Divorce and Custody Issues

The Difference Between Night and Day
By Isabelle Fox, Ph.D.

Daytime gives us sunlight, Nighttime brings on darkness
Daytime is familiar, Nighttime is strange
Day time is for activity, Nighttime is for comforting
Daytime is for learning, Nighttime is for dreaming
Daytime is for independence, Nighttime is for closeness
Daytime is for mastery,  Nighttime is for fantasy
Daytime breeds confidence, security, Nighttime may breed anxiety and fear.

Most of us experience qualitative differences in our feeling and activity states during the daylight as compared with nighttime hours. Aloneness during the dark feels more stressful then it does in the morning or afternoon. Sounds, shadows, movements, or smells are easily ignored in the familiar comfort of daylight, while at night these may evoke fears, worries, and even terror. We often feel more pain and ill at night then during our waking hours.

With this in mind let us explore how infants and young children react when predictable patterns of nighttime routines are altered. Children are often distressed when they are required to spend the night and fall asleep in another bed, house, or city with a parent, grandparent or person who is not their primary caregiver. It is with their primary attachment figure that they are able to feel secure, comforted, and soothed so they can fall off to sleep, thus separating from their waking world. Even when traveling with their familiar parent strange and new environments at times can prove stressful and upset the usual sleep patterns.

Unfortunately, when parents separate or divorce both mother and father want time with their child. However, little consideration is given to the stress suffered by the child by altering nighttime routines and rituals. Most of theses routines are associated with proximity to the mother who is usually the primary attachment figure. She may sing familiar songs or lullabies. She may whisper some words, tell a story, or read a book. The child enjoys her unique voice and smell, her own way of rocking, holding or patting. The child may need to be nursing, sucking or cuddling a special stuffed animal or doll or blanket. All these behaviors create a relaxed, comforting atmosphere conducive to sleep.

Infants, toddlers and preschoolers up to the age of 5 often show extreme distress, anger, and fear when sleep routines are abruptly changed and they are separated from their primary caregiver with little or no preparation. The child feels enraged at both parents. Anger is expressed at the one who has taken him or her to a new situation and to the other parent for allowing it to happen. A nighttime with screaming is an ordeal for all along with some emotional consequences for the child.

Unfortunately, the effects of this sleeping disruption do not end when the child is back in a familiar environment. Often children display a heightened level of separation anxiety and will not let the mother out of sight. Extreme clinging behavior may occur as the trust in both parents is shaken. Increased irritability and regressed behavior is frequently noticed after a stressful overnight visitation.

In an attempt at being fair and even handed courts tend to divide time between parents with little understanding that nighttime separation from an attachment figure creates stress and is qualitatively very different from daytime separation. In many cases it is the father who wants equal time and presses the court for overnights. But, it is in the waking hours, that children will, experience, explore, feel safe with and enjoy their father. More time with this parent should be scheduled during daytime, but the child should be returned to his or her familiar secure environment during the night. Both the child and parents will thrive by avoiding unexpected separations during the night when the usual level of anxiety and fear is heightened. This is especially true for children under three who have limited language and cannot understand what may be occurring. Eventually by the time a child is 6 or 7 he or she will often ask to sleep over some one's house but, this first sleep away is a important event in the child's life.

Unfortunately, today the primary focus seems to be on the Orights; of parents not the emotional development and emotional needs of the child. It is essential to educate parents, lawyers and the court so that they understand and respect the difference for young children between night and day. With this insight much pain and stress can be avoided.