An American study has found that when a baby spends a night or more each week away from the primary caregiver, that child may form a less secure attachment to the primary caregiver than a baby who spends fewer nights away.
Researchers from the University of Virginia analysed data from a national study of around 5,000 children born in large U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000, focusing upon children whose parents were not living together. They concluded that 43 per cent of infants with weekly “overnights” were insecurely attached to their mothers, compared to 16 per cent of infants whose overnight stays away were less frequent, or who stayed with their father during the day only.
Here in England and Wales, as in the USA, there has been a move towards shared parenting and shared residence orders. This follows the groundswell of opinion that a modern, hands-on father being “afforded” time with his children, while the children remained living with the mother and the mother made all the day-to-day decisions, did not meet the children’s needs. As a result the courts, even at a local level, have become far more willing to consider shared residence. This shift in approach, however, has its critics. One UK study into childhood experiences of family break-ups has included that Government plans to go one step further and amend the 1989 Children Act, by introducing a presumption of shared parenting, are misguided.
The lead author of the University of Virginia study, Samantha Tornello, said: “Judges often find themselves making decisions regarding custody without knowing what actually may be in the best interest of the child, based on psychology research.
“Our study raises the question, ‘Would babies be better off spending their overnights with a single caregiver, or at least less frequently in another home?'”
The doctoral psychology student emphasised that either parent could be the primary caregiver.
“We would want a child to be attached to both parents, but in the case of separation a child should have at least one good secure attachment”, she added. “It’s about having constant caregivers that’s important.”
For the purposes of the study an attachment was defined as a enduring and deep emotional connection, between the infant and the caregiver, which developed within the child’s first year of life.
Notably, the findings were less striking for toddlers: a link was identified between less secure attachments and more frequent overnight stays away, but the findings were not deemed to be statistically reliable.
Another author of the study, Robert Emery, suggested that parenting plans which evolve over time, with overnights kept to a minimum in the early years and increased over time, could be the way forward.
“I would like infants and toddlers to be securely attached to two parents, but I am more worried about them being securely attached to zero parents”, he said. “If mothers and fathers can be patient, co-operate and take a long view of child development, such evolving plans can work for both children and parents.”
The study has been published in the August 2013 edition of the Journal of Marriage and Family.