Co-parenting: what, who, why and how?

It’s a term we hear a lot, but would you know where to begin? We ask a legal expert and a real-life mum how to co-parent effectively.

Child drop off

by Joanna Dunbar |
Updated on

Learning how to parent alongside your partner is all part and parcel of having a child. When we first become parents not many of us ever consider how we’d bring up our children between two separate households. But that is the reality for plenty of parents, who have to learn how to put in to practice a functioning co-parenting relationship, while for others, co-parenting has always been the plan. However you may come to be in the co-parenting arena, there are aspects that need to be learned, negotiated and understood for it to work effectively and to provide a secure unit for your children.

Cara Nuttall is a Partner in family law at Simpson Miller, specialising in complex children’s cases and modern families. Cara has lots of experience of helping families through the co-parenting process, which has evolved to include a more modern picture of families. Cara explains, “We see many separated parents continuing to raise children together, which is usually referred to as co-parenting, but in recent years there has been a significant increase is co-parenting in what is also known as ‘platonic parenting’. This is where two people who have never been in a romantic relationship meet and agree to have a child they will raise together, but not as a couple in the traditional sense. Such arrangements require a close and trusting relationship. They are different to sperm donation, where it is not envisaged the donor will play a role in actually parenting the child, with co-parents the intention from the start is they will both be active parents, just not together.”

Set your boundaries

Given that many co-parents were once in a relationship, it’s only natural to assume that there will be flashpoints. But Cara says that there are measures you can take from the start to ensure minimal disputes: “It really helps to establish what everyone’s expectations are: the more you agree boundaries at the start, the less prospect of disagreement in the future. I’m a great advocate of parenting plans – you can work through everything that will arise and think about how you will make decisions when new issues come up. It’s also important to establish boundaries – things such as how you will communicate and how often.”

Sometimes things are too raw and emotions too close to the surface to enable a productive discussion. In these circumstances, Cara recommends a third party’s involvement: “If it is ‘too soon’ to have effective communication consider going via someone else so things don’t get off on the wrong foot. I have also had lots of clients benefit from various forms of counselling and therapy to help them process their issues with the other parent so they can focus on parenting separately.”

Routine is key

When raising children, we all know the importance of routine and a structure to their days, so little ones, and their parents, know what is happening and when. This is often the way co-parents approach things, too as Cara explains:

“Some people find a set routine is the only option, so everyone can plan ahead, the need for communication is kept to a minimum and there is limited scope for dispute. Whilst this can have positives it can also mean that children miss out for example if there is a specific social event or trip that falls within the ‘other parent’s’ time. The court will usually expect parents to exhibit appropriate levels of flexibility but requests for changes should be done as far in advance as possible. It’s important to factor in your child’s personality, too: some children need real consistency and a set routine and struggle if they don’t have it, others are absolutely fine with a less settled pattern.”

Beware your emotions

Putting your emotions aside is easier said than done but as Cara explains, is vital to successful co-parenting: “Inevitably, parenting involves some of your strongest emotions and it’s impossible not to feel strongly about how your child is raised, or what the arrangements for their care and upbringing are, but if you let your communications be driven be emotion then inevitably the temperature rises, and things become very difficult. Find a way to vent frustrations elsewhere, rather than in those communications, to try to keep discussions measured and calm. It’s also important to remember that if things become really difficult you could end up in court with your texts and emails being critiqued by barristers and a Judge. You don’t want to be your own worst enemy!”

Can you be friends?

It might be nice to think co-parenting can turn into a friendship, but Cara gives us a reality check: “Civil and constructive is a more realistic aim. You also have to remember that you have two relationships with the other parent – one is the adult relationship, the other is the parenting relationship. The first has to facilitate the second. The most important thing is, if you cannot be particularly amicable, not to expose the child to underlying tensions or hostility. In some cases, if the relationship has been abusive and toxic and a continued ‘friendship’ can in fact be more harmful. Anyone who has been in an abusive relationship of any kind should not feel pressured to stay friends if that places them at risk of emotional or physical harm.”

“Honesty and good, regular communication are key.”

Helen Robinson is mum to a 3-year-old daughter and a marketing consultant and mentor to small business owners.

“I’m lucky to have good communication and a positive co-parenting relationship with my daughter’s dad. Of course, it isn’t always easy. But by focusing on what is best for our daughter, even if it means putting our own needs and emotions aside, we’ve always managed to work successfully. Of course, the emotions are still there, so it's about accepting that, but processing them away from the co-parenting relationship. It's worth noting that this gets much easier over time.

For us, it has worked best to agree everything between ourselves, and we've both been fully committed to what has been agreed – whether that's financial or logistical arrangements. The benefit of an informal arrangement like this is that we can review and change arrangements at any time. We actually plan in who our daughter will be staying with months in advance and have a shared calendar app to do this. But we have always offered each other flexibility to change if it is mutually workable – for example to fit round a wedding or a holiday.

We hear a lot about the mental load of parenting, which statistics show is often picked up by the mother when couples live together. I guess the difference in a co-parenting relationship is that you are prompted to proactively consider, discuss and agree responsibilities. For approaching conversations where one parent wants the other to be more involved, being specific and using a passive style phrase like, "This needs doing, how are we going to cover this?" is much more likely to achieve the goal than phrases like "You need to..." or unspecific moans like "I'm doing everything, will you help me out more?".

Every parent wants to know that their child is safe and happy in the care of someone else. So, when a new partner comes on the scene, it's natural that we'd want to know about them and feel reassured they will be a positive influence. When a new partner will be spending time with our daughter, we've spoken with each other about it beforehand and done introductions.”

Helen’s adventures with her daughter are chronicled on Instagram @_helen_robinson and Helen’s website is

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