In family law, a major issue is when the non-primary carer parent should first have their children overnight. In this blog, I explore what leading psychologists think about the issue. This is a continuous issue for infants and parents who work long hours and have not spent extended periods with their children. For fathers especially, this can be a major issue post separation.

When a couple with a baby or a toddler separates, there are a few more layers of co-parenting to consider. For any child under five, the levels of distress can be proportionately higher than that of older children. This is mainly due to a change in routine with disrupted feeding and sleeping patterns.

In a case where one parent is the primary caregiver, should they let their child have overnight contact with the non-residential parent?

Nurturing a relationship with both parents

Unless agreed otherwise, if both parents play a part in a child’s life, it is important that they are each able to dedicate themselves and nurture their respective relationship with their child. For an infant, this may be even more important as they develop and come to learn and remember faces.

Spending a night with the non-residential parent allows opportunities for crucial social interactions with your child that may not occur during day visits. Bathing, soothing, comforting and other bedtime rituals can be considered vital nurturing experiences that strengthen the bond between parent and child. It can also be argued that, for the non-residential parent, this moment or interaction is of even more importance as it sets the foundation for a normal relationship with a parent that the child doesn’t live with.

Wouldn’t overnight stays cause disruption, upset and separation anxiety?

Of those arguing against overnights for young children, Solomon & George (1999) concluded that repeated overnight separation from mothers was found to be disruptive in the mother-child attachment “when the conditions of visitation are poor, that is, when parents are unable to provide adequate psychological support to the child“.

For children under 2 years, Solomon & George found that nights away from primary caregiver of one night or more per week was associated with greater propensity for anxious, unsettled behaviours when back with the primary caregiver, and greater propensity for development of disorganised attachments.

Reasons for distress can be attributed to the underdeveloped cognitive processes of an infant. They are too young to comprehend time, understand the reasons for separation, predicting reunion or other factors that could alleviate this distress.

McIntosh et al (2010) studied the behavioural and emotional outcomes of children with shared homes:

For under 2s, shared care at one night/week or more was associated with an added degree of vulnerability relative to primary care in:

  • Emotional regulation via higher irritability than infants in primary care, and
  • Greater monitoring of proximity of the primary caregiver.

For age 2-3, children in shared care (i.e. five or more nights per fortnight) showed:

  • Lower levels of persistence (e.g. ability to play continuously, stay with routine tasks and practice new skills) than rare overnights or in primary care (at least once a month but less than five nights per fortnight).
  • More problematic behaviours mainly in the context of the child’s interactions with primary caregiver (e.g. crying, hanging onto parent, refusing to eat, hitting, biting, kicking parent).

By age 4-5, [independent] effects of care arrangement on emotional regulation and related psychosomatic outcomes no longer evident. The differences between groups more accounted for by factors other than overnight care patterns, with particular emphasis on impact of angry parenting and lack of warmth in children’s self-regulatory capacities at this stage.

It’s important to note the limitations of these findings by McIntosh et al, namely small sample sizes and the lack of monitoring social or cognitive outcomes.

How to decide if you should allow a non-residential parent overnight stays

Solomon & Biringen (2001) explain, “a variety of overnight access schedules can work when parent communication is high and parents are able to work flexibly” …” even separations of a few days from the primary caregiver seem to be well tolerated when conditions are supportive“.

In an instance such as this, it is of dire importance for each parent to be able to segregate their relationships to each other – as ex-partners and as parents. Doing so can potentially help to build a stronger co-parenting unit with a solution where both parents are satisfied with the custody arrangement while the child’s welfare is the first consideration.

When it comes to deciding on whether or not to allow overnight stays with a non-residential parent, there is no blanket solution – the individual circumstances of each family and child need to be taken into account particularly because of the lasting impact these decisions can have on younger children.

Gould & Stahl (2001) outline several key factors to be considered when decision-making – the parent’s relationship with the child up until separation, the child’s temperament, the support of extended family members, and the communication between the two parents.

Communication was especially important to note because, for a child living between two homes, it is crucial that the parents are able to share important information about medications, sickness, cognitive development, eating habits and living routines. Gould & Stahl explain that clear communication between parents tended to result in a successful arrangement of shared custody. Communication also “maximises the opportunity for children to gain the best of both worlds” if parental skills were complementary.

The respective relationships between child and each parent were also worth noting when organising custody. If a child had been cared for by each parent before the separation, co-parenting with overnight stays is supported. If only one parent was the primary caregiver, Gould & Stahl suggest a gradual increase in the time with the other parent to build up trust and confidence in the relationship before allowing overnight stays.

It’s all about consistency and routine in a child’s life

However, many researchers concur that it is not overnights in and of themselves that are most important, but rather, what is critical is the circumstances that surround the arrangements and basic characteristics of the individual child (Pruett et al, 2004).

What matters more to children is whether the overnights occur on a regular and consistent schedule and that there is some consistency between the two homes. This consistency gives children the best chance of adapting to the challenges and stresses inherent in mastering a schedule that includes adjusting to two homes, two rooms, beds, caregivers etc. associated with overnights.

If agreed to, overnight stays with the non-residential parent should be outlined in the custody agreement to avoid any unnecessary conflict and expectations around the frequency of these nightly stays. In situations like these, especially when the child cannot voice their opinions, transparency between all parties is best to establish a successful, ongoing arrangement between each parent and child.