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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Infant and Toddler Overnights: A Focus of Divorce Disagreements

When couples have children of infant and toddler age, the breakdown of marriage is often followed by intense and bitter argument over allowing the child to have an overnight visit and sleep away from the familiar home. In most cases, the mother is the custodial parent and continues to live in the marital home, while the father is more likely to be the one who moves out, lives elsewhere, and does the “visiting”.

Mothers are very likely to resist overnight visits for young children. They are concerned that the father is unaware of the child’s bedtime rituals or needs, that the child may be distressed by the experience, or even that a father who has behaved violently in the past may lose his temper if the child cries or fusses in the unfamiliar night-time setting. Fathers, on the other hand, may be concerned that the child spends less time with them than with the mothers and may therefore be less attached to the fathers. They may also believe that if the child does not form a strong attachment to the father in the first couple of years, no real relationship will ever be possible.

However the estranged couple work things out, this problem will pass (and of course will be replaced by different issues). The child will get older and reasons to resist overnight visits will gradually disappear. At the beginning, though, the overnight issue seems to be of overwhelming importance. In a recent special issue of the journal Family Court Review (2011, Vol. 49), the issue editor noted that when she surveyed readers to ask what they wanted to know about attachment and child custody, 60% of them asked what to do about overnights.

Several well-known psychiatrists and psychologists who contributed to the issue made a point of commenting on the overnight question. And all of them said about the same thing: overnight visits are problematic for about the first two years of the child’s life. Depending on the child, it may be best to wait as late as age 4 before beginning overnights (George, Solomon & McIntosh [2011]. Divorce in the nursery: On infants and overnight care. Family Court Review, 49, 521-528). The reasoning behind this advice is that children have real individual differences in temperament (for instance, the ease with which they accept a new situation) and in language development (which allows them to understand what they are told about the length of a visit). Children who are easily distressed, who have little concept of time, and who are still immature in their understanding of language may interpret an overnight visit as permanent abandonment by the custodial parent and may not be able to communicate their fears to the other parent-- who may have no wish to hear of the child’s longing for the divorced spouse. When children have handicapping conditions that affect communication and cognition, their level of development may be much more important than their chronological age.

But what if there are no overnights? Does this mean that the child’s relationship to the noncustodial parent is negated from the beginning? Charles Zeanah, the well-known attachment researcher, commented about this: “it’s not necessary for both parents to have attachment relationships with the child in the early years. That can happen later, when the child has more sophisticated abilities to sustain attachment relationships over time and place. Where it is possible, it does make sense for the child to keep contact at the level of comfort and familiarity until they are ready for more” (Lieberman, Zeanah, & McIntosh [2011]. Attachment perspectives on domestic violence and the law. Family Court Review,49, 529-538). Alan Sroufe, another leading attachment researcher, said, “I think that if parents, judges, lawyers, and so on took the view that attachment is a gradual building process, and that each relationship is built on its own terms, there would be less paranoia about this… even if they had no overnights for the first 2 years” (Sroufe & McIntosh [2011]. Divorce and attachment relationships: The longitudinal journey. Family Court Review, 49, 464-473).

These commentators are stressing the best interests of the child, a vague standard indeed, but one which we can clearly distinguish from an emphasis on parents’ rights. They seem to agree that it’s in the child’s best interest to have as calm an infancy and toddlerhood as possible and not to be asked to adjust to unnecessary changes and transitions. They also agree that two caring parents-- even if separated-- are better than one, but that there is no natural process that demands that both sets of relationships must develop simultaneously and early on. The fact that no “window of attachment” closes at age 2 means that it’s possible both to preserve family connections and to support a child’s early needs for a peaceful life.

Separated parents with very young children would do well to take these cautions to heart, but at the same time they may want to consider whether they want to try out visits with an eye to overnights. A gradual approach, including nap-time at the noncustodial residence, may give them an idea whether a child is ready to take the step to an overnight stay. If the child copes well with one overnight visit, it is wise to wait a while for the next one rather than rushing to a new schedule of frequent changes and risking overwhelming him or her. But none of this will work well unless the parents are able to concentrate on the child’s needs and reactions rather than hurrying to blame each other for any distress the child shows.

When overnight visits begin, one point that can be difficult for separated parents to deal with is co-sleeping. Plenty of parents let infants and toddlers sleep with them part or all of the time (and I am far from criticizing this practice). In addition, if a father leaves the household, the mother is likely to respond to the child’s distress and her own by letting the child sleep in her bed. What happens, then, if the child stays overnight with the father? Can the co-sleeping mother deal with having the child share a bed with the father, or will this trigger concerns about sexual behavior? How does the father comfort the child who is accustomed to sharing a bed, except by co-sleeping? This highly emotional situation is one in which straightforward discussion with neutral parties is essential in order to avoid distress, fears, and accusations that are in the great majority of cases completely unrealistic.

P.S. The comments of Alan Sroufe about attachment as a gradual building process are also highly relevant to adoption issues.

P.P. S. The issue of Family Court Review I'm referring to is available for free on line. Google the journal name and you'll see how to get to the articles.


  1. Several well-known psychiatrists and psychologists who contributed to the issue made a point of commenting on the overnight question. And all of them said about the same thing: overnights are fine for infants and toddlers (Warshak 2000; Kelly & Lamb 2000; Lamb and Kelly 2001)

    “…There is absolutely no evidence that children’s psychological adjustment or the relationships between children and their parents are harmed when children spend overnight periods with their other parents. An often mis-cited study by Solomon (1997) reported high levels of insecure infant-mother and infant-father attachment when parents lived apart, although toddlers who spent overnights with both their fathers and mothers were not significantly more likely to have insecure relationships than those children who did not have overnight visits with both parents. (Kelly & Lamb 2000)

    “When mental health professionals offer opinions that obviously violate logic, common experience, and common sense, we cannot rule out the possibility of intellectual dishonesty….

    Infants and toddlers often sleep away from their mothers and away from their cribs. They sleep in strollers, car seats, bassinets, and parents’ arms. They sleep in day care, in church, and in grandparents’ homes. Any married couple who takes a vacation in the first few years of their child’s life leaves the child in someone else’s care. Clinicians do not routinely advise parents against taking such vacations. If infants can tolerate sleeping away from both parents during nap time at day care centers, on what basis can we argue that sleeping away from one parent, in the familiar home of the other parent, would harm children?...

    ….The opinion that children can tolerate sleeping during the day in their fathers’ presence, and in the presence of hired attendants in day care centers, but not at night with their fathers, cannot be said to express a scientific judgment. It reveals a bias often rooted in inaccurate assumptions about early child development. Experts who endorse blanket restrictions cannot provide adequate scientific justification for their opinions. Courts, attorneys, and parents should be aware of such limitations. (Warshak 2000)

    1. 'Professionals' and 'literature' do not have a clue about individual infant and toddler needs and tendencies. Every child is unique. If a child is born into a separated family, is it not more appropriate for that infant or toddler to sleep in their residence with their primary (only) carer and not in the home of a stranger (usually the father)? COMMON SENSE PLEASE! Children are not objects, children are not pieces of property that can be divided up. When in God's name did the world accept it is appropriate for a child to live like a hobo packing bags to and from parents' homes? SELFISH parents. What a SILLY society of adulterers and hypocrites that don't put their kids and marriage first!

    2. Of course it's a problem to try to develop a one-size-fits-all rule, when there are so many individual and family differences. I think the recent problem is that some people have been trying to do exactly that, while others are arguing against simple guidelines. But most judges were not trained to deal with these issues, and they would like some simple rules to follow.

      Unfortunately, as you imply, our laws about child custody and welfare date from property laws. Not until the end of the 19th century did the common law stop regarding children as their fathers' property; then the pendulum swung the other direction; now we are trying with much difficulty to find a fair balance. However, the actual needs of the little "properties" tend to be forgotten.

  2. Your points are all good ones. Perhaps the most important is that there should be no blanket restrictions, or blanket prescriptions for that matter.Individual differences in children and in parents make it highly desirable to have straightforward discussions of concerns about overnights and ways in which a gradual approach can be designed.

    One of my concerns here is that a father who lacks confidence may be put off from a relationship with the child, if a poorly-planned overnight visit turns out to be distressing for all parties.

    As for Warshak's comment about the "familiar home" of the other parent--- it won't be familiar unless some daytime visits have made it so.

    1. What about Grand parents? No one would seriously think that an overnight stay with the Grand parents would be such an issue. This is just another example of how Family law fails Fathers with biased views. My wife abandoned our son 4 times. Each time I looked after him before the age of 2 for weeks. When she finally filed for divorce she got full custody and the very same nonsense about overnight visits played itself out in court. Family law bias towards mothers and this kind of nonsense is failing fathers.

    2. Yes, I would seriously think that an overnight stay with grandparents would be an issue-- or an overnight stay with a babysitter, aunt, uncle, or family friends. The question is not whether or not fathers have rights, but how we can satisfy the adults' wishes while at the same time setting a schedule that will ease the situation for the child. As I pointed out, causing distress to the child may weaken a parent's confidence and change his or her attitude toward the child.

  3. I think it's also important to note the date of the studies, 2001 vs 2011. Could it be we've learned more about the effects of overnights in infants and toddlers as the issue has become more common place?

    1. Commentators opposed to overnights for infants and toddlers have been relying on misleading interpretations of very flawed research to argue that young children need to spend most of their time, and every night, in the care of one parent.

      In order to clarify where social science stands on these issues, a February 2014 study published in the highly ranked American Psychological Association peer-review journal, Psychology, Public Policy, and Law with the endorsement of 110 of the world's top authorities (from 15 countries) in attachment, early child development, and divorce concludes that overnights and shared residential parenting should be the norm for children of all ages including infants and toddlers.


      Warshak, R.A (2014) Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 46–67

    2. Thanks for sending this along, Yuri. I have only managed to get hold of the abstract so far, but will keep an eye out for it.

      I don't think my argument has been that young children need to spend every night with one parent. I recommended sensitivity to the child's needs and to individual family circumstances, and gradual transitions for children who have recently gone through distressing separations. Sensitivity to the child's needs would mean, for example, that a "non-custodial" parent (whatever that means at this point) should not usually drop the child off with his or her own parents during shared time, and that new partners be introduced gradually. In addition, the child's responses to the situation need to be monitored carefully and used for decision-making-- while keeping in mind that young children are likely to be upset over any change in routine whatever, and that that type of upset should not be attributed to the contact with either parent.

    3. Hi Jean

      The Warshak (2014) consensus report ends with a number of recommendations. Of particular note:

      “We recognize that many factors such as cultural norms and political considerations affect the type of custody policy that society deems as desirable. To the extent that policy and custody decisions seek to express scientific knowledge about child development, the analyses in this article should receive significant weight by legislators and decision makers.”

      “1. Just as we encourage parents in intact families to share care of their children, we believe that the social science evidence on the development of healthy parent– child relationships, and the long-term benefits of healthy parent–child relationships, supports the view that shared parenting should be the norm for parenting plans for children of all ages, including very young children. “

      “3. In general the results of the studies reviewed in this document are favorable to parenting plans that more evenly balance young children’s time between two homes. …Thus, to maximize children’s chances of having a good and secure relationship with each parent, we encourage both parents to maximize the time they spend with their children.”

      “4. Research on children’s overnights with fathers favors allowing children under four to be cared for at night by each parent rather than spending every night in the same home.”

      “6. There is no evidence to support postponing the introduction of regular and frequent involvement, including overnights, of both parents with their babies and toddlers.”

      You may also be interested in these two other eye-opening reviews.

      Properly disciplined research has safeguards built in to protect it from the prejudices of the researchers. This is not the case with the research by Jennifer McIntosh and colleagues. (Lamb 2012; Nielsen 2014) Lawmakers and courts often take this research that forms the picture of society on which government policy is based, not to mention the general public, as being simply objective truth.


      Nielsen, L. (2014) Woozles: Their Role in Custody Law Reform, Parenting Plans, and Family Court. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. (10 February 2014 advance online publication).

      Lamb, M. E. (2012), A Wasted Opportunity to Engage with the Literature on the Implications of Attachment Research for Family Court Professionals. Family Court Review, 50: 481–485

      In the context of the national family law conversation the Warshak (2014) study and the two additional cited references are a must read for lawmakers, social science professionals, family law lawyers and the family court judiciary.

    4. Thanks for sending these references. I have commented more recently on this issue, at

      I continue to be uncomfortable with any across-the-board recommendations and would like the focus to be on how to decide whether a parenting plan is working and how to fine-tune it when it isn't. I would caution against an excessive reliance on attachment measures as a way to do this, and would like to see long-term measures used in research on this subject.

  4. It would be great if that were true, but I'm afraid these are just publications at different dates rather than new studies. There really has not been much systematic research on this topic.

  5. Can it also be highly relevant to differently assess an occasional overnight at a grandparent's home or daycare sleeping based on the context from which the child is coming to the experience? For example, when the child comes from a context of an intact family where there is a secure attachment to both adults and a consistently regulated emotional life, grandparent/daycare sleeping may have an entirely different effect on the child, than a child coming from another context. For example, a child who is expected to integrate grandparent/daycare/non-residential parent sleeping into a conflict-filled environment where disregulation is frequent may suffer and struggle in ways that have a more profound impact than the first case mentioned above. When arguments focus on the various locations in which a child sleeps, or raise the issue of staying with a grandparent, isn't it possible that we do a huge disservice to the children by comparing apples to oranges. Perhaps it is not only the overnight or sleeping location that is meaningful but the context into which the child is tasked with integrating the experience.

    1. I'm sure you're quite right about this-- that context and history are immensely important in determining impact on a child of different experiences. But the original point was that overnight visits for young children, however much they may be desired by a non-custodial parent, can be distressing for the child (for reasons you point out) and are not essential for later relationships.

      It would be my hope that separated parents would consider the context for the child when making decisions about overnight visits, but all too often the concern seems to be about satisfying adult needs, including "scoring points" off the former partner. The arguments are not really about the best locations for sleeping, but about the hostility of the adults' relationship. We can't honestly expect a rational comparison of apples to apples or any other sort of fruit to settle those battles-- but if the battles come to court, judges may be guided by comments like yours.

  6. Here is my situation. My son just turned one. His father and I have not been together since I got pregnant, but his father has been present in our son's life since the moment he was born. He is doing his best to be a good father, and I appreciate him. However we do differ on the overnight issue. He wanted overnights at 6 months, and we ended up going to court about it. He hasn't gotten overnights yet. However, our son spends time at his house at least 4 days a week from 4-6 hours at a time. He also comes over and helps put our son to bed twice a week, which has been going really well lately, though it did not go well at first. I do cosleep and breastfeed, and I think that if the father would be willing to cosleep with our son at night I would feel less anxious about beginning the transition. However, he does not feel comfortable with that setup, and I respect his personal choices. We have very different parenting styles, which I think can be a bit difficult for our son at this early stage. Often when he comes back from spending long periods of time with his dad he expresses what seems to be frustration with me. He will hit, bite, pinch, and scratch me, even though I tell him no - which he does understand most of the time. He will do this usually until he sleeps again at our house and resettles into his routine with me. I am not sure if he is doing this because he wants to be spending more time with his dad, or if he is upset with me for being absent for such long periods of time. He has a wonderful relationship with his dad, and often asks "Da da?" on the very few days he doesn't get to see his dad, especially if something reminds him of his dad. I just don't know if he is ready to start overnights. Night time is a really special time to spend with your child, and I don't like that his dad has been missing out on that experience. However I am fully committed to doing what is best for our son, and I am not convinced that it would be best for him to start overnights quite yet. He still wakes at night and nurses more than once a night most of the time. I think he takes great comfort in sleeping next to me - he does not like to sleep alone at night even though he sleeps alone at nap time pretty well. He has never been to daycare, never spent the night away from me, definitely not with a grandparent - his father would certainly have that experience first. It is my hope that he will be showing more signs of being ready to start overnights at 18 months (so in about 5-6 months). Is there much of a developmental gap between 12 and 18 months? Does it make sense to wait if he still wakes to nurse at night now, even though it is just for comfort? How much does cosleeping factor in? Should I try harder to convince his father to try co-sleeping with him? Should we just try an overnight to see how it goes? I guess I am wanting to hear some advice, or opinions from the folks out there, thanks.

    1. It's so nice to hear from someone who is doing well co-parenting with a non-resident father. Your tolerance and consideration would be good models for everyone.

      Because your son knows his father very well and has been used to putting him down to sleep, I don't think overnight visits would be especially disturbing to him even now. The evidence about this suggests that when young children are disturbed by overnights, the real cause of the trouble is the fraught relationship and tension between the parents.

      I would go very easy on pressuring the father to co-sleep. If they have some overnights, the father may figure out by himself that co-sleeping can be helpful-- or it may turn out that the baby can adjust quite well to two different sleeping patterns. I understand how hard it is to give up the night with your child when you are used to co-sleeping, but I would suggest that you try overnights a few times, just one night at a time, and see how it goes. Even if it doesn't work very well, I can promise you that one or two or three distressing experiences do not emotional disturbance make!

      If you and the father can talk over candidly how things go on a visit, you may both gain some insights into your child. I am wondering whether he also gives his father a rough time at the beginning of time together. This may just be a response to the transition (out of his control) from one parent to the other, not a real indication of feelings about either of you. Toddlers picked up from day care very often respond to the picking-up parent angrily, and you may be seeing the same thing here.

      I would suggest thinking over how those transitions are carried out-- whether you all three spend a few minutes together before anyone leaves or is left, whether you are anxious yourself about either the departure or the return, whether the baby is tired or hungry at that time. He's old enough to be told what is happening each time, even if he doesn't understand every word, and that might help. There are other soothing things you can do like offering him something to drink or just sitting quietly on the floor near him. Anyway, it's my guess that the form of the transition may be as much responsible for his distress as the family situation is.

      When he hits you, try to make this a chance to teach some words about emotions that he can use-- it's okay to say "mad" but not to hit.

      If you think he will be missing you during an overnight visit, you might want to give him something of yours to sleep with, like a scarf, or send along any bedding of his own that he uses.

      Good luck, and let me know how it works out!

  7. "These commentators are stressing the best interests of the child, a vague standard indeed, but one which we can clearly distinguish from an emphasis on parents’ rights."
    Yes, thank you for this line. In my view, mixing up "children's best interests" and "Parent's rights" or over-emphasis on parent's rights as opposed to children's best interests is a major flaw of family courts today.

    The concept of "parent's rights" seems quite widespread in US society today, and I fear this will also influence other countries...