Many small children these days spend at least one night a week with someone other than their mother. Usually, this is a result of shared parenting plans, worked out as part of a divorce. Certainly shared parenting is a good idea and studies support the active involvement of both parents in the life of infants and older children.
But a study from the University of Virginia found that babies under the age of one who spend at least one night a week away from their usual home were insecurely attached. In fact, 43% of babies with weekly overnights at their fathers’ house were insecurely attached compared to just 16% of children who visited their fathers less frequently.
Attachment is established by about age 10 months. Secure attachment appears to provide lifelong advantages in social relationships and self-confidence.
Notice that there’s no magic in staying every night with Mom. If the father is the more-connected parent and the child spends most of her time in Dad’s home, then the same issue would be a factor in overnight stays at the mother’s home. It’s not that mothers confer any advantage. It’s that infants need consistency and even a one-night-per-week disruption of that damages the formation of secure attachment.
Notice also that the problem with inconsistency isn’t limited to divorced parents who share parenting. Families in which the more-connected parent travels extensively for business and is away from home one night per week may find the same problem with attachment develops. While in this case, the baby is at least sleeping in his usual crib at night, attachment with a main caregiver may be at risk.
So what can parents do? One of the researchers said, “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.” Ensuring the future mental health and social strengths of babies seems a worthy reason to adjust parents’ lives.
1. In families affected by divorce, parents should limit severely the number of nights an infant spends away from her usual home. Instead, babies can spend more time during the day with their secondary caregiver.
2. In families in which frequent travel takes the primary caregiver away, efforts could be made to make the alternate parent the primary one. This parent could work from home, be responsible for all the care and activities a main caregiver provides, and otherwise fill the role of main parent. Obviously, it is best if this arrangement is established before the baby is born, instead of trying to change things after the mother goes back to work after her maternity leave.
3. For all families, results from the study suggest that after a child’s first birthday, weekly sleepovers can gradually be introduced. By the time a child is an older preschooler – age four or thereabouts – he can divide his time equally between Mom’s house and Dad’s house without ill effect.
No one ever said that having a baby would be convenient. Catering to the attachment needs of a small child can seem unnecessary, especially since the effects of poor attachment may not be noticeable right away.
But children need a sense of security and care. It’s up to moms and dads together to make that so.
© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.