Infants Too Young to Be Regularly Left Overnight? Study Cautions Against It

Babies who spend a night or more a week away from a primary caregiver can develop problems with insecurity, a new study has found.

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“The whole notion of joint custody has become increasingly popular, and it’s extended down to affect very young children,” researcher Robert Emery explained to Yahoo! Shine about what prompted the study, published in the August issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family. “There’s been very little research into its effects, but lots of opinion.”

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To examine the issue, Emery, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, joined others from both the university and the American Institutes for Research to analyze data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a national longitudinal study of about 5,000 children born in big U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000. The data consisted of interviews with both parents when the child was a newborn, and at ages 1 and 3.

“Having a figure out there to protect you against danger, and wanting to stay close to that figure, is a basic survival mechanism,” said Emery, explaining that the mechanism is not only psychological but biological, like the idea of ducklings swimming behind their mother in a pond. “And not having a secure attachment figure can lead to maladjustment.” He added that too-frequent separations, at least for infants under a year old, can lead to a range of maladjustments—including not being able to soothe easily, not seeking attachment at all later in life, having separation anxiety or attaching too easily with people when it’s not appropriate.

These can be learned attachment styles that can follow a child for the rest of his or her life, added lead researcher Samantha Tornello, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia. "Think of the boyfriend or girlfriend who didn't want to hold your hand," she told Yahoo! Shine.

In a press release from the university, she said, “Judges often find themselves making decisions regarding custody without knowing what actually may be in the best interest of the child, based on psychology research. Our study raises the question, ‘Would babies be better off spending their overnights with a single caregiver, or at least less frequently in another home?’”

Tornello said that either the mother or father could be the primary caregiver, but that, for an infant, spending nights in different homes may be disruptive. “We would want a child to be attached to both parents, but in the case of separation a child should have at least one good secure attachment,” she said. “It’s about having constant caregivers that’s important.”

In cases where parents were separated at the time of the study, 6.9 percent of babies under 1 who lived primarily with their mother spent at least one overnight a week away with their father. Among toddlers ages 1 to 3, 5.3 percent spent between 1 and 35 percent of overnights away with their fathers. Another 6.8 percent of toddlers spent 35 to 70 percent of overnights with their fathers.

Forty-three percent of babies with weekly overnights were insecurely attached to their mothers, the study found, compared to 16 percent with less frequent overnights. For toddlers, the findings were less clear.

Though Tornello noted that she, " would be cautious of making too much of what we found," she and Emery did suggest that parents of very young children at least think twice before automatically seeking joint custody.

“I think it’s at least a caution if not a stop, when a child is that young,” Emery said.

“A solution would be if parents can work together to think about time not in terms of days and months but years—to come up with a long-range plan that will develop with children’s changing needs,” he added. “What will be best for a 10-year-old may not be best for a 1-year-old.”

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