Babies’ Attachment to Parents Affected by Overnights

If co-parenting is not possible, we recommend that parents wait until the baby is older to introduce overnight visiting schedules

From Leonard Holmes, Guide

Oakland, CA – Babies who spend overnights in the separate residences of each parent following divorce or separation, have difficulty establishing secure attachments to their parents, according to a recently-released study.
Carol George, professor of psychology at Mills College, and Judith Solomon, program coordinator of Infant Home Visiting, Early Childhood Mental Health Program, completed the world’s first study of the effects on infant attachment to parents by overnight visitation with the father in separated and divorced families. Supported by a four-year Maternal and Child Health Research Grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1992-1996), the researchers looked at infant-parent child attachment in 145 babies whose parents represent a wide range in socioeconomic status and ethnic backgrounds. They observed the babies in the context of separation and reunion with each parent and interviewed the parents when their baby was 12 to 18 months old, and again at 24 to 30 months.
Using the Ainsworth Strange Situation to assess the baby’s attachment security, they found that two-thirds of 12- to 18 month-olds with overnight visits had disorganized attachments with their mothers and fathers, compared with babies who live in intact or separated homes who saw their fathers only during daytime visits. One key function of babies’ attachment relationships with parents is to help the baby cope with stressful or frightening situations. The parent is a safe haven, providing comfort and guidance that is internalized by infants as they grow up. Disorganized infants have repeated experiences with attachment figures in which proximity and physical contact are severely compromised, and there is a breakdown in strategies they might have used to signal parents of their distress, and seek contact and comfort. Thus, disorganized babies could not cope with separations and reunions with the parent in the lab setting, and did not trust their parents as a resource to handle stress.
However, the overnight visits per se, were not the sole factor affecting the babies’ attachments. Key factors included the mother’s ability to protect her child from the stress of separation; the parents’ ability to communicate and cooperate about their baby’s well being; and the extent of conflict between the parents.
George and Solomon stress that it is important for parents to keep their problems away from their baby, and to pay attention to their baby’s behavior, especially when the baby returns home. Signs that overnights are not working include noticeable changes in behavior, such as tantrums, or an inability to sleep at night. “Overnight visits are stressful to babies 12 to 18 months, as well as 24- to 30 month-olds,” says Solomon. “Parents can buffer the impact on the baby by talking about their child’s needs, accommodating them when scheduling visits, avoiding fighting in front of the baby, and not using the baby as a punishment for the other parent.” She adds, “Some babies fare better spending two to three nights per week with dad rather than every other night; some infants do better with one week on and one off, and others prefer parental visits during the week while remaining in one home.”
George and Solomon suggest that parents begin trial overnights and adjust them based on how well their baby is coping. “The baby needs time to adjust; overnights are always transitions,” notes George. “It’s easier when the baby is approximately three years old, because they begin to understand that their mother will return. Infants can adjust to overnight visitation, but it is very difficult when parents don’t engage in co-parenting that places their baby’s needs first. If co-parenting is not possible, we recommend that parents wait until the baby is older to introduce overnight visiting schedules.” — Mills College

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