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the great divide

The night divorce: Sleeping apart isn't always a bad thing - but how often is too often?

We’ve had many weeks with one parent on the couch thanks to my toddler’s unpredictable sleep habits, writes Jenny Sherlock.

TODDLERS AND SLEEP rarely go well together. Or newborns and sleep, for that matter.

If there are two parents in your home, you’ll probably have agreed at some stage or another than if at least one of you gets a good night’s sleep, it’ll be better than the alternative: no sleep for either of you. 

You know the situation: your baby/toddler hasn’t slept in days and so the spare bed, or couch, beckons for one of you. Perhaps it’s the one who has the earliest rise in the morning, or who has done the most midnight bottle feeds of late. 

The occasional “night divorce” or separated sleep is common. It’s a practical solution for a temporary problem. 

My toddler’s sleep habits can often be unpredictable, and my partner and I have had many weeks with one of us on the couch. But for some couples, it can begin happening more regularly. That may be because a child’s sleep issues last longer than planned – or because it slowly becomes a habit. 

Second bedrooms

Laura, mum to three-year-old Ben, remembers a time when separated sleep became the norm for her and her husband: 

When our son was a few months old we were having trouble getting him to sleep. None of us were sleeping well and the only thing that worked was bringing the baby into bed beside me. 

Our bed was definitely not big enough for three of us so my husband used to go to sleep in the spare room. I didn’t mind until he started looking very cosy in there – books on the locker, chargers plugged in, piles of clothes and laundry. In my sleep deprived haze it upset me that he was getting used to the situation and seemed comfortable with it.

Psychotherapist Siobhan Murray of Twisting The Jar notes that couples often communicate most effectively when they are physically close, as is the case in bed. Cutting out that nighttime intimacy can cause an ongoing cycle of communication breakdown. 

shutterstock_1050357176 (1) Shutterstock / Sam foster Shutterstock / Sam foster / Sam foster

Get talking

“If you feel that your separate sleeping arrangements are becoming a problem, voice how you feel about it,” says Siobhan. “Keep the conversation to the facts of what has un-intentionally happened and steer clear of accusations. Work on solutions rather than the problem itself”.   

Laura’s son now sleeps soundly, so the arrangements of the early days are “just a blur”, and while she doesn’t look back at those separated nights as a cause for concern, she acknowledges that they definitely upset her at the time. 

Her advice? “Make sure you talk openly and remind each other it’s only temporary. As a family you’ll do whatever it takes just to get through those sleepless months and hopefully come out stronger at the other end.” 

Three-night rotation

If the nights apart are becoming more of a routine than a necessity, Siobhan suggests trying practical solutions such as a repeated three-night rotation, with both of you together for one night, your partner in the spare room for one night, and you in the spare room for one night:

This ensures a balance remains in the relationship and that everyone feels a sense of fairness – not to mention the fact that each person gets the same amount of sleep!

Overall, it’s important to trust that if your child’s sleep habits are the root cause of the new nighttime arrangements, then things will eventually return to normal.

While you wait, Siobhan emphasises the importance of being “kind to yourself and your partner.  Parenting at the best of times is stormy and unpredictable, but with every storm there comes a calm.”

Want to win a brilliant day of book-filled family fun at Dubray StoryFest? Get your hands on one of two family passes here – and sign up for our Family Newsletter below!

More: 10 things nobody tells you about your first few weeks as a new mum>

More: When the baby blues don’t go away: How I recognised the signs of post-natal depression>

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