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What are the rules for leaving children at home?

A mother was sentenced to a six-month prison term after she left her son alone in their council flat for two years

Athena Stavrou
Thursday 25 January 2024 15:39 GMT
Related video: This is What You Should Always Leave Your Babysitter

A mother in France has been convicted for leaving her nine-year-old son to live alone for two years in a flat without electricity.

The 39-year-old was sentenced to six months in prison, to be served at her home, after she abandoned her son in their council flat in southwestern France in 2020.

The court heard that the woman, who was charged with abandoning and endangering a minor, visited her son from time to time to take him food while living with her boyfriend three miles away.

The laws in the UK around leaving a child home alone are blurry - with no specific age or recommended length of time given (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The boy’s father, who lived in another town, was not charged, and the boy was taken into care aged 11.

The case has sparked international outrage and - although being an extreme case - has sparked questions about the age when children can be left alone.

Back in the UK, laws around leaving a child home alone are blurry - with no specific age or recommended length of time given. Other grey areas include whether young children can be left alone with older siblings and how old should a babysitter be.

Here we take a look at the guidance:

What are the rules for leaving your child at home on their own?

Leaving a child on their own, especially if they are young, has always been a divisive topic – but there is actually no law that states an age at which a child can be left on their own.

According to the government, while there is no law in place, it is an offence to leave a child on their own if it places them at risk.

“Use your judgement on how mature your child is before you decide to leave them alone, for example at home or in a car,” the government’s site reads.

What do experts say about leaving children at home alone?

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) has issued guidance for parents on when it is safe to leave children alone. It says:

  • Children under 12 are “rarely mature enough” to be left alone for a long period of time.
  • Children under 16 should not be left alone overnight.
  • Babies, toddlers and young children should never be left alone, this includes never being left in a car while you run into a shop.
Before leaving your child at home, set some ground rules like whether or not they can have friends over (Getty Images)

How do I know when the right age to leave my child at home alone is?

This depends on the maturity of the child and whether or not you have trusted people nearby.

The NSPCC says: “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.”

Can siblings babysit?

There are lots of things to take into consideration when deciding if an older sibling should babysit including whether they get along well and how complex a child’s needs are.

There is no legal age a child can babysit but if you leave your children with someone under 16, you are still responsible for their wellbeing.

The NSPCC said: “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.”

Their advice for leaving siblings to babysit included ensuring your older child is comfortable with babysitting, agreeing some house rules and do a trial run.

How to ensure a child is safe when they are home alone

The first thing the NSPCC recommends a parent does if they are considering leaving their child home alone is to set some ground rules.

For example, what to do if the phone rings or someone comes to the door, how to contact a parent if they need to, and whether or not they can have friends over.

It also recommends practising what to do in an emergency, checking in with them where possible, removing dangerous objects and substances, and making sure they are safe online.

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