Call us: Mon - Fri 8:30am - 7pm, Sat - Sun 9am - 5pm
Call local rate 0330 056 3171
Mon - Fri 8:30am - 7pm | Sat - Sun 9am - 5pm
Call local rate 0330 056 3171
Mon - Fri 8:30am - 7pm | Sat - Sun 9am - 5pm

Do overnight stays away from home affect infants’ attachments?

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.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

Contact us

As the UK's largest family law firm we understand that every case is personal.


  1. Paul says:

    This is headline-type research once again.

    A child needs to form healthy attachments to both parents and time should be provided to fathers as well.

  2. Nick Langford says:

    There are some problems with this report; for example the children were from low income, racial/ethnic minority families and may not be representative of the wider population. One figure was ‘statistically unreliable’, the other, 43%, is still a minority and shows that most children in the sample don’t have attachment problems, so there will be other factors involved. It isn’t clear either why a parent with up to 70% of overnights should nevertheless be regarded as the NRP.

    The findings contradict the current state of knowledge as summarised by Linda Nielsen, based on 7 studies. It may be worth pointing out that Neilsen is an enthusiastic supporter of fathers’ involvement with their children while Tornello is not renowned for this – she is best known for an academic interest in gay and lesbian parenting.

    It would potentially be damaging to children’s interests if this study were allowed to influence practice without further investigation. Maccoby and Mnookin showed that children who do not have overnghts before the age of 3 are 27 times more likely to lose all contact eventually.

  3. Paul says:

    Regrettably, so much of this child development type research seems slanted to reflect the particular leanings of the “researchers” involved – if you can call them that. And it seems to be the ones with a bent against shared parenting who wangle their way onto government committees where they peddle and parlay their personal prejudices into legislative outcomes that defeat sensible reform.

  4. JamesB says:

    Don’t know about the rest of it, but I certainly agree with NL’s last sentence.

    Me and my ex split when my youngest daughter was less than 1. By the age of 2 and since I managed to get overnight stays until now she is 10. I think she would find it very hard not to have these and are something she very much enjoys and looks forwards to. I think had she not seen me in this time or had overnights she would not be the lovely person that she is and hopefully will continue to be.

  5. JamesB says:

    p.s. The same goes for my other 2 children.

  6. JamesB says:

    I had to go to court and be called lots of names and get lots of attitude for this and treated badly for asking for something natural and good. Not as is said here is bad. But as a rule I am not sure can be a rule each case is on its merits. In my case is and was good for my children. The more they see of me the better.

  7. JamesB says:

    Had to go to court and lots of wild unsubstantiated allegations thrown at me for the contact with my children though.

  8. Herald says:

    Once again, we have research whose findings are being prescribed by the bodies that fund it, and which have nothing to do with child psychology and everything to do with economic motivations.

    Whenever research contradicts common sense, there is one question to be asking: where is the money for it coming from?

  9. davidmortimermiltonkeynes says:

    A child’s “needs” cannot be optimally met by a single parent, however loving. Kruk’s findings show that a child must spend at least 40% of his time with a parent to establish and maintain a beneficial attachment.


    Babies May Benefit From Overnight Visits With Noncustodial Parents

    BY STEPHANIE FRANCIS WARD, November 7th, 2003

    Most parents will tell you that babies aren’t always picky about where they sleep. They’re happy to find their way to the Land of Nod at home in their cribs, but they are often just as amenable to sleeping at day care, with a baby-sitter or at a grandparent’s house. That’s why many family lawyers have begun to draft parenting plans that include overnight visits with noncustodial parents.

    In the past, the belief has been that infants have a primary attachment with only one caregiver, and separation from that person is distressing for the child. Accordingly, courts often don’t allow noncustodial parents to keep their children overnight, sometimes applying the policy to children as old as 5.

    The problem with that theory, says Dr. Richard A. Warshak, a clinical research psychologist in Dallas, is that it’s based on studies involving children in prolonged, institutional care who were deprived of being with their mothers and fathers. It also conflicts with reality, he says, because infants are often cared for outside the home by a variety of different people.

    “It seems like a legacy from old stereotypes–that only women were suited to care for children, and children need their mothers more than their fathers. We know those stereotypes have fallen by the wayside,” says Warshak, who often provides expert witness testimony about overnight visits.

    Warshak mentions indirect evidence indicating that overnight visits improve parent-child relations, particularly with fathers. If men are caregivers for their infants, he says, they are less likely to abandon the child later on.

    Many family law attorneys agree with this theory, but courts have been more hesitant to accept this new approach, says Scott N. Friedman, who practices in Columbus, Ohio.

    “They’re starting to buy into the concept, but I don’t think it’s happening overnight,” he says.

    Friedman says it helps if he has evidence that the child goes to day care and has a variety of caregivers. Although he knows of no court opinions directly on point, he says that when presented with this type of evidence, judges will often approve the overnight visits.

    But he cautions that overnight visits don’t fit with every parenting plan. For example, he does not advocate them in situations where parents do not communicate well with each other or do not live near each other.

    When the situation is right, however, Friedman thinks parenting plans that include overnight visits work better than arrangements where infants only see noncustodial parents a few times a month.

    He cites his own family as an example. Last month, he spent four days in Seattle, attending the ABA Section of Family Law’s fall conference. When he returned home, he says his 1-year-old daughter did not warm up to him immediately. This situation, he says, illustrates how parents and infants who don’t see each other on a regular basis often have bonding problems.

    “If your standard visitation is every other weekend and one night during the week, you’re a parent in name only,” Friedman says. “The longer you wait for overnight visits, the more anxious it makes them.”

    But it’s not just lawyers and psychologists pressing for change–many noncustodial parents are requesting frequent overnight visits, too, says Barbara J. Aaby, vice chair of the Family Law Section’s custody committee. So far, she says, the requests are largely coming from noncustodial dads.

    “It’s a welcome change,” Aaby says. “It’s a really good trend to start with the assumption that given two good parents, they should both be actively involved in raising children.”

    Attachment research for family court professhionals by Michael E Lamb 2012

    In Texas the minimum amount of time a judge can order is now approximately 42% 1997

  10. Luke says:

    You may be financially responsible for children, but they are not ‘your’ children – push comes to shove they are ‘her’ children – and there may be no way round it.

    Feminists say they believe in equality but it’s BS, when this subject of custody comes up you never hear a peep out of them.

  11. Singledad says:

    More feminist garbage. Anyone with common sense can see the flaws in the studies. Debunked with one single sentence:

    The attachment level with primary carer becoming less secure is not the equivalent to it being INSECURE or even UNATTACHED as the author would like to misguide people into believing.

    I can certainly assure you that her evidence if scrutinised will not reflect that false interpretation. Is also completely negates the massively beneficial value of attachment to a secondary caregiver who is crucially important for the healthy development of self esteem (an abundance of research to prove this well established fact).

    Feminists are evil – they are not about equality as they once were – they are about stamping out men’s rights and treating them as sub human. Fathers and men should fight for true equality on behalf of children and boys to disallow this viscous Marxist ideology from going any further.

  12. Yuri says:

    Commentators opposed to overnights for infants and toddlers have been relying on misleading interpretations of very flawed research (such as the Tornello study) 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 (February 2014) Science and Parenting Plans for Young Children: A Consensus Report. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 46–67

  13. Yuri says:

    The use, abuse and misuse of social science research is sometimes referred to as “the woozle effect” or “woozles” – named after a case of misinterpretation in a Winnie the Pooh children’s story. Decisions on policy issues can benefit from social science research, but the research must be methodologically sound and properly applied (Australian Institute of Family studies)

    Properly disciplined research has safeguards built in to protect it from the prejudices of the researchers. This is not the case with the results-oriented research by Tornello and colleagues (2013). 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.

    Professor Linda Nielsen (2014) has shed much needed light on the widely peddled results-orientated research by Tornello & colleagues. See, Nielsen L (2014) Woozles: Their Role in Custody Law Reform, Parenting Plans, and Family Court. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, Vol 20(2), May 2014, 164-180.…/Nielsen-Woozles-2014.pdf

    It is past time for lawmakers to acknowledge the science on shared parenting and enact true shared-parenting legislation.

    The below is transcribed from her review of the literature on overnights for infants and toddlers

    Never Married Parents

    (Tornello et al., 2013) should not be generalized to divorced parents or to the vast majority of never married parents because the data were from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing database (McClanahan, 2011). All of these parents lived in the inner cities of America’s 20 largest cities; 65% had no high school degree; 85% were African or Hispanic American; and 60%were below the poverty level. Slightly more than 85% were not married when their children were born. Of these, 30% were not living together and 20% no longer had a relationship with each other when their child was born. Before their children’s fifth birthday, 50% of these fathers and 10% of these mothers have served time in jail (Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, 2013). For these reasons, any study using this database should take care not to generalize the findings to families who do not fit this unique profile—not even to other never married or impoverished Americans.

    Using the Fragile Families database, the study (Tornello et al., 2013) examined two samples taken 2 years apart: 384 one-year olds and 608 three-year-olds who overnighted were compared to1, 062 who did not overnight and had infrequent daytime contact with their fathers. For the infants, occasional overnights meant anywhere from one to 51 nights a year; and frequent meant anywhere from 51 to 256 nights. The toddlers were categorized differently: rare overnights meant one to 12 nights a year, occasional meant 12 to 127 nights, and frequent meant 128 to 256nights.

    Consistent with the seven studies already described, there were virtually no differences between the overnighters and nonovernighters. On 14 regression analyses for the seven measures of well-being, only one statistically significant difference emerged: The children who frequently overnighted at age 3 years displayed more positive behavior at age 5 years than the rare or no overnights groups. In regard to children’s attachments to their mothers, based on reports from only 60% of the mothers, the 51 frequently overnighting infants had more insecure attachments (43%) than the219 occasional overnighters (16%) and the 364 nonovernighters (25%). However, in contrast to the hypothesis that overnighting would be linked to insecure attachments, the infants who never overnighted were more insecure than infants who occasionally overnighted. The data also failed to support the attachment hypothesis for the 3-year-olds. The 60 frequent and 171 rare overnighters had virtually the same ratings (37%, 33% insecure, respectively), as did the 171 occasional and 320 nonovernighters (22%, 18% insecure, respectively).

    Even if there had been a clear pattern between overnighting and the attachment ratings, interpreting the data would have been problematic for several reasons, some of which have been noted in a recent critique of the study (Millar & Kruk, in press). First and foremost, regardless of how frequently they overnighted, these infants and toddlers did not have alarmingly high rates of insecurity compared to children from similar backgrounds in the general population. On the Toddler Attachment Q Sort (TAQ), which was an abbreviated version of the standardized Attachment Q SORT (AQS; Waters & Deane, 1985), in the general population, 49% of infants and toddlers who were living in poverty, or who were African American, or who had mothers without high school degrees were rated as insecurely attached—a number that increased dramatically to 61% insecure attachments for children younger than 21-months-old (Andreassen & Fletcher, 2007). Second, 26 of the 51 infants and 45 of the 60 toddlers in the frequent overnights group were actually living with their father 55% to 70% of the time. These children should not have been included in an analysis of attachment because their mothers were not providing most of their care. In that vein, many of these infants and toddlers may have been living mainly with their fathers because their mothers had psychological, behavioral, or substance abuse problems—the types of problems that would undermine secure attachments independent of overnighting. But the greater problem is that the attachment data came from the mothers’ ratings on the TAQ. Unfortunately, in a meta-analysis of 139 studies with 13,835 children, the AQS was only found to be valid when trained observers did the rating after observing the mother and child interact for several hours: “It is concluded that the observer AQS, but not the self-reported AQS, is a valid measure of attachment” (van IJzendoorn, Vereijken, Kranenburg, & Walraven, 2004, p. 1188). “The convergent and discriminant validity of the self-reported AQS does not yet warrant its use as a measure of attachment security” (vanIJzendoorn et al., 2004, p. 1206). Waters (2013) who developed the AQS also expressed his concern over mothers’ ratings: “I am embarrassed to say that I was surprised when most of the people who contacted me wanted to have mothers do the sorting.” “If you are interested in correlations, I would avoid mothers” (Waters, 2013, p. 1). Unfortunately, because observer ratings would have been too expensive, the TAQ ratings in the Fragile Families study had to be done by the mothers. As a result, it was not clear what was being measured by the TAQ scores in this study. This problem has been acknowledged by other researchers who have used the TAQ data from the Fragile Family database (Pudasainee-Kapri & Razza, 2013). Overall then, overnighting had one positive impact and no negative impact on the well-being of these infants and toddlers.

    In sum, the woozle finds little, if any, support in seven of these eight studies. It is also important to note that three of the eight studies (McIntosh et al., 2010; Solomon & George, 1999; Tornello et al., 2013) were predicated on assumptions about mother–infant attachment that many contemporary attachment researchers and recent empirical studies do not support. First, these three studies assume that infants form one “primary” attachment to only one of their parents; second, that the quality (security) of this one relationship largely determines infants’ abilities to regulate their emotions; third, that this attachment takes precedent over the father–infant bond especially in the first year of the infant’s life; and fourth, that overnight time away from the mother, unlike daytime separation, is particularly stressful and undermines the security of their attachment. For these reasons, these three studies assumed that infant–mother attachment should be a primary measure of infants’ well-being and the central focus of parenting plans. In fact, however, many researchers do not agree with these assumptions about attachment largely because they are not consistent with recent empirical data (Cashmore & Parkinson, 2011; Garber, 2012; Hynan, 2012; Lamb, 2012a; Ludolph, 2012; Ludolph & Dale, 2012; Warshak, 2012). The woozle is further undermined by the consensus of a large group of social scientists: “No sufficient evidence exists to support postponing the introduction of regular and frequent involvement, including overnights, of both parents with their babies and toddlers. The theoretical and practical considerations favoring overnights for most young children are more compelling than concerns that overnights might jeopardize children’s development” (Warshak, in press).

Leave a comment

Help & advice categories


Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for advice on divorce and relationships from our lawyers, divorce coaches and relationship experts.

What type of information are you looking for?

Privacy Policy