When couples become parents, they wave goodbye to their seven-hour sleep cycles, and accept that it’s a normal part of early parenting. When you have a baby with additional needs, sometimes it means being even more sleep deprived. Babies with complex needs might struggle more with feeding and resting, or they may require extra diligence from their parents throughout the night. Couples undergoing sleep deprivation might find it harder to talk to each other, and find that their relationship struggles under these conditions .
Sleep deprivation is not to be underestimated. Just getting through the day can feel like an episode of The Crystal Maze and your communication with your partner can really suffer , even with generous pots of coffee on the go. For some parents it can be a draining and relentless experience.
In one study, the majority of the parents who had a child with additional needs reported feeling:
If you’re finding it difficult to function as a parent, a partner and a person, you’re not alone.
What’s more, studies have shown us that couples in their first year of parenthood generally see a 40-67% drop in relationship quality. So, even without the extra challenges, parenthood tends to put a significant strain on the relationship.
When you’re both busy and exhausted, you may feel that you’re not fulfilling one another’s needs or demonstrating your love to each other. If that is the case, it can be tempting to put your relationship on hold until life gets less hectic, especially if you’re an ‘all or nothing’ kind of person. But, in times like this, it might be an idea to focus on small gestures like a note on the fridge, sending a text, or running a bath for when your partner gets home. Placing value on these small things can sometimes have a stabilising effect that helps you through the tougher time periods.
Because tiredness and fatigue limits what you can fit into your day, you might have to change or reset your expectations of one another. For example, if you both agreed to a household chore routine before the baby came, there’s a good chance you now won’t be able to maintain the level of cleaning that you did before. Or during your conversations together, maybe there was an expectation on one another for undivided listening and attention.
It’s worth talking with your partner about what expectations you have of one another, and which of those expectations you would both like to change. You might think that your expectations would automatically adjust, but sometimes it’s hard to let go of habits and routines. Research has shown that if your expectations are more realistic, you are better able to deal with difficult situations when they come up .
 UK – Questionnaire of 2,312 parent carers (incl. mothers, fathers & grandparents) of child with disability. Hock, Robert M., Tina M. Timm, and Julie L. Ramisch. (2012) Parenting Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Crucible for Couple Relationships. Child & Family Social Work, 17(4), 406–15.
 Caicedo, Carmen. (2014) Families With Special Needs Children: Family Health, Functioning, and Care Burden. Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association 20(6), 398–407.
 Pancer, S. M., Pratt, M., Hunsberger, B. & Gallant, M. Thinking ahead: Complexity of expectations and the transition to parenthood. J. Pers.68, 253–279 (2000).