an innate biological need to be attached to caregivers, usually their parents.
But what happens when babies spend a night or more per week away from a primary
caregiver, as increasingly happens in cases where the parents share custody,
but do not live together?
In a new
national study, University of Virginia researchers found that infants who spent
at least one night per week away from their mothers had more insecure
attachments to the mother compared to babies who had fewer overnights or saw their
fathers only during the day.
is reported in the August edition of the Journal of Marriage and Family,
available online here.
are defined as an enduring, deep, emotional connection between an infant and
caregiver that develops within the child’s first year of life, according to
Samantha Tornello, the study’s lead author and a Ph.D. candidate in psychology
in the University of Virginia’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
during that critical first year serve as the basis for healthy attachments and
relationships later in life, including adulthood, Tornello said.
that growing numbers of parents are living apart due to non-marital childbirth,
the breakup of cohabitating parents, separation and divorce. Parents
increasingly are choosing to share child rearing in some form of joint custody,
and often the legal system must determine custody arrangements for the children
of parents who do not live together.
often find themselves making decisions regarding custody without knowing what
actually may be in the best interest of the child, based on psychology
research,” Tornello said. “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?’”
pointed out that either the mother or father could be the primary caregiver,
but the point would be that the child ideally would be in the care each night
of a loving and attentive caregiver and that there may be something disruptive
about an infant spending nights in different homes.
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.”
and her co-authors at the University of Virginia. and the American Institutes for Research, including
University of Virginia psychology professor Robert Emery, analyzed data from the Fragile
Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a national longitudinal study of about 5 000
children born in large US cities from 1998 to 2000. The data was collected by
researchers at Princeton University and Columbia University and consisted of
interviews with both parents at the time of the child’s birth, and at ages 1
and 3. Additional in-home assessments of the children were conducted when they
were 1 and 3.
who were not cohabiting at the time of the study, 6.9%of babies under the age
of 1, and 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% spent between 1%
and 35% of overnights away with their fathers. Another 6.8% spent 35% to 70% of
overnights with their fathers.
spent at least one overnight a week away from their mothers were discovered to
have more insecure attachments to them compared to babies who had fewer
overnights or stayed with their father only during the day. 43% of babies with
weekly overnights were insecurely attached to their mothers, compared to 16% with
less frequent overnights.
In the case
of toddlers the findings were less dramatic; greater attachment insecurity was
linked to more frequent overnights, but the findings there were not
statistically reliable, Tornello said.
like infants and toddlers to be securely attached to two parents, but I am more
worried about them being securely attached to zero parents,” said Emery,
Tornello’s research adviser.
advocates parenting plans that evolve, where day contact with fathers occurs
frequently and regularly, and overnights away from the primary caregiver are
minimized in the early years, then are gradually increased to perhaps become
equal in the preschool years.
and fathers can be patient, cooperate and take a long view of child
development, such evolving plans can work for both children and parents,” he