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Healthy Sleep While Sharing Custody: A Parent’s Toolkit

Healthy Sleep While Sharing Custody: A Parent’s Toolkit

For children, sleep plays a vital role in physical and mental wellbeing. This toolkit helps families who share parenting duties support their young ones.

Image: Shutterstock/Engagestock

Parenting & Sleep

These days, families come in all shapes and sizes. Our modern culture makes space for all types of parents, including those parenting while single, extended family or friends providing guardianship, and even blended families.

For families experiencing a divorce, things may be a little more complicated. Many parents today are able to successfully co-parent after divorce, but the transition from a dual household to single parenting can be difficult. It’s even harder when many parents suffer silently, putting on a brave face for their children. More than 90% of Western adults marry before the age of 50, but about half of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce.

Regardless of the family arrangement, when parents and/or guardians share custody of a child, the most important part is supporting their emotional and physical wellbeing.

Nowhere is stress more evident than in our sleep. Most kids already struggle with healthy sleep patterns, thanks to an overstimulated digital age, but divorce can make it even harder to find rest.

A child’s sleep health is vital not only to their physical wellbeing, but their mental health, as well. That’s why it’s crucial to take extra care to support proper sleep when a child splits time between multiple bedrooms and homes.

Fast Facts

In a recent study on teens and the impact of sleep on mental health we examined just how important healthy sleep is to a young mind, uncovering these startling statistics:

  • Although teens need at least nine hours of sleep each night, two-thirds of high school students only receive seven hours or less
  • 60% of middle school students do not receive enough sleep
  • Almost 17% of teens are clinically defined as insomnia
  • 70% of teens report that COVID has negatively impacted their mental health
  • Stress is a proven cause for insomnia, made worse by the natural biological changes of puberty

Healthy Sleep Is Crucial To All Children

Practicing healthy sleep habits is crucial for the building blocks of a child’s development. In fact, studies show that inadequate sleep is linked with poor emotional health and impaired academic achievement, even in young children. 

Emotional Processing

Emotion processing is one area that children and teens are especially affected by during divorce. Known to create and exacerbate anxiety and major depression by interfering with how you process emotion. Researchers add that adolescents experience “heightened emotional reactivity to visual scenes and faces, as well as altered emotional memory processing.” 

With a lack of rest promoting an emotional imbalance, teens are more likely to exhibit poor behavior and make more bad choices.

Teens with reporting less than seven hours a night of sleep have been shown to engage in these behaviors:

  • Drunk driving 
  • Weapon carrying
  • Fighting
  • Contemplated suicide
  • Attempted suicide 
  • Smoking 
  • Alcohol use 
  • Binge drinking 
  • Marijuana use
  • Sexual risk-taking
  • Texting while driving

Any of these behaviors are concerned enough alone, but with teens acquiring greater independence and competing for social attentions, it can wreak havoc on regular sleep habits. This leaves the teen unable to properly process emotions in a healthy manner, leaving the child more susceptible to negative, damaging behaviors that cause great disruption both at school and at home. 

At a time when the entire family is already struggling with emotional and physical changes, this added rebellion and negativity can become horribly detrimental to the entire family unit.

Health & Academic Achievement

Adolescents especially find themselves balancing their responsibilities with increased autonomy and independence. This has a notable effect on sleep habits, with teens less likely to maintain early bedtimes and the eight hours or more of recommended sleep.

Studies show that poor sleep creates an increased risk for the following conditions:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Injuries
  • Poor mental health
  • Attention problems
  • Behavioral issues
  • Poor academic performance

Researchers for the National Institute of Health and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism note that children are already undergoing biological changes that make it hard to find sound sleep. Early start times for school and later bedtimes do little to help the matter. There is often not enough time in the day between homework, athletics, and clubs, and a child’s sleep can significantly suffer.

A lack of regular and healthy sleep does more than keep your teen tired. Researchers note that “Sleep in adolescence supports learning, memory, attention, cognition, and emotion processing.”

Image: Shutterstock/Rido

Healthy Sleep During Divorce Or Shared Custody

Divorce is a highly emotional time for all involved. Although healthy sleep won’t cure the hurt and frustration, it will help arm you with the tools you need to get through this tough time. When you are well-rested, you are better able to control and manage your emotions. This is critical at a time when your emotions are raging at an all-time high, and every day can feel like a challenge.

For some children, that doesn’t stop at night. Nighttime can become a stressful time, too, when hours are spent experiencing bad dreams and nightmares. Many children express the emotional stress of divorce through their dreams, making bedtime a time of fear and anxiety rather than peaceful rest.

Keep an eye out for the following behaviors that indicate emotional strain children may experience:

  • Bedwetting — Similar to acting out and clinginess, bedwetting is a key sign of insecurity in children. It can make children regress to earlier behaviors from childhood, such as wetting the bed in their sleep.
  • Thumb sucking —  Thumb sucking is commonly seen in preschoolers and younger school-aged kids, but the stress of divorce could be enough to force a child to regress to thumb sucking, as well. 
  • Inability to sleep — Nightmares can make sleeping such a scary time that children may begin to avoid sleep altogether, developing insomnia at a time when sleep is more critical than ever.
  • Nighttime anxiety — Whether it is bedwetting, nightmares or insomnia, any of these conditions are enough to bring nighttime anxiety to your child’s bedroom each night. Even if a child does not exhibit these behaviors, each night can still be a time of anxiety and worry. 

These conditions can also be made worse by split custody agreements. While there is the benefit of the child spending time with both parents or guardians, it can present much confusion when the child is living between different homes. Parents should do all they can to bring comfort and security to their children by supporting their sleep health. 

By establishing better bedtime routines, you can reinforce those old feelings of safety and security, so you can help your child take back control of their sleep each night. 

Supporting Sleep Health For Children Experiencing Divorce Or Shared Custody

Living in two different homes with different parenting techniques presents challenges for kids. Their routine changes constantly: where and what they eat, how they go to school and who takes them to practice, where they keep their things, and where they lay their head. It’s hard enough for adults to make the adjustment, but it is even more trying on a child.

Consider these tips to support your child’s sleep health.  

Consistency Is Key

It may not be possible for a child to sleep in the same bed every night, but you can still help to bring a little consistency to your child’s bedroom in multiple homes. Look for items that can bring familiarity to your child’s room, whether it is an item that is familiar in sight or smell. Things like your child’s favorite bedding or pajamas can help bring comfort and reinforce bedtime. Items like stuffed animals or dolls can also bring comfort when living between multiple spaces.  

To maintain consistency, buy duplicate items of your child’s favorite bedroom items to bring a sense of normalcy. That way, your child will still feel at home when in different homes or even distant cities. 

Image: Shutterstock/axis213

Make Bed A Place They Want To Be

No one wants to sleep on an old, lumpy bed, so you should consider replacing your child’s mattress with a newer model. With a soft, comfortable mattress, your child is far more likely to find better and uninterrupted sleep, even during divorce. Some of the best mattresses are also highly affordable, so you don’t have to spend a fortune to upgrade your child’s bed.

Also, give consideration to things like the temperature in the room; is there a draft in the room, or is it prone to warmer temperatures at night? What about lighting in the room? Pesky outdoor lights can be easily fixed with blackout curtains, and a fun nightlight can help keep nightmares at bay. Fans can cool the air to lower the temperature so your child sleeps better, while the sound helps with white noise while blocking out loud traffic and other noises that may be keeping your child up at night.

Talk with your child to find any potential sources of discomfort that can interrupt your child’s sleep. With a little creativity, together you can make bed a place your child wants to be.  

Create a Calming Bedtime Routine

Calming rituals are one proven way to help the mind and body wind down for bedtime. They can reduce anxiety and nightmares while helping your child create and maintain healthy sleep habits. A warm bath before bed, lavender, or aromatherapy lotions can all help your body prepare for sleep, while your mind can find rest easier if you avoid electronics one hour before bedtime.

There are also some great meditation and mindfulness apps that you can use, many of which are free. These are some of our favorites.

Make Time To Talk About Feelings

Despite a parent’s best intentions, changes in custody or divorce can be a time full of angst, and the overflow of negative energy can lead children to bottle up their feelings rather than expressing them. This is where it is crucial that parents make time each night to talk and address their child’s thoughts and concerns in a healthy, therapeutic manner. Once a child has had an opportunity to unburden from the stresses of the day, it’s far easier to find and maintain a higher quality of sleep. 

Talk to Teens About Screen Time

Older children may be more likely to bury their faces in their technology and avoid communication altogether. Divorce can cause confusion, anger and pain for teens who are old enough to understand the finer details but still cannot grasp the end of the family unit. The digital age provides all the distraction they could want, but it can also be a serious deterrent to the rest that teens so desperately need at that age. Instead, encourage your teen to channel their screen time into more productive uses that help them prepare for bed, such as a solid meditation app. Journaling can also be a great way to express one’s thoughts safely without having to voice them aloud to an audience.

Keep Communication open with the other parent (if applicable)

Custody-sharing may not be the most amenable time in one’s relationship, but it is still crucial that both parents commit to their children’s health and safety, no matter what is going on at home. Parents should make every effort to communicate with one another wherever possible, aiming for healthy, productive conversation with the other caretaker. Try to commit to a consistent evening routine and bedtime, including whether you would like your child to use sleep aids, such as melatonin.

Final Thoughts

There’s no denying the unfamiliarity that comes with shared custody, as it’s usually major life events that bring significant changes to the homefront. Children process and deal with loss in different ways than adults, but they are also incredibly resilient and far more adaptable. 

Healthy sleep patterns will help them deal with this major change by providing greater emotional stability and arming them with the emotional and physical strength that they need to make a happier tomorrow. In helping your child find and maintain healthy sleep habits, you also create a safe place that is theirs alone to process, grieve and adapt to a new family dynamic.

At the end of the day, what matters most is a healthy family unit – in whatever form that may come.