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Sleep Problems After a Separation

Sleep Problems After a Separation

By Amalah

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.

Signed resignedly,
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 (

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)


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.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Amy

    July 6, 2015 at 1:04 pm

    Our culture is so weird about sleep.

    I agree with Amy’s initial reaction: “Just sleep, however it needs to happen.” The experts suck and they don’t have to deal with cranky, overtired, frustrated toddlers and parents from their ivory towers.

    Nothing in parenting is permanent. This is a phase, it too shall pass. If he needs a little more reassurance now, that’s ok.

    My brother, sister, and I all slept in our parents’ beds occasionally (yes, post-divorce, yes post-mom’s-remarriage! *gasp*) and none of us are warped. We are all successful, all happily married, all with kids of our own, no major hurdles on the way there, no criminal records, scars, etc.

    I never thought my 9 year old would leave our bed, but she did. With our 4-1/2 year old, we cuddle him to sleep at night, then sneak out, then he sneaks into our bedroom in the wee hours. It’s fine. Everyone is getting their needs met. We will lay down and read with our older two when they’re preparing to sleep, or we’ll snuggle and talk about stuff that’s going on, or we’ll cuddle them when they’re sick, and it’s all fine. Human contact is necessary and important and comforting. Our kids are growing up AWESOME (they’re nearly 10, 8, and 4-1/2), and they’re securely attached, getting good grades, making friends, happy, healthy, they’re fine fine fine. 

    It won’t be long at all before they’re all grown and gone, and before we all miss those snuggles. 

    Just sleep and reassure him that you will meet his needs. Do whatever you have to do to tell him, through words and actions, that you’re going to continue to meet his needs.  THAT is what he needs right now, both during the day and at night.

    • IrishCream

      July 6, 2015 at 2:45 pm

      There are many ways to raise happy kids, and I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all-families approach to sleep.

      That being said, I don’t understand disdain for researchers who devote their careers to studying how kids cope with trauma. If I’m struggling with a parenting issue, I’d love some insight from an expert who’s observed hundreds of other families in my situation!

      All kids need to know that their parents will meet their needs, absolutely. One of the needs the OP’s son might be expressing is the need to know that his mom is still in control, that some things in his life will remain constant even as others have not. I second Amy’s recommendation to seek out a some professional advice so that the OP can come up with an approach that will provide her son with both stability and reassurance. Good luck, OP!

  • Kay

    July 6, 2015 at 2:44 pm

    The kids’ workbook, “What to Do When You Dread Your Bed” is 1) probably a lousy choice for HIM, being that he’s four, but 2) is a wealth of ideas for how to help manage sleep fears and gradually change sleeping habits for kids who are anxious at night.  I think a lot of the ideas could translate to a four year old.  

  • Athena

    July 6, 2015 at 5:32 pm

    My situation is even *more* complicated than this :/

    One, we’re poly, so there *has* been a separation from someone who has been there since the start, but he’s still got two of us. Two, he’s only two years old, even less capable of communication and pretty much anything abstract is over his head. Three, co-sleeping *was* already a thing for us.

    It was very necessary in the beginning – you should have seen the panics over where the baby was in the middle of the night after I’d put the baby in the bassinet and forgot about it… I quickly learned that I was not going to cope without co-sleeping. Especially as breastfeeding continued and my high sleep needs kicked back in.

    We were only just starting to try and reclaim our bed when our other partner left. As in, we could usually manage until the first wake up with him in his own bed, and then he’d just sleep with me for the rest of the night. He was still genuinely breastfeeding overnight then, too.

    It’s been six months now, though, since she left. On top of that, in that time he’s stopped needing to feed overnight (I’ve started wearing PJ tops again and cut him off from the ability to just comfort suck at will while he’s in with us, so I am at the very least not fighting two battles here anymore). However, he totally and utterly refuses to sleep alone. *Refuses*. Often, even having me in the spare bed across from him in his room (our current stepping stone attempt to get our bed back, on the nights I need to get up early to get him to daycare) isn’t enough. It was at first, but lately it’s battle to keep him out of my bed. If he’s still causing a fuss when his nightlight/music turns off after an hour, or if he gets too persistent about climbing in with me, I walk out of the room, but then he just ends up crying himself to sleep most of the time, and not in the good way. :/

    The advice really isn’t ever written with a situation like ours in mind…

  • Jeannie

    July 6, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    I second the idea about consulting a therapist. I think that`s a great idea through separation, regardless of how everyone is dealing with it.

    For what it`s worth, we`re a family of co-sleepers, and the kids all left the bed when they were ready no problem. And my girlfriend, who was a committed `kids in their own rooms`parent let her kids sleep with her post-separation, and it really worked for them: the kids were and are happier and less anxious, and they`ve migrated back to their beds for the most part.

    I think OP should do what feels right to her, whatever that might be. Consult a therapist or doctor, but in the end — do what your gut instinct tells you. It sounds like the little guy might need this for a while, but I`d bet that he won`t for long.

  • Danielle

    July 6, 2015 at 9:57 pm

    I lived through the poster’s situation growing up: divorce, absented for reasons father and all. I was seven at the time and I slept with my Mom for 2 years. I remember how much safer I felt very clearly. For me, it was really helpful during such a stressful and anxiety inducing time.
    I grew out of it when we settled into being a family of just two. My Mom didn’t kick me out, eventually I just wanted to sleep in my own room. No drama, lasting separation anxiety, or any other problems.
    She remarried when I was in high school. We had the normal adjustments of a new step-parent, but I never felt replaced.
    I am now a parent of two and my husband and I will celebrate our 15th anniversary this year.
    So, read anything helpful and do what feels best for you. You are clearly a loving and competent Mom and that is what your son really needs to come out great in the end. Good luck and I hope for easier roads ahead!

  • Emily

    July 6, 2015 at 10:37 pm

    I completely agree with Amy re a good therapist. I also feel like you have to trust your gut, and leaving him to cry it out doesn’t sound like a good solution. What about preparing him a sleeping bag next to your bed? He can come in any time he wants at night, he just has to use the sleeping bag. It empowers him to have a safety net to come to your room if he’s upset at night, but keeps a little separation. At night, after reading him stories, pick something special to repeat every night – a poem, a story, whatever. Then turn the lights off and hang out in his room until he falls asleep. After a few nights, start the errand excuse, and leave for a few minutes. “I have to go to the bathroom; I’ll be right back.” Then make sure you come back. The errand get longer, but it will build up his trust that you will go but you’ll come back. Eventually, he’ll be okay with you going. We did this with my child who had severe separation anxiety and needed to be rocked to sleep well past his 3rd birthday.

  • MR

    July 7, 2015 at 10:49 am

    I don’t care what the books say. You are his mother, and you know him and your situation best. Your gut is saying he needs some reassurance right now. Listen to that. If you don’t want him in your bed, set up a bed or sleeping bag for him next to yours.

  • Gigi

    July 7, 2015 at 11:43 am

    Wow, for some reason this advice really made me sad. We were very adamant about my son not sleeping in our bed, ferbered, etc. and had a really good sleeper. Until he hit about 2 1/2. Now he really wants to sleep in mommy’s bed and whines and cries and starts freaking out if he can’t go to sleep in my bed, probably 3 or 4 times a week. I finally just let him. He falls asleep really fast and I move him back into his bed after a few hours.

    We all wake up happy, no harm done. I think part of it is because his dad has been working a lot lately, so he doesn’t see him a lot of evenings. So I’ve noticed he really wants/needs extra snuggles and reassurances that we’re going to be there for him.

    Everyone should do what works for them, and I am most definitely not against crying-it-out, but I don’t understand the OMG you’re emotionally damaging your son argument when you’re trying to comfort him. 

    In other countries, and in the U.S. in the past, kids slept in their parents beds. It doesn’t cause serial killers or emotionally disturbed kids. You certainly don’t have to sleep that way (for me, when he was an infant, it made me a sleep deprived monster), but implying that you’re going to hurt your child emotionally by trying to ease his anxiety just seems insane to me!

    Do what feels right to you, mama! Follow your gut. You know your child and what you’re comfortable with.

  • Lilly

    July 14, 2015 at 12:22 pm

    I know this was posted a while back, but on the off chance the OP is still reading, I wanted to suggest talking to your son. I would say “I know things have been hard since Daddy and I don’t live together, and that you might miss going to your Daddy’s home and spending time with him. There are important reasons why that’s happening, and hopefully, they will be solved over time. I just want to tell you that I am always here for you, and you can always talk to me. It’s okay to miss your Daddy, and it’s okay to not miss him, and it’s okay to be scared. Whatever you are feeling is okay, and I am here to help you through and to talk to you.” After repeating this a lot, and trying to reflect back his feelings, I would explain that he needs to sleep in his room, that you are down the hall, and that if he calls, you will definitely come and talk to him. A therapist, as Amy suggested, is a wonderful idea. It’s also great to open the lines of communication and to acknowledge what he might be feeling/going through (and not looking for silver linings). Things simply are sad right now, and that’s okay. All the best to you two. It sounds like an awful situation.