We’ve had families reach out who are concerned with how to help their child sleep in two homes after separation or divorce. Those worries are more of a concern than ever in Canada where according to the Statistics Canada website, in 2011, lone-parent families represented 16.3% of all census families up from 8.4% in 1961. While sadly some of these families are widowed (17.7%), the majority of lone-parent families have been through a divorce or separation (50.8%) which means there are more children than ever splitting time between two homes. Divorce rates in the United States of America are similar with 48% of marriages ending by the 20-year mark, according to 2006-2010 data from the government’s National Survey of Family Growth.
The anxieties and difficulties that can accompany a major life change such as divorce or separation can be overwhelming for a child of any age. Parents often have to deal with sleep problems as a result. Here are some tips on how to rest easy while navigating a major life change with your child.
- Assess the sleep environment in both houses. If the sleep environment is not conducive to sleep, it is hard for your child to fall asleep and stay asleep. A sleep space should be cave-like dark, cool in temperature (19-22 degrees Celsius) and include pure white noise. If your child has to share a bedroom, he should still have his own bed and a simple fan placed near by helps muffle a noisy bedroom partner or any house noise while keeping the room cool. Garbage bags and painters tape or a thumb-tacked bedsheet are a quick fix to block out light from any windows, if permanent blackout blinds are not an option. If your child has a special stuffy or blanket, consider getting one for each house so it will not be forgotten.
- Implement a bedtime and naptime routine that can be easily carried out at both houses. A bedtime routine should last 20-30 minutes and be the same every night, regardless of where the child is. This allows your child to be prepared and know that sleep is coming. Keep it simple and fun. A bath, followed by teeth brushing, pyjamas, story time, a song, and hugs and kisses before being put in bed awake is a great option. Many parents choose to add extra one-on-one or family time before the bedtime routine begins as a chance for more quality time together, but remember to remove electronics at least an hour prior to sleep so the blue light emitted does not interfere with the release of the sleep hormone, melatonin. Nap routine is essential to help prepare your child to go to sleep. It should be quick and take less than five minutes before you lay your child down awake. An easy nap routine could be to brush teeth, change diaper, read books, sing a song, and give hugs and kisses before putting your child down to sleep awake.
- Maintain the same sleep schedule in both houses. Many children are getting significantly less sleep than they need. Babies under 3 months old require 16-18 hours, babies 3-6 months old need at least 15 hours, babies 6-12 months old require around 14 hours, toddlers and pre-school age need 12-13 hours and school age children need 10-12 hours. Our children’s circadian rhythm (sleep clock) works more efficiently when he goes to bed and wakes up around the same time. For our babies to pre-school aged children 6-7 pm is an appropriate bedtime. For school age children, it will depend on when they need to wake up to start their day but 7-8 pm is a good start. If your child has not been getting the hours of sleep he needs, then he will likely be in a sleep debt. An early bedtime for 5 or more days will help him to repay his sleep debt before shifting to a normal bedtime. A nap schedule is just as important as it maintains our child’s circadian rhythm and napping too early or too late in the day will affect bedtime.
- Stay consistent. Consistency allows your child to guess and understand what will come next which leads to him feeling safe and happy. Habits are made and broken quickly, which is why both households need to be on the same page. If one parent allows the child to sleep with them instead of remain in bed all night, then it will not be a surprise when he is unwilling to sleep independently at the other parent’s house. If one parent skips bedtime routine or always uses too late of a bedtime, then the child will be unsure of what is expected of him or get overtired which will lead to bedtime battles. When life is changing, consistency will be more important than ever to create extra stability and encourage healthy sleep.
- Understand and communicate why healthy sleep is essential to your child. Whether you see eye to eye with the other parent or not, remember that the proper amount of restful sleep is essential for your child to grow, develop and be happy. The growth hormone is secreted while children sleep which is vital to growth and development. Skills and memories are consolidated during sleep which helps children as they strive to reach developmental milestones and also as they begin school. Well rested children are sick less often and are at a lower risk for obesity, diabetes, hypertension and accidental injury, to name a few. The benefits of restorative sleep are numerous, so do not use a late bedtime as a bargaining chip with your child. Instead talk with your child about why they should be getting the proper amount of sleep, involve them in their sleep journey and be a good sleep role model. Well rested children adapt well to the occasional missed nap or late bedtime reserved for a truly special day.
Chelsea Wahl is a Certified Child Sleep Consultant with SleepWell Baby. She works with families to help them get the sleep they need. Chelsea offers support to parents with children ages 4 months-8 years old through both in home and remote consultations. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.