This is the third installment of our four part series from Dr. Linda Nielsen examining ten common myths of parenting time and shared residential custody:
Most infants and toddlers become more irritable or show other signs of maladjustment when they spend overnight time with their fathers. Given this, there should be little or no overnighting for infants and toddlers. There are only seven studies that have assessed overnighting and non-overnighting infants and preschoolers. None of them found statistically significant differences in irritability or other measures of maladjustment related to overnighting per se. Given the confusion and debate on this issue, it is worth providing more details of these studies.
Four studies were conducted 15 to 21 years ago. The first assessed 25 one to five year olds who lived half time with each parent. At the end of one year, those children whose behavior and developmental progress had gotten worse were the ones who had violent, alcoholic, inattentive, or otherwise very dysfunctional parents. The researchers also noted: “The most surprising find was that children below the age of three were able to handle the many transitions in their overnight joint custody arrangements.” The second study included 25 children under the age of two and 120 ages two to five when their parents separated. Four years later, those who had lived 30% time with their fathers were better off on all measures of emotional, psychological and behavioral well-being. Moreover 40% of those who had not spent overnight time before the age of three with their fathers no longer had any contact with him – a loss that occurred for only 1.5% of the overnighting children. The third study compared infants 12 to 20 months old: those who spent any overnight time with their fathers, those who spent none, and those who lived with married parents. The infants were classified as having a secure, avoidant, ambivalent or disorganized attachment to their mother. A year later 85% of them were assessed again. Regardless of family type, the less securely attached infants had mothers who were unresponsive to their needs. And there were no significant differences in attachment classifications between those who overnighted and those who did not. The fourth study included 18 three to five year olds. At the end of two years, those who had lived with their fathers ten days a month were more well adjusted emotionally and no different on social or behavioral adjustment. Moreover, the number living this often with their fathers increased from 25% to 38% over the two years.
Two studies have been conducted more recently. Interestingly, the one that was not peer reviewed or published in an academic journal before being released by the Australian government has generated considerable attention among mental health practitioners, the legal profession and policy makers. Indeed, it is widely cited as evidence that overnighting is bad for young children. The limitations of this report have been enumerated by a number of internationally renowned researchers. For example, the sample sizes in several groups were very small and the vast majority of parents had never been married to each other. Leaving aside its limitations, for children from infancy to age five, there were very few differences between those who never overnighted and those who overnighted. The mean scores were similar on measures of irritability, global health, monitoring their mother, negative response to strangers, developmental concerns, behavioral problems, emotional functioning and persistence. The four to five years olds who overnighted more than nine nights a month had more attention deficit disorders according the their mothers. But this may very well be linked more to gender than to overnighting. That is, boys were more likely than girls to be overnighting frequently – and boys in the general population are more likely than girls to have attention deficit disorders.
The most methodologically sound study at Yale University is part of an ongoing project. This study assessed 132 children ages two to six whose divorced and never married parents had separated. Of these, 31% spent one overnight a week with their fathers, 44% more than one and 25% none. For the two to four years olds, the overnighters were no different from non- overnighters in respect to sleep problems, anxiety, aggression or social withdrawal. They were, however, less persistent in completing tasks. According to their fathers, but not their mothers, the overnighters were more irritable. Overall then, the differences were small. For the four to six year olds, however, the overnighters had fewer problems than the other children – especially the girls. As the researchers conclude “Overnights did not benefit or cause distress to the toddlers and benefited the 4 to 6 year olds” (p. 135).
The final study assessed 24 children ages one to six who overnighted an average of eight nights a month. Almost 55% were classified as having an insecure attachment to their mother, which is higher than the average of 33% in the general population. Age when the overnights began and parent conflict were not related to the classifications, but mothers’ attentiveness or inattentiveness were. Taken together, these seven studies do not support the assertion that overnighting has a negative impact on infants or preschoolers.
About the Author: This article was written by Dr. Linda Nielsen, who has been a Professor of Adolescent & Educational Psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, NC for 36 years. She is the author of five books and dozens of peer reviewed journal articles. Her areas of expertise are shared residential parenting for children of divorce and father-daughter relationships. This article is based on 64 articles published in peer reviewed journals. You are welcome to email Dr. Nielsen (email@example.com) for the complete list of references.