Infants and preschool children are the group most adversely affected by the consequences of divorce, particularly in the case of diminished parent-child relationships and exposure to parental conflict. Especially when children are very young, if they are to develop and maintain safe and secure primary attachments with each of their parents, their interactions with both of their parents need to be regular and routine and they need to be protected from exposure to parental conflict.
Most children in two-parent families today form primary attachments to both of their parents at the same stage in their development. Parent-infant relationships spanning a range of activities and contexts, with separations minimized, are vital to preserving these primary attachments, as parents who do not interact regularly with their infants and toddlers effectively become strangers.
Divorce presents special challenges in these situations. According to current attachment research, after divorce, evenings and overnights provide opportunities for crucial social interactions and nurturing activities that access “visits” cannot provide, including bathing, soothing hurts and anxieties, bedtime rituals, comforting in the middle of the night, and the reassurance and security of snuggling in the morning after awakening. These everyday activities create and maintain children’s trust and confidence in their parents, while deepening and strengthening parent-child bonds.
A particular challenge for co-parenting infants after divorce relates to breastfeeding schedules. When mothers are breastfeeding, there is sometimes maternal resistance regarding extended overnight or full-day separations. Breastfeeding is obviously one of the important contexts in which attachments are promoted, and thus co-parenting routines need to be arranged around the infant’s feeding schedule. An attitude of support for breastfeeding mothers by fathers is critical, as is openness to modifying parenting plans around breastfeeding schedules. At the same time, mothers’ support of the ongoing father-child relationship is equally critical to children’s well-being, and breastfeeding schedules should not be used as a reason to limit or diminish fathers’ (or the other parent's) involvement with and attachment to their children.
Infants and very young children cannot tolerate lengthy separations from primary attachment figures, and relationships with both parents profoundly affect their adjustment. The loss or attenuation of important relationships may cause depression or anxiety, particularly in the first two years, when children lack the cognitive and communication skills that enable them to cope with loss. The richer, deeper, and more secure the parent-child relationships, the better the child’s adjustment to family transitions, whether or not the parents live together. When both parents have been actively involved as caregivers in infants’ lives, continued frequent opportunities for routine interaction with both parents is crucial to children’s well-being after divorce (see Lamb and Kelly, 2009).
Beyond infancy, preschool children remain highly vulnerable. Decades of divorce and child outcome research have documented young children’s vulnerability to depression after parental divorce (the opposite pattern is evident for two-parent families), confusion about the nature of families and interpersonal relationships, a tendency to blame themselves for their parents’ conflict and divorce (which is highly resistant to therapeutic intervention), regression in behavior and general development, a fear of being "sent away" or "replaced," joyless play, a preoccupation with trying to fit objects together, and a yearning for the absent parent.
Maintaining relationships with both parents within a co-parenting living arrangement is thus protective of children. Yet preschool children in sole custody arrangements are the group most at risk of losing contact with their non-custodial parents.
Stability, consistency in caregiving routines, and predictability of transitions between parents need to be optimal for infants and young children in caregiving arrangements after divorce (Pruett et al, 2004). The pre-divorce parenting history is thus a key factor in determining the nature of the post-divorce parenting schedule, as infants form attachments to those who have been regularly available and responsive to their needs and signals (Lamb and Kelly, 2009). For the majority of infants and young children, both parents have been actively involved in the daily routines of child-rearing and care, and co-parenting is thus vital to children’s well-being after divorce.
Despite the findings of studies of parent-child attachment that support co-parenting arrangements for the majority of infants and young children, a recent issue of the Family Court Review (2012) examined perspectives for and against co-parenting of young children in disputed cases. Researchers supporting co-parenting identified a number of fundamental methodological flaws of recent studies that challenge co-parenting of infants and young children: the failure to interview both parents, small and non-representative samples and use of unreliable and invalid measures, and the fact that even these studies have actually found no significant differences in child outcomes in single versus co-parenting families.
The failure to recognize the depth of children’s attachments to both of their parents is the most significant omission, however, of attachment theorists and researchers who hold more traditional views about the parenting of infants and young children. Each family is unique, of course, but in those families in which children are securely attached to two parents who have been integrally involved as caregivers since their children’s birth, co-parenting after divorce is vital to children’s well-being. Current attachment research, as opposed to the views of traditional attachment theorists, strongly supports this position.
Lamb, M. E., & Kelly, J. B. (2009). Improving the quality of parent-child contact in separating families with infants and young children: Empirical research foundations. In R. M. Galatzer-Levy, L. Kraus, & J. Galatzer-Levy (Eds.), The scientific basis of child custody decisions (2nd ed., pp. 187–214). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Pruett, M. K., Ebling, R., & Insabella, G. (2004). Critical aspects of parenting plans for young children. Family Court Review, 42, 39–59.