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When can you leave your child home alone?

23 August 2011

You read the shock headlines every summer: a young child left home alone while Mum jets to the Med for a sunshine break.

But what happens if you need to nip five minutes down the road to grab some milk but Junior's still fast asleep in bed? Surely that's a million miles from the parent who's gone on their jollies for a week?

It will probably surprise most parents to know there is actually no legal age limit for leaving a child at home on their own.

But, as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) points out, that doesn't mean it's open season for a trip to the shops, never mind a night on the tiles, while the little ones play solo in the house.

[ See also: Signs you're becoming a pushy parent]

The situation, accepts the charity, can be particularly difficult for families during school holidays when parents need to go to work.

"Sometimes you may want or need to leave your child home alone," says the NSPCC, but there are several issues you should bear in mind first.

Although the law says nothing about the minimum age for a child to be left unattended, it is an offence to leave a child "when doing so puts him or her at risk".

The Children and Young Persons Act says parents can be prosecuted for neglect if they leave a child unsupervised "in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health."

So how do you make the right call?

NSPCC parenting advisor Eileen Hayes says a number of factors should always be considered before leaving your little one: their age, their level of maturity, the place he or she will be left and for how long you will be gone.

While it may be deemed OK to leave a 16-year-old for the evening, for instance, to leave them for a week "would be unacceptable."

Similarly, while many young children can play happily outdoors with their friends without adult supervision, to leave them for a "considerable length of time" or allow them to wander off without knowing where they are would also be a no-no.

Some clear tips can help parents to make a sensible decision:

  • Never leave a baby or young child alone.
  • Under 12s should not be left for "more than a very short time".
  • Under 16s should not be left overnight.
  • Make sure children are happy to be left and know how to contact you and emergency services.
  • Leave obvious dangers, such as sharp objects and medicines, out of reach of younger children and leave a list of people your child can telephone or go to should there be any problems.
  • Leave clear instructions on what to do in case of an emergency.
  • Tell your child not to answer the door to strangers.

But when in doubt, as Ms Hayes points out, "it's never worth putting your child's safety or emotional wellbeing at risk".

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