Early child development research shows importance of sustaining father-baby relationships after divorce and separation.

Professor Richard A. Warshak, Clinical Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, has marshalled a wide body of evidence to demonstrate the importance of developing and sustaining early father-baby relationships after divorce and separation. He argues that overnight stays with both parents, even for babies, are important to support early child development. He challenges widespread notions that there is something inherently risky about babies staying overnight with their fathers.

Warshak points out that sharing care of very young children is now the norm in society. It has long been established that good childcare provision does not damage early child development by separating the child from the mother. Mothers regularly work evening and night shifts. Children are often cared for by grandparents. Babies regularly sleep in different places. The general advice to parents of babies is that both parents need to spend adequate time with their children, establish routines, and show affection.

But when parents separate, Warshak argues, new questions emerge. Is the separation of a young child from the mother damaging after all? Is there something special about nighttime? Is an overnight sleep different from an afternoon nap? Is the first person a child sees in the morning significant for child development? Is the night a time of anxiety that only a “primary” parent can handle, and is this factor more important to the child than the psychological state of that parent at the time? Warshak quotes a recent researcher who argued: “Overnight stays away from the primary caregiver in early infancy are generally best avoided, unless of benefit to the primary caregiver”.

Warshak charts the changing story of custody arrangements over the past two centuries. Until well into the 19th century, fathers had absolute custody after divorce. The idea then emerged that children have one psychological primary parent, a mother, and from this came anxiety about any mother-infant separation. This also gave rise to the idea that a relationship with both parents is beneficial only if there is no conflict between the parents.

The importance of multiple attachments and shared parenting for early child development

Since the 1970s, research has increasingly challenged the notion of primary carers as a psychological reality. Modern attachment research shows that multiple attachments are important for early child development.

  • Babies normally form multiple attachments that are different from one another, and security in one is not dependent on security in the other.
  • These attachments start in the same period, in the middle of the first year.
  • Whilst a single secure attachment is an absolute minimum for healthy child development, the odds of a child having at least one secure attachment to a parent double when the child regularly interacts with two parents.
  • Mothers and fathers are, on average, equally sensitive to their infants when equally experienced and confident in their care.
  • Secure attachment takes parent-child time to develop.
  • Multiple attachment appears to be an evolutionary advantage in humans, allowing early child development to proceed even when one parent is absent through physical separation, incapacity or death.

Attachment theory is not the only source of evidence that children benefit from having multiple carers. Warshak also refers to “bioecological theory”. For example, when both parents care for a child, both are less tired when they do so, so they tend to do it better. Care from two parents affords the child a greater diversity of experience and more intellectual richness in the home. More varied conversation improves early child cognitive development. Having two parents also means greater access to grandparents.

Overnight stays with fathers support early child development

On the basis of this evidence, early child development researchers have specifically advocated measures that strengthen multiple relationships after divorce or separation. Moreover, they have argued that overnight stays are an important part of the process of developing secure infant-parent attachments; bedtime and nighttime routines are crucial opportunities for social and nurturing activities. This time together also allows parents to keep up with their children’s rapidly changing needs through infancy.

In 1997, 18 experts sponsored by the U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD) issued a consensus statement concluding that to “keep nonresidential parents playing psychologically important and central roles in the lives of their children,” distribution of custodial time should ensure “the involvement of both parents in important aspects of their children’s everyday lives and routines—including bedtime and waking rituals, transitions to and from school, extracurricular and recreational activities”.

Because early attachments are so important for early child development, and because of the desirability of maintaining routines and avoiding sudden changes, Warshak argues that patterns of care should be established as early as possible.

Early child development researchers do not say that overnight stays with fathers are the right thing for every infant, however. Each case is different; overnight stays should not be mandatory.

The evidential case for early overnights with fathers

Warshak presents six categories of evidence from fatherhood research that, together, strongly support the idea that overnight stays with both parents from infancy are, in general, a good thing for early child development.

  1. Strong evidence shows that, on average, fathers’ emotional investment in, attachment to, and positive parenting of their children predicts better psychological outcomes across a wide range of social, emotional, and cognitive development.
  1. Compared with children whose parents are married, other children have a higher incidence of adjustment difficulties that extend into adolescence and early adulthood, including high school dropout and suspension, externalizing behavior problems such as aggression, substance abuse, and poor relationships with both parents.
  1. In the US National Survey of Children’s longitudinal study of young adults 14 years after their parents’ divorce, the majority of children from divorced homes scored within normal limits in most developmental domains, with one exception: two out of three suffered chronically poor relationships with their fathers.
  1. Children whose parents divorced when the child was younger than six years are more likely to suffer problems than children of later-divorcing parents. The father-child relationship (but not the mother-child relationship) is likely to be worse for these children. These data point to the need for particular support for the father-child relationship for younger children when parents separate.
  1. When father–infant contacts include overnights after parents separate, we see a lower incidence of father absenteeism when compared to father–infant contacts that were restricted to the daytime. As the evidence above shows, father dropout is a significant early child development issue.
  1. Divorced fathers who feel enfranchised rather than marginalized as parents maintain greater contact with their children and are more apt to pay child support. Depriving a father of the experience of having his child spend the night in his home is likely to diminish the father’s sense of being a fully enfranchised parent.

References

 Warshak RA (2018), Night shifts: Revisiting blanket restrictions on children’s overnights with separated parents, Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 59.4