Parenting Plans for Children Under 3 Years Old

December 19, 2011

Historically and as a general rule of thumb, both child development professionals and legal professionals (lawyers and judges) took the view that there should be no overnight access to a non-primary parent (usually the father) for children under three years of age and, for sure, for children under two years of age.

Based on concepts such as continuity of care, attachment theory, and bonding, we (legal and mental health professionals) tended to accept that, at least for children under two years old, these children were too young to handle that much time away from their primary parent, their mother. The prevailing thinking was that frequent but shorter visits were age appropriate for these infant children.

Recent child development research, however, has led lawyers and judges to re-think the issue of parenting for infant children, and courts are now frequently awarding generous access – including overnight access – for children under the age of three.

The concept that very young children can be bonded and form attachments to multi-caregivers, has gained favour in the eyes of psychologists and by the courts.

There have been two diverseperspectives of what is age and developmentally appropriate for very young children of divorced families. The first body of research supports the assumption that very young children need a primary and stable attachment to their mother – one primary parent. However, there is a second body of research that places greater importance on children having a father or father figure, and takes a family systemsperspective by looking at the full network of relationships surrounding the children. The assumption of this second body of research is that the functioning of mother, father and other caregivers with their children, are all significantly inter-related.

Certainly, the present era of daycare has taught us that an infant/child can thrive under multiple care taking conditions, so long as each is stable, emotionally available, coherent, and sensitive to the child’s development andpersonal needs, and so long as each is comfortable for the various caretakers involved. The research collected with respect to children living under these conditions rebuts claims that suggest that infants are better off under the sole or exclusive care of oneperson, rather than many.

Recent child development research indicates that very young children, including infants under three years of age, are capable of developing multiple important attachments and that frequent transitions do not work well when parents are in conflict.

A review of this body of research concludes that very young children can enjoy overnights with the non-primary caregiver, even if he/she is under three years of age, provided that both parents are nurturing and interested caregivers and that there is no conflict between the parents. The research establishes that the distress of infants and toddlers often relates more to erratic schedules, than to overnight transitions. Further, a child’s distress or anxiety with respect to overnights is often attributable to a mother’s distress or worry being passed on to the child.

Overnight access to a non-primary parent for infants or toddlers is now routinely being ordered for infants over six months of age. Courts appear to be no longer willing to simply restrict overnight access to a parent based on the age of the child alone. There is an abundance of case law and research supporting the theory that parenting schedules ought to be designed and ordered to ensure meaningful parenting time for both the primary and non-primary parent, in an attempt to maintain appropriate and meaningful relationships between young children and both parents.

So, is your case an appropriate one for overnight access or even shared parenting with respect to a child under the age of three years?

What appears to be crucial is that there will be continuity of care within and between the two homes, ongoing communication about the continuity of care and routines either by a written journal, e-mail or telephone, and a built-in reviewperiod to address the concerns of the other parent in case the overnights are not working for the particular child.