wee frame and relegate him to the sidewalk. As my sister often repeats, if it works for your family, it works. And if it doesn’t, you might just have to pull out your headphones and watch Real Housewives in the hotel bathroom.

Sarah Wheeler is an Oakland-based writer, educational psychologist, and mother of two whose work has been published in Romper, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and more. She writes the Substack Newsletter Momspreading and knows all the words to the rap from TLC’s “Waterfalls.”