Could little night howls ruin your relationship?

"A study found that Around 11 per cent of parents admitted to pretending to be asleep so their partner was forced to ...
"A study found that Around 11 per cent of parents admitted to pretending to be asleep so their partner was forced to deal with a crying child" ... Pinky McKay 

We had the conversation: due to have our second baby, we discussed our needs and expectations around night time parenting. We agreed on a support structure – he would get up to the toddler if he woke in the night and I would attend to the baby. After all, I had the breasts and he had to go to work during the day. Of course, I could catch up on some zzzs when the littlies had an afternoon nap. Besides, it was just a hypothetical discussion. The toddler was a pretty good sleeper, most nights.

As it turned out, baby and toddler didn’t coordinate naps as easily as I had imagined. Night times didn’t quite go according to plan either. One night I found myself mid-breastfeed when I heard the toddler calling out – louder and louder. He had woken with a nightmare about a stray dog that ventured into our garden and knocked him over that day. I waited a few moments. No movement at all from the big man lying ‘sound asleep’ next to me. I poked him. No movement. I kicked him – hard! He moaned but didn’t arouse. So I juggled both little ones, popping toddler into bed next to his daddy, as I conjured thoughts of revenge. Is it wrong to consider removing a night nappy and wish your kid will pee all over Daddy?

According to a poll of 2000 parents by Britain’s Channel 4, sleepless nights with crying babies can ruin your marriage and your health. The study found lack of sleep is a big factor in divorce and separation, with three in 10 couples who had split up claiming that sleep deprivation since having a child was a factor in the break-up.

Around 11 per cent admitted to pretending to be asleep in the night so their partner was forced to deal with a crying child, while another 11 per cent said they had shut the door. And 9 per cent said they had turned up the TV to block out the noise of a sobbing child.

I have no doubt that sleepless nights can bring out the ugly in parents. We have shorter fuses when we are exhausted, and it’s completely natural to feel resentful if a partner pretends to (or really does!) sleep through the little night howls. It’s even perfectly normal to feel angry: one mum admitted to tipping a whole glass of water over her ‘sleeping’ partner as the baby yelled yet again (in case you are wondering, two kids later, they are still married and mostly happy). 

Really, it’s a bit of a cop-out to blame your kids’ sleep – or lack of – for divorce. Hell, when our babies were small, I remember being so damn tired some days I could barely find the letter box, let alone a divorce lawyer.

But if exhaustion is causing fights between you and your partner, it’s time to get help. Whether this is for your baby, your relationship or simply asking somebody to come over and mind your kids while you catch up on sleep for a couple of hours, isn’t that worth doing?

It is important to make time for a conversation with your partner about how your kids’ sleep is impacting you both – and to listen to each other. Discuss your parenting goals: what sort of family do you want your kids to remember? What’s in your parenting toolbox: what strategies are acceptable to you both to help your baby or toddler sleep soundly? What new skills can you learn, and will these suit your family’s parenting style? How can you reduce the stress right now: what can you delete, delegate or get help with? How can you support each other: can you take turns sleeping in or having a nap on weekends? What outside support can you utilise: friends, family, health professionals?  

There are answers to sleepless nights that don’t involve tears for you or your child, and doing a bit of homework now may even save your relationship. Little night howls aren’t a reflection of your parenting skills, and every couple will have disagreements as they work out their parenting style – this isn’t a reflection on your compatibility as partners or parents. Consider this: if two people agree on everything, all the time, then maybe one of them is just too tired to think. Or, they could be taking the easy way out by avoiding conflict, but all the while resentment is simmering under the surface.

Remember that you are not alone and you don’t have to go it alone. Wake up and get the help you need, before you break down, break up, or break your child’s spirit.

If you are desperately seeking sleep, check out Pinky McKay’s Baby Sleep and Toddler Tactics seminars in Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart

An Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant, infant massage instructor and best-selling baby care author, Pinky examines the latest evidence, busts common baby sleep myths, and offers gentle options to encourage settling that also promote a secure parent-infant bond, optimum brain and emotional development, and successful breastfeeding.