Shift Work and the Tiny House Family

We've been married for more than fifteen years now, and two months after our wedding, Chris was hired for an early morning job that involved sleeping during times that most people would still be awake. He's been working similar hours within the same company for the last fifteen years, so we know a few things about sharing small living quarters when one of you has an abnormal sleep schedule, and that's what we want to talk about today.

Is it possible to live in a tiny house with someone who works and sleeps at non-normative times?

Well. The answer is going to be a firm maybe.

Here's the truth straight upfront, though: it's hard, especially if you have kids.

We make it work, and if you really need to figure out a way to make it work for your family, too, we're happy to share what wisdom we have gleaned over the years.

Back in 2004 when Chris was first hired, we were living in a studio apartment that is even smaller than our house. We were poor college students living on love (and not much else), and aside from classes we had few obligations that required us to keep up any kind of normal schedule. My job was flexible, letting me grade papers whenever I had the time, and Chris's new work arrangement allowed him to still attend classes during the day.

The idea was that we would both go to bed early, and I would either stay up and read for a while or get up early and do homework or work from home after he left for work. On paper, it was a good plan. In reality, it's hard to go to bed before 8 pm when you are a twenty-year-old college student with things to do after the sun goes down. (It's hard to do this even when you're a thirty-something father of two who walks around half-asleep half the time, but I digress.) Back then, though, we were young, and we figured we'd sleep eventually. Someday. Meh, we'd sleep when we were dead.

In truth, though, it worked out okay enough. Chris learned to be quiet when he got ready to leave for work, and I struggled with chronic insomnia anyway, so not much changed there.

When Chris transferred his job back home after college and we bought our tiny house, things got a little easier. His new location started its early shift an hour or two later in the morning, and we no longer had classes to worry about. I never did find another job during the years between moving and having kids, which we thought would happen a lot sooner than it did. (Thanks infertility and pregnancy loss.) We also had an actual bedroom this time, which was life changing. I didn't disturb Chris much if he went to bed before I did, and he could get ready for work without bothering me. We still tried to keep our schedules roughly synced, but it no longer mattered quite as much.

Then something amazing happened. Sunshine finally came along.

And folks, let me just say, those old baby care ads are true. Having a baby really does change everything. Especially our particular baby.

Sunshine has always been a difficult sleeper. (I guess she gets it from me.) When she was a newborn, she (and I) would often still be awake when Chris left for work in the early morning. It was madness. As she got older, it got better, and her bedtime moved earlier and earlier until she was going to bed on the same calendar day she woke up. But she's always been a night-owl with chronic insomnia.

And then Sweetheart arrived, and, shocker of all shockers, she is even more of a night-owl. (I didn't think it was possible. I was wrong. So wrong.)

Most families have early bedtimes for their kids and later bedtimes for adults, but our family is just all kinds of backwards when it comes to who is going to bed and when. Keeping two rambunctious girls quiet while their dad is trying to sleep in a tiny house is always a struggle.

We've tried a lot of different ideas and solutions over the years, and we want to share some of them with you in case you ever find yourself in a similar situation of needing to sleep while others in your family are awake. In a small home. With young kids. Because you're crazy, like us. (Welcome to the club.)

Tip #1: Have an ACTUAL bedroom

My biggest recommendation is one that you may or may not be able to do anything about: plan to have an actual bedroom in your tiny home. Being able to go into a separate room, close the door, put on some white noise or ear plugs, and pull down some blackout curtains is about as good as it gets when you are sleeping during daylight hours.

Now, Chris doesn't actually sleep in our bedroom anymore, but the concept is still the same. You want some separation between your sleeping area and whatever part of the house the noisy people in your family are going to be occupying. When Chris heads to bed in the loft, we do "quiet time" in our family. The girls go into their bedroom with some snacks, and they are able to play quietly for an hour or two after their dad goes to bed. (Let's not kid ourselves: it's not really quiet, but the door closes, so it's close enough.) I usually use this time to do some quiet chores, such as folding laundry while watching Netflix with headphones.

When our kids were younger and we used our one bedroom as a family sleeping space before our big bedroom makeover, Chris usually just went to sleep when Sunshine did, which was early enough at the time. He would often take a nap during the day or follow what we called a split sleep schedule, which we'll explain later. The bedroom was used for sleeping and storing clothes and not much else, so whoever needed to sleep at any time during the day would just go into the bedroom and sleep while anyone who was awake would hang out elsewhere.

For a while, Chris would sleep during the day back when Sweetheart was still taking naps, and I would lull her to sleep in the living room and then place her in her mini crib next to where Chris was asleep. I'd use a baby monitor, and go get her when I heard her stirring.

This kind of designated family sleeping space is probably the easiest way to survive shift-work with really young kids if you don't mind sharing a bedroom with your children.

Tip #2: Try a split sleep schedule

There is reason to believe that sleeping in one long chunk of time during the night is not necessarily natural for humans, and there have been cultures where sleep was actually broken up into multiple segments with planned awake time in between sleeping sessions. We are not medical professionals, so I will not claim to know what this kind of schedule does to the human body, and I can only recommend that you consult a doctor before trying this. That said, Chris existed for a few years using this kind of a split sleeping schedule.

The way it worked for him was to head to bed about four hours before he needed to wake up for work, so at a time when most adults would be going to bed anyway. Then after he came home from work, he would take a long nap and wake in the afternoon.

There were a number of benefits to this schedule for all of us. Chris wouldn't miss out on evening activities due to the need to go to bed early. It would be easier for me to keep our girls quiet or out of the house for a few hours during the day rather than in the late evening. It also allowed Chris and me to have some time together after the girls fell asleep, and Chris was available to help put the girls to bed.

There were trade-offs as well, though, and ultimately as our girls got older, having Chris sleep during the day became more and more difficult, so he abandoned this schedule and went back to having an early bedtime instead.

Tip #3: Create a detached hangout space

One way to mitigate the struggles involved in staying quiet during the day while someone is trying to sleep is to create another living space elsewhere. This is part of our long-term plan, so we haven't actually done it ourselves yet, but having outdoor space during the warm months or even a separate rec-room-type place to hang out in for a few hours could be a good solution worth trying. It's good for kids to spend hours outside (appropriately dressed) everyday anyway.

Tip #4: Send your kids to school/daycare

This one is going to vary from family to family for obvious reasons. I am a work-/stay-at-home, homeschooling mom, so we have clearly chosen not to go in this direction, but putting your kids in daycare or sending them to a brick-and-mortar school would solve quite a few problems related to getting sleep in a tiny house with a family. If no one is home to keep you awake, you can sleep in relative peace and quiet.

Tip #5: Schedule regular activities away from home

If putting your kids in childcare/school is not on your to-do list, there are other options for getting out of the house. Trips to the library or memberships to local attractions can give you hours of entertainment away from home on any given day. Giving your partner even a few hours of uninterrupted sleep while you gallivant around town could be enough of a solution to make everything work for your family.

Tip #6: Put everyone to bed early

If you or your partner has a schedule where you just need to hit the hay a few hours earlier than most people, like Chris does, rather than sleeping during daylight for an entire eight hours (Ha! This is a pipe dream, am I right, parents?), and you are not a weird family full of insomniac night owls like we are, then the solution might be simple: just have everyone go to bed early. Most young kids do well with an early bedtime, and you might as well join them.

Tip #7: Make use of sensory blocking aids

These last suggestions apply to anyone who is sleeping during the day, but it's worth pointing out anyway. Getting some tools to help block out any sensory input that wouldn't otherwise be present at night is going to be almost imperative for your survival. Things like blackout curtains or sleeping masks will help shut out the sun while you sleep, and white noise or earplugs will help block out annoying daytime sounds. In addition, don't forget good ventilation and temperature control (such as air conditioning during the summer months) that will help keep you from overheating if you need to sleep during the warmer hours of the day.

Managing shift work and/or daytime sleep while living in a tiny house with other people can be hard, but it doesn't have to be impossible. We hope that some of these suggestions will help you if you find yourself trying to navigate the same sleep troubles we have dealt with as a family sharing a small home with a parent who sleeps odd hours.

If you have any further suggestions, or if you've had to deal with this issue yourself, we would love to hear from you in the comments!