One question that is ever present in divorce cases with very young children is whether it is acceptable for infants to have overnight visits away from the primary caregiver. The answer appears to be “yes, but on a stepped-up basis.”

In a recent article in the Nevada Family Law Report, a Nevada-specific legal publication, Dr. Stephanie Holland and Attorney/Child Expert Margaret Pickard reported on the latest research presented at a recent convention of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts. The article gave practical advice to attorneys and judges in crafting parenting plans that consider the developmental best practices of children.

Though even the experts disagree on the extent of the long-term impacts of infants having overnight visitation with both parents, they agreed that time with both parents (absent abuse or neglect) are important to the child’s development. The studies presented demonstrated the need for consideration of the child’s developmental need to maintain a close and consistent (though not necessarily constant) connection with the “primary caregiver.” Here, the primary caregiver is simply the person the child identifies with most—the one the child turns to first in times of crisis. Studies have shown that this is most often the mother as mothers are “generally better able to recognize and respond to their infant’s stress levels, while fathers were better able at stimulating the children’s play and learning behaviors.” Although both are necessary to a child’s healthy development, the studies showed that infants tend to prefer proximity to the caregiver, based upon the quality of the care, for the first 18 months of their lives.

Another point of agreement was that the common argument heard in divorce court that infants should not spend any overnights away from the mother is simply false. Infants from 0–48 months have been shown to do better with some overnight visits, coupled with daytime visits away from the primary caregiver. In fact, studies have dispelled the traditional notion that infants should not spend time away from the primary caregiver. Instead, they establish that overnight visits with the secondary providers (typically fathers) is both beneficial for the child’s long-term relationship with them, but also that failure to maintain that relationship is detrimental to their long-term development.

Also discussed is the need for fewer face-to-face custodial exchanges. “Parental conflict, or its absence, is one of the strongest indicators of whether or not a child will make a healthy adjustment to new circumstances.” Instead of one parent delivering the child to the other in person, school, daycare, or another place of neutral activity can be utilized as a buffer during the exchanges. This squares with the concept of increasing visitation as the children approach school age.

The consensus seems to be that a gradual “step-up” plan is best. Frequent overnights in young children causes insecurity and thus developmental delay. Instead, the overnight visits should start with longer periods in between, and gradually increasing in frequency and length over three to four years. This obviously conflicts with a parent’s desire to minimize time away from their child and to minimize child support obligations—legitimate concerns for most litigants. But since the primary consideration in developing parenting plans is the best interest of the child, the key in establishing optimal parenting plans for infants is to consider eight factors in establishing plans that meet the child’s basic emotional needs:

  • Safety (developing an environment in which the child feels safe and comforted);

  • Trust and Security (assuring the child has a bonded relationship with both parents and can seek comfort from either in the absence of the other);

  • Parents’ mental health (that the parents are free from drug/alcohol/mental health issues that affect their ability to parent);

  • Child’s health and Development (that the timeshare supports the developmental needs of the child – including breast-feeding infants);

  • Behavioral Adjustment (that the plan provides increased timeshare based upon the child’s response to the implementation of the plan and allowing for adjustments if the child demonstrates evidence of distress);

  • Co-Parenting Relationship (that the co-parents are able to cooperate to manage conflicts and shield the child from conflict);

  • Pragmatic Considerations (realistic accounting for logistical concerns such as work schedules and travel times); and

  • Family Factors (encouraging positive relationships with siblings by maintaining similar schedules and fostering secure relationships with extended family and cultural and religious practices).

The key to developing optimal parenting plans for infants and young children is to first protect their sense of safety and protection. This is best accomplished by considering the eight factors in developing a plan that calls for some overnight visitation coupled with daytime visits, and increasing the time away from the primary caregiver over the first three years. Parents should work together to first shield their children from any conflict between the parents, and then to make sure their developmental needs are met. Eventually, near-equal time with both parents allows children to have healthy, well-balanced relationships with both parents. If children are going to succeed after divorce, it is the developmental interests of the children that should be considered above all, not the mere desires of the parents.