In recent years, researchers have found that secure physical and emotional attachment to a parent is key in an infant’s healthy development. Now a new child custody study out of the University of Virginia has found that joint physical custody – in which an infant spends time at both its mother’s and father’s homes – could harm attachment and possibly lead to less emotional security in the future.
The study, which was conducted by psychologist Samantha Tornello and peers at the American Institutes for Research, examined data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a national study that followed 5,000 American families with babies living in large cities from 1998 to 2000. The data included interviews and in-home assessments at the child’s birth, as well as at ages one and three.
The study concentrated on the children that spent one overnight with their father, children who spent several overnights with their father, and children who did not spend overnights with their father at all. The findings? A surprising 43 percent of babies who experienced weekly overnights with their fathers were insecurely attached to their mothers, compared to 16 percent of babies who experienced less frequent overnights. Toddlers were less affected by overnights with their fathers.
What can we learn from this study? Small children and infants may suffer from insecure attachments if they spend overnight time with their other parent. While a secure attachment to two parents is the best case scenario, very young children of divorce may benefit from fewer overnights until they are securely attached to their mother.