Nesting: what does it mean and why are some parents keen to adopt it?

When Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie announced their separation last week, attention focused on what they said about how they planned to co-parent their children.  Their three children – aged between nine and 15 - will continue to live at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa (the Prime Minister’s official residence) with their father and mother (who has moved out to a nearby property) effectively taking it in turns to stay at their former home. 

This idea – where the children stay put in the family home whilst the parents swap in and out – is called nesting. Although still relatively unknown, thanks to the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s conscious uncoupling and Mad Men’s Anne Dudek, nesting is becoming more and more talked about.  A 2016 study by Coop Legal Services suggested that 11% of divorced or separated parents have tried it. And in Sweden, where equally shared child custody has been common for decades, nesting goes back 50 years. 

What is nesting?

The idea gets its name from the natural world – specifically birds.  Parent birds keep their chicks safe in a nest and alternately fly in and out to care for them.  In a nesting arrangement, the children remain in the family home and the parents take it in turns to come in and out, spending time with the children when they are there.

We live in a time when many couples actively want to find a kinder or more respectful way to separate (think no fault divorce or one lawyer-two client services). Alongside that, there is a greater awareness the impact conflict (particularly high-level and constant conflict) has on children’s mental and physical health and development.  Nesting is a particularly child-focused way of dealing with a separation, with many (parents and experts) seeing it as an option that benefits children by allowing them to remain in familiar surroundings, providing them with stability, consistency and less stress at a time which will be emotionally traumatic. Necessarily, parents have to work well together – and have to communicate openly and constructively – for nesting to be a success.

What are the advantages of nesting?

It is important to say that every family is different and what works for one, may not work for another.  Family separation also evolves – what works at the outset, may no longer work a year down the line. 

Anecdotally, one of the key benefits is that with the turbulence of changing family dynamics around them, children feel the benefit of remaining in their own home with their familiar things around them and with their familiar routines such as schools and clubs undisturbed.  That stability helps them feel more settled and is “one less thing to worry about”.  Research shows that children thrive when they have a stable and consistent routine. 

As mentioned above, nesting involves both parents having to work well together.  The importance of setting a good co-parenting example cannot be underestimated.  It shows children that no matter how tough things are, issues can be put to one side and amicable solutions such as speaking nicely to each other is possible.

For parents, being able to alternate care like this should mean both being fully involved in their children’s lives and the day to day decisions involved in bringing up them up. And some couples have reported that nesting has given them time and breathing space to work out what happens next, avoiding knee-jerk or costly decisions. 

Are there any disadvantages?

Every family and every child is different and it is fair to say that not all children find a nesting arrangement so positive.  Some do find it confusing and unsettling, especially if there are no clear ground rules.  In particular there can be confusion over whether parents are getting back together.  Successful nesting also takes a considerable amount of effort, hard work and planning.  It often involves forward thinking and confronting tricky subjects before they arise such as what will happen if  one parent gets a new partner and how the bills for the family home are going to be split. 

Is nesting only suitable for parents who share care 50:50?

When it comes to the arrangement itself, the split of time does not necessarily have to be equal. One parent may simply move out on the weekends. However, as with all children arrangements, there generally needs to be a fair share of fun time (i.e. weekends and holidays) as well as the day to day care. 

What is the financial cost?

There is clearly a financial implication to this type of arrangement.  For a start, both parents need somewhere else to live when they are not in the family home. Whilst wealthier parents may be able to buy another property or convert part of the main house into an annexe, that option is not open to all.  Parents may end up staying with relatives, renting a small flat or taking a room in a shared house.  Not only does that have a financial cost – running two or even three homes – but it can be difficult for parents to emotionally deal with not having your own personal or permanent space. 

When does nesting work well?

If you and your ex are thinking about setting up a nesting arrangement, be conscious that successful arrangements work because there is clear and open dialogue between the whole family. Ground rules will need to be set down (you might find it useful to write these down in a parenting plan) and you will need to make sure everyone is comfortable with how things are working and adapt to changes. It's important to avoid sending mixed messages so there is no confusion about whether you and your ex are reconciling. Some families also work with a family therapist just to check that everything is on the right track. 

Is nesting a long-term option?

Again, it is important to say that no two families are the same.  However, nesting does seem to be predominantly a short or medium term option.  The reality is that at some point the family will want to move on with both parents having independent homes and the children spending time at each one. 


Understandably, the Trudeau children are in a slightly different position to many children of divorced or separated parents.  For a start, the official residence presumably has plenty of space for everyone. And as Prime Minster, their father attracts some exceptional security considerations and no doubt part of the decision may because there is already an established security presence at the property.  So there could be some very sound practical reasons behind the decision.  However, making the decision they have has highlighted what options are out there and that you can tailor your children arrangements to whatever best suits your family and your children.  But that whatever you do, putting your children first and foremost is going to stand them in good stead for the future. 

If nesting arrangements are something you would like to find out more about, speak to our knowledgeable children lawyers.  We have a lot of experience in all sorts of different ways families decide to make arrangements for their children so we’ll have lots of ideas.  We’ll also be able to discuss with you the pros and cons of nesting for your family, and even suggest family therapists or other services that might be able to help.

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Every piece of content we create is correct on the date it’s published but please don’t rely on it as legal advice. If you’d like to speak to us about your own legal requirements, please contact one of our expert lawyers.

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