Shared overnight care of infants after parental separation:
An academic and social debate in stalemate
Dawson Cooke July 2014
The controversy over this issue has a long history1. The debate has escalated over the past decade with concerns over family law reforms, although there has been scant new evidence to be considered. Recently, media in the UK (Telegraph, Guardian, Daily Mail, Independent) and here in Australia (ABC, The Age, Sydney Morning Herald) have covered this topic. The media attention has been sparked by the controversial opinions of Penelope Leach – countered by Sheila Kitzinger and fathering advocacy groups. Journal publications addressing shared overnight care of young children2-10 have been referred to in support of the case for and against shared care after separation.
It is generally agreed that the important issue here is what is best for the child – not parent rights (see my posts on the comparable issue of the increasing use of child care). The parenting role does not come with rights - it comes with responsibilities. The demand for parental responsibility is highest at a child’s time of greatest vulnerability - around birth and infancy. It is imperative that at this vulnerable time others uphold the rights of the infant.
One difficulty in this conversation is the translation of academic or scientific evidence into recommendations for policy or practice guidelines. This problem was made evident in the recent Think Tank of 32 family law experts convened by the AFCC (Association of Family and Conciliation Courts) - Closing the gap: research, policy, practice, and shared parenting.
What is most important?
The debate publicly highlights a few important issues:
- An infant’s need for:
- Stability in their environment
- Safe, familiar, responsive and long term relationships with their carers
- Protection from conflict and harmful distress
- Also, a child’s right to develop a relationship with both parents where possible (and the associated benefits, e.g. father involvement) – and it seems about 80% of both mothers and fathers agree with this proposition.
These issues are especially relevant for separating parents but also for all parents – considering the mobility of many families and work/career pressures for mothers and fathers. At the heart of the legal issue is how problematic it is when time spent with a child is considered a parental right or the child as property.
The dilemma when parents separate
Children of all ages benefit from stability in their family life and relationships, yet they also benefit from a close relationship with both parents. In the case of separated parenting, attempts to achieve one benefit can sometimes appear to be at the expense of the other.
This dilemma was highlighted in the editors response to comments on the Think Tank report11. There was unanimous “preference for parents’ active role in planning for their children’s future lives in reconstituted families” (p. 208). However, it was also conceded that there was an unresolved tension in the discussions of the policies.
There is a juxtaposed need “…for providing children with stability and consistency, and the desire to encourage two-parent involvement. Substantial research bases exist for each of these propositions, but research has not yet been able to test which of these empirically demonstrated developmental and familial conditions should prevail if we are forced to choose between them.” (p. 210)
So there seems to be a stalemate, which is complicated by the interpretation of research findings.
The use of research evidence
- Research showing group differences does not necessarily inform practice with individual cases – small differences between groups may be statistically significant but the implications for individual cases is unknown and possibly not relevant.
- Findings cannot be generalized beyond their context. Conclusions drawn from studies with families in custody disputes and/or small samples cannot be extrapolated for all separated families or other co-parenting contexts. Also, studies of dyads (e.g. mother and infant) provide a limited view of what is best for children’s development – see Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory of development.
- Problems are only part of the picture. Evidence of problems need to be considered in a broader context of possible gains or strengths that may counterbalance the problems.
- How objective are the assessments or measures? In many cases parenting studies are exclusively with one parent’s report and/or concerned with one infant-parent relationship, without an objective assessment or inclusive of the other parent.
- Correlational analysis cannot prove causality. For example, if associations are found between overnight care and reports of child behaviours or parent attitudes, it may be that other unmeasured factors contribute to the associations.
There are also some problems with the use of attachment theory in this debate.
- Attachment theory is widely accepted as being poorly and rarely applied to the infant-father relationship. This theory is therefore inherently biased towards the infant-mother relationship and should be applied with caution (this point is made repeatedly by attachment researchers including many of those commenting specifically on this overnight care issue2).
- The measures/assessments of attachment are useful for research and theory development. Attachment theory is closely linked with research methods and assessments - it is not necessarily appropriate for developing parenting or custody policy.
- The idea that there should be one especially important or unique “primary” attachment relationship (monotropy) is not supported by evidence 1,3,12.
These misuses of research have been argued to contribute to conclusion that there is clear evidence against shared overnight care of infants – a stand generally adopted in the guidelines for parenting after separation by the APS and AAIMH.
The resolution of this dilemma of overnight care is most likely achieved with holding the tension between: Firstly, recognizing the specific high-risk situations or conditions for infants, and secondly appreciating the benefits for infants of close relationship with multiple caregivers. We also need to keep in mind that separated parents are but one of many recently emerged forms of family structures, such as, fathers and/or mothers working long hours, infants in long day care and parents who work away (e.g. fly-in-fly-out). The best interests and rights of infants and children in all these situations are paramount and can depend on the parenting of both mothers and fathers. The ongoing struggle with these issues will hopefully result in guidelines and policies that will support children’s development and their future wellbeing.
1. Rutter M. Maternal Deprivation, 1972-1978: New Findings, New Concepts, New Approaches. Child Development. 1979;50(2):283-305.
2. Family Court Review. SPECIAL ISSUE: Attachment Theory, Separation and Divorce: Forging Coherent Understandings for Family Law. 2011; 49(3): Available from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/fcre.2011.49.issue-3/issuetoc.
3. Warshak RA. Social science and parenting plans for young children: A consensus report. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. 2014;20(1):46.
4. Nielsen L. Woozles: Their role in custody law reform, parenting plans, and family court. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. 2014;20(2):164.
5. McIntosh J, Smyth B, Kelaher M. Overnight care patterns following parental separation: Associations with emotion regulation in infants and young children. Journal of Family Studies. 2013;19(3):224-39.
6. Lamb ME. A wasted opportunity to engage with the literature on the implications of attachment research for family court professionals. Family Court Review. 2012;50(3):481-5.
7. Lamb ME. Dangers Associated With The Avoidance Of Evidence-Based Practice. Family Court Review. 2014;52(2):193-7.
8. Family Court Review. SPECIAL ISSUE: AFCC Think Tank on Shared Parenting—Closing the Gap: Research, Policy, Practice, and Shared Parenting. 2014; 52(2): Available from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/fcre.2014.52.issue-2/issuetoc.
9. Emery RE, Schepard A. April 2014. Family Court Review. 2014;52(2):143-4.
10. Millar P, Kruk E. Maternal Attachment, Paternal Overnight Contact, and Very Young Children’s Adjustment: Comment on Tornello et al.(2013). Journal of Marriage and Family. 2014;76(1):232-6.
11. Pruett MK, DiFonzo JH. Advancing the Shared Parenting Debate, One Step at a Time: Responses to the Commentaries. Family Court Review. 2014;52(2):207-12.
12. Waters E, McIntosh J. Are we asking the right questions about attachment? Family Court Review. 2011;49(3):474-82.