Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

Parenting Plans, Continued: Divorce and Sleep Problems

How can divorcing parents handle young children's sleep problems?

Yesterday I commented on some issues that affect infants, toddlers and preschoolers whose parents are divorcing, especially problems that are related to time and scheduling. (That post was picked up by the University of Maryland's Journalism Center on Children and Families,, as one of the day's compelling stories, by the way.) Today I'd like to go on to some other problems of young children that are often associated with divorce.

Sleep problems are far from uncommon in young children even when their families are functioning very well. Children's sleep schedules change often in early life, as they move from frequent short sleep periods to the more mature habits of a long sleep at night and one or two daytime naps. As a result, most young children have times when they are too tired to fall asleep, or when their night-time sleep is broken. But sleep problems are often associated with separation anxiety, because from the young child's point of view falling asleep is a kind of separation (and, of course, in the United States children are often separated from others at bed time).

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

It's not surprising that anything that increases the child's level of anxiety about separation will also make falling asleep and staying asleep more difficult. Divorce involves many events that have the potential for increasing separation concerns. When parents divorce, no matter which parent the child stays with, there are various new experiences of separation to contend with. Even if the parent who leaves the family home has spent little time with the child, his or her complete absence is a change that triggers young children's concerns about separation. In addition, in many cases, the departure of the partner causes grief or depression in the parent who remains in the home, with the result that the custodial parent is distracted and inattentive to the child--- for infants and toddlers especially, an experience similar to an actual physical separation. The effect of these experiences is often an exaggeration of the sleep disturbances that are already likely in children in this age group.

When young children's sleep is disturbed, their fatigue makes it even more difficult for them to handle the changes divorce causes in their waking lives. In addition, parents who already feel pushed to their emotional limits can respond to disturbance of their own sleep by losing control, becoming less available to the needy child, or even using punishment in ways they normally disapprove and avoid. By the way, part of a child's sleep disturbance may be bedwetting by children who have been dry for a while; punishing this will be worse than useless.

Can anything be done to help matters? Perhaps the most comforting thing for divorcing parents is to be aware that sleep disturbances are a normal and expectable part of family break-up, that they will not go on forever-- but that realistically they should be expected to go on for some months. However, there are some other points to consider that may make life a little easier.
1. When children are worried about separations, it helps to make their lives as predictable as possible. This is important with respect to visits with the non-custodial parent as well as returns to the familiar home. Dad or Mom needs to arrive for a visit, a pick-up, or a return as scheduled; the fact that the child can't tell time makes this more critical, not less! Although the natural tendency of the parent in charge might be not to tell the child what's going to happen, in order to avoid fretting and tears, children do a lot better overall if they have plenty of warning about these events.
An essential rule is not to cancel scheduled plans for any reason short of a tsunami. A secondary rule is not to bring along any guests, especially new romantic partners. The presence of unfamiliar people alters the dynamics of the adult's interaction with the child and feeds into the child's separation concerns.
Predictability is an essential part of bed time itself, as well. However the parents may loathe each other at this juncture, they need to discuss the child's familiar bed time routine, right down to which pajamas, which teddy or blanket, and whether teeth are brushed first or last. A baby who is used to being rocked or sung to sleep by one parent needs the same treatment from the other parent, whether or not that adult considers this to be outrageous spoiling.
Trying to keep a child up late to make him or her fall asleep quickly, or with the hope that the child will sleep later in the morning, is completely counterproductive. The parent who does this will end up with a tired, cranky child and a disturbed night, plus an early awakening the next morning. Following the familiar schedule works best.

2. Overnight visits are often a cherished goal of non-custodial parents, and they give adults some sort of illusion of continued family life. However, unless they are carefully planned and worked up to, they may be accompanied by so much disturbance of the child's sleep and mood that they do more harm than good. Two important concerns are a) that the non-custodial parent will take the child's behavior as an indication that the other parent has spoiled the child and/or taught the child to hate the non-custodial adult, adding to the hostility between the two, and b) that the non-custodial parent will be so discouraged by the experience that he or she will reduce contact with the child to very little, essentially destroying the possibility of a real relationship.
Infants between 6 and 18 months, who are at the peak of concerns about separation, can be expected to have real problems about overnight visits. Before attempting an overnight, parents would do well to discuss the baby's night routines in detail. In addition, the baby should have extensive daytime visits to the non-custodial parent's home and show normal behavior and comfortable exploration while there.
Toddlers and preschoolers are likely to do better than infants on the initial overnight visits, but they too benefit from a chance to become familiar with a place before sleeping there. They will also do better with a phone call or two to touch base with the custodial parent, and with items from home to help them feel comfortable.
One night at a time is quite enough until children have completely adjusted to overnight visiting. Parents need to remember that even preschoolers have limited understanding of time, in which "tomorrow" is a vague concept and "day after tomorrow" really incomprehensible. Too long a time becomes an unpredictable period for young children.
3. Co-sleeping is a topic I approach with dread because it arouses such strong reactions in people. However, some parents sleep with their children or allow the children to get in bed with them during the night, and there is no law against this, nor even any very good argument for forbidding it. It certainly is the case that lonely custodial parents may find it comforting to sleep with a child (assuming the child doesn't kick a lot), and the child also finds it comforting to be relieved of separation concerns. The issue that arises has to do with what happens when a young child, accustomed to co-sleeping with a custodial parent, goes to stay overnight with the other parent. Common sense suggests that the child should also sleep with the non-custodial parent, giving everyone a more comfortable night (but let's not get into the bedwetting problem when this is already complicated enough).
However, common sense does not seem to work well here. Very few adults find young children sexually attractive. Nonetheless, I have spoken to a number of mothers who usually slept with their infants or toddlers, but screamed with horror when I suggested that the child might sleep with the father when visiting him overnight. This was the case even though the women acknowledged that there was no reason whatever to suspect the fathers of sexual interests in the children.
Can this problem be solved? Is it possible to arrange things so that a young child who is used to sleeping with one parent can find a familiar sleep routine when visiting the other parent? Is the non-custodial parent justified in demanding that the custodial adult NOT sleep with the child? No doubt people could solve these problems with good will and frank discussion. But... if these people felt good will and could discuss things frankly, they probably wouldn't be divorcing.

So here we are: there are some things people can do to help solve sleep problems in young children of divorcing families. Two of these categories involve items that most families could manage if they worked at them. The third seems to be a can of worms of the wiggliest nature. I would be most interested to hear from readers about ways they have dealt with co-sleeping in this situation.


Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


Subscribe to Child Myths

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.