A recent national study from researchers at the University of Virginia found that infants who spent at least one night a week apart from their primary caretaker (almost always the mother in cases of parental separation with infants), with the non-primary caretaker, formed less secure attachments to their primary caretaker, compared to babies who had fewer overnights away from their primary caretaker and/or were cared for by their father (in this case) during the daytime, only.
Attachments are defined as an enduring, deep, emotional connection between an infant and caregiver that develops within the child’s first year of life. According to the researchers, a child’s attachment to the primary caretaker, formed during that critical first year, will serve as the basis for that child’s ability to form healthy attachments and relationships later in life.
The researchers also clarified what most of us instinctively know: Babies have an innate biological need to be attached to caregivers – their parents being the obvious “first choice”. When both parents are always there, this attachment is formed, in great part, by simple consistency. That is why, when parents split up, the baby’s instinctual drive to attach to a consistent caretaker(s) might be best met by facilitating consistent caretaking during infancy. In other words: No overnights with the non-primary custodian when the child is still an infant. This is certainly not what many fathers argue for in court and mediation when it comes to sharing the care for an infant child. Parents in the middle of a divorce or custody battle that involves a baby, however, should be aware of the latest research on the effect of split custody arrangements on children – whether they agree or not.
The researchers of this study advocate parenting plans (custody & visitation) “that evolve, where daytime contact with father’s occurs frequently and regularly, and overnights away from the mother’s are minimized in the early years, then are gradually increased, to perhaps become equal in the preschool years.”
The researchers were clear in that either the mother or father could be the primary caregiver, but the point would be that the child ideally would be in the care each night of a loving and attentive caregiver and that there may be something disruptive about an infant spending nights in different homes. (Of course, the “something disruptive” is hard to put your finger on . . . but it has to do with an infant’s ability to attach – which must be consistent, and is intertwined with the home in which the infant sleeps at night.)
Journal Reference: Samantha L. Tornello, Robert Emory, Jenna Rowen, Daniel Potter, Bailey Ocker and Yishan Xu. Overnight Custody Arrangements, Attachment, and Adjustment Among Very Young Children. Journal of Marriage and Family, 1 JUL 2013; Volume 75, Issue 4, August 2013
Posted by Robin Graine, JD, Virginia Supreme Court Certified Mediator
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