Co-Parenting Infants and Very Young Children, Part 2

A Response to New Critiques of Shared Parenting of Babies and Toddlers

Posted Jun 18, 2014

The principle that children under three should not stay overnight with their separated or divorced fathers, when parents cannot agree on co-parenting arrangements, has recently reappeared as an argument against co-residential parenting for very young children. Although the Australian work of McIntosh (2010) found that infants under two who spent one night or more a week and toddlers who spend 10 days a month of overnight time in their non-primary caregiver's care are more irritable, more severely distressed and insecure in their relationships with their primary parent, less persistent at tasks, and more physically and emotionally stressed, this study has been largely discredited by a recently published consensus report endorsed by 110 child development experts (Warshak, 2013), which found that McIntosh drew unwarranted conclusions from her unrepresentative and flawed data. Although McIntosh initially concluded that "repeated overnight stays away from the primary caregiver in the first year or two may strain the infant and disrupt formation of secure attachment with both parents” and “overnight stays away from the primary caregiver in early infancy are generally best avoided unless of benefit to the primary caregiver," she has recently retracted these statements, acknowledging that "cautions against any overnight care during the first three years have not been supported.” Her earlier statements, however, are still being misused by policymakers, the media and academic circles to justify the exclusion of divorced fathers from meaningful involvement in the lives of infants and very young children.

Weighing in on the controversy is a new article by Tornello, Emery et al (2013), which essentially supports McIntosh’s original findings: “Frequent overnights (are) significantly associated with attachment insecurity among infants.” Like the Mcintosh study, however, Tornello & Emery rely on flawed data, in this instance from the U.S. Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing study, which is far from a representative sample, but also measure children’s behavior using an invalid method, according to the originators of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing research. The Toddler Attachment Q Sort has validity only if the data is gathered by trained observers who gather information from observing the interactions of mothers and their children over a period of hours. When mothers are allowed to self-report, which is exactly the measure that Tornello & Emery used, the TAQ loses validity. Even so, their findings revealed no reason why children should not spend overnights with their fathers, as there were virtually no differences between the overnighters and non-overnighters; 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.

Both the flaws and profound repercussions of the Tornello & Emery study parallel those of McIntosh, which my colleague Paul Millar and I enumerated in our rejoinder to the article. Emery’s response to our rejoinder did not address our major criticisms of their research; rather, he claims that absent strong evidence about the effects of infants and very young children spending overnights with each parent, the burden of proof lies with those who advocate for the co-parenting position, rather than with opponents of co-parenting.

Yet there is ample empirical evidence that shared parenting produces better attachment, adjustment, and outcomes for children of divorce, including infants and very young children. The very contention that young children should be prevented from frequently seeing their fathers overnight unless it is proven that this is not harmful suggests that Tornello & Emery have little empirical evidence to support their position. Indeed, although they begin their article with the statement, “Frequent overnights were significantly associated with attachment insecurity among infants,” which is what the headlines captured world-wide, they end their article with, "The present study certainly does not resolve debates about frequent overnights and the wellbeing of very young children.”

Tornello & Emery’s views relating to overnight contact between young children and their parents seem to have been excessively affected by outdated notions that infants form primary attachments only with their mothers. The very notion of a "primary attachment" to one parent only has been discredited by attachment theory and research. Babies normally form attachments to both parents and a parent’s absence for long periods of time jeopardizes the security of these attachments.

Just as we encourage parents in intact families to share care of their children, 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 post-divorce parenting plans for children of all ages, including infants and toddlers.

Given research studies that identify overnights as a protective factor associated with increased father commitment to child rearing and reduced incidence of paternal alienation, and the absence of studies that demonstrate any net risk of overnights, policymakers and decision makers should recognize that depriving young children of overnights with their fathers will compromise the well-being of children. Sufficient evidence does not exist to support postponing the introduction of regular and frequent involvement, including overnights, of both parents with their babies and toddlers.

Tornello, S., Emery, R., Rowen, J., Potter, D., Ocker, B., & Xu, Y. (2013). Overnight custody arrangements, attachment and adjustment among very young children. Journal of Marriage and Family, 75.

Millar, P., & Kruk, E. (2014). Maternal attachment, paternal overnight contact, and very young children’s adjustment: A re-examination. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76.

McIntosh, J. E., Smyth, B., & Keleher, M. (2010). Parenting arrangements post-separation: Patterns and outcomes, Pt. II: Relationships between overnight care patterns and psycho-emotional development in infants and young children. North Carlton, Australia: Family Transitions.

Warshak, R. (2014). Social science and parenting plans for young children. Psychology, Public Policy and Law, 20.