Sleep Problems After a Separation
Hi Amy, I’ll be real. I don’t know if I’m looking for advice or general cosigning here. I’ll try to get right to the point.
My almost four year old son has always been a lousy sleeper. Just a production to get to bed, inconsistent napper, inclined toward multiple (happy) wake ups a night. So I Ferbered the hell out of him, and he got a little better, albeit slowly. He mostly settled down around 3, and all was well. However, just about that time, his dad and I split up.
We were sharing custody 50/50 for a while and my little dude still slept ok in both houses. He became a little more prone to sneaking out of his twin bed at my house and into mine, maybe once a week or so. Eventually I learned he was sleeping in his dad’s bed every night there, so he’d get nudgier with me but I mostly held fast.
Starting in February, some big custody transitions happened, and he started sneaking into my room every night. Then I had to lay with him every single night until he fell asleep. Now we’ve reached a point where, for reasons I won’t list but have everything to do with safety, he’s no longer going to his dad’s, and the transition has been overall terrible for him. He’s clingy and emotional a lot of the time, and bedtime is a nightmare. If I don’t stay with him, he screams and cries and doesn’t ever settle until he literally just cries himself to sleep. Then he’s overtired and miserable the next day, lather, rinse, repeat.
I know I’m setting up some really nasty sleep habits here, but I keep coming back to what a shitty time he’s having now with all these transitions and wondering if I should just deal with this later, when his life has settled down some. For whatever it’s worth, on the nights I give in, we’re all happier, better-rested and no one is any worse off in the immediate for it.
I’m open to any advice, face-smacking or head pats you’ve got for me.
Picking my battles
So I read your question, and having never had to navigate a separation and its effects on a child’s sleep, decided before I typed anything I should maybe look up what the “experts” say. And I guess that was a wise choice, as apparently my gut reaction to your problem was wrong, wrong, so very wrong.
My gut reaction was right in line with your last couple sentences: He’s having a shitty time with a lot of change and giving in seems to “helping” so maybe putting a pin in this issue wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Poor little guy just needs his cuddles and reassurance.
Unfortunately, after falling down a research rabbit hole, I found pretty much nothing but advice that screams the opposite. Do not let your child sleep with you during/after a divorce or separation. This is a Big Common Mistake and Not How To Deal With Your Child’s Anxiety Blah Blah Blah.
(Like I found one hardcore attachment parenting site that SORT OF KIND OF thought it wasn’t that big of a deal, and some people duking it out in a couple comment sections, but even there it was mostly in the context of newborns or breastfeeding, or people who had co-slept BEFORE the breakup.)
I’ll go ahead and link to a few of the articles I found:
Sleep Problems After Separation or Divorce (HealthyChildren.org)
Should Children Sleep With Their Parents? (Associated Counselors & Therapists)
Getting Your Children To Sleep In Their Own Beds After Divorce (Parenting Apart)
Divorce and Separation Anxiety (Psychology Today)
ON THE OTHER HAND!!!!!!
There’s a lot of stuff in all those articles that doesn’t really reflect your personal situation, and some of the recommendations are at odds with the details you’ve shared regarding custody and your ex. And that’s what it comes down to. You can read and research all you want, and then you do what seems best for your family and your child, using your own judgment.
I PERSONALLY think it would be one thing if co-sleeping had always been his routine, and long-term bed sharing was something you “believed” in or always planned to do. The big common advice is to keep things consistent, consistent, consistent and routine, routine, routine. I do believe for some families, this can absolutely include co-sleeping after a divorce.
It’s kind of another thing that this habit only really cropped up after the separation (and then was exacerbated by conflicting bedtime routines at different homes, and made even worse by a sudden loss of one of those homes and extended contact with his father). And the force of his reaction to sleeping alone is troubling. That screams serious anxiety to me, and the co-sleeping is simply a short-term solution to a developing long-term problem. He’s terrified that something bad is going to happen to you or that you’ll go away and never come back. A couple of those linked articles point out that by easing this fear by giving in and letting him sleep with you, you run the risk of unintentionally sending the signal that it’s his job to keep you “safe” or that he’ll only feel secure if you’re in his direct line of sight. Thus, he’ll be more likely to experience separation anxiety ANY time he’s not with you and become a more nervous/anxious kid in general.
(There’s also the not-so-small point that many parents who co-sleep after a divorce run into problems when they start dating or enter into a new relationship. If you simply cross your fingers that your child will naturally outgrow this “phase” and move into his own bed at some vague point in the future, and that vague point hasn’t happened by the time you’re ready to introduce a new partner…well, you run the risk of making your child feel “replaced” or kicked out of a safe space he’s naturally considered to be “his.”)
I’m not saying any of this to scare you, or to suggest that you should totally go super-hardass on him tonight and leave him to scream and cry alone all night. Nope, my specific advice is to immediately seek out the advice and help of someone more qualified: A good therapist or psychologist who specializes in helping young children navigate divorce. Your pediatrician should absolutely be able to provide you with a list or a referral.
It’s totally okay to admit you both need some help dealing with his separation anxiety and the rocky transitions you’ve both experienced. A therapist will be able to give you better advice about how to get him to sleep in his own bed in a way that 1) won’t make things worse, and 2) deal with the anxiety issues that go much deeper than any specific sleep location.