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Dr. Isabelle Fox on Overnight Visitations: As Harmful as We Suspect?

Submitted by on Friday, September 4 200980 Comments

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

Isabelle Fox, PhD

Isabelle Fox, PhD

Attachment Parenting International regularly fields questions from members regarding different aspects of attachment, child development, and challenging family situations. Easily the largest area of concern is among divorced and separated parents who are involved in custody cases in which the other parent is demanding overnight visitation for an infant or young child.

Parents involved in this stressful situation believe that overnight visitation is harmful not only to their individual attachment with the child but also to the child’s overall development. Isabelle Fox, PhD, a psychotherapist, author of Being There, renowned expert on API’s Principle of Providing Consistent and Loving Care, and a member of API’s Advisory Board, wants to leave parents with the truth – that, yes, overnight visitations can be quite harmful to the young child…but that, unfortunately, the courts system is woefully behind on education in this arena of child development.

Dr. Fox spoke during the second day of API’s 15th Anniversary Celebration gathering in Nashville, Tennessee, last weekend, in a special Hot Topic session, “Custody and Separation.” The session was attended by parents, therapists, and others who work frequently with attached parents dealing with the heartbreak of shared custody, especially with infants and young children who are not yet able to verbally express their needs and wants.

Among these parents was Christy Farr, API’s former executive director who lives in Nashville. She went through a divorce when her children were very young and struggled through a time when there was little information as to the effects of various custody arrangements on the wellbeing of children. Even now, as more information becomes available, parents are still challenged by a courts system that focuses more on what the parents want in terms of equitable division of assets rather than on the rights of the child.

“It’s been only in the last ten to 15 years that I’ve been confronted with so many people going through divorce,” said Dr. Fox, who not only advocates for attached parents in shared custody cases but who is also involved in divorce prevention. Her and her husband, Bob, an attorney, are co-authoring a new book, Who to Marry?

Why Divorce is So Hard on Children

Regardless of the many reasons why divorce rates have soared the past decade, marital separation is certainly a concern of child development: “All children experience it as a great stress,” Dr. Fox said.

When one parent moves out of the house, and out of the family dynamic, that poses a major break or disruption in attachment that, if not handled sensitively, can cause long-term damage to the child’s emotional health and ability to maintain healthy relationships.

While divorce and separation is never easy for any age of child, those who are school-age or older are able to verbally express their feelings in the presence of a supportive parents. But what about a preverbal child – an infant or young child not developmentally ready to describe their feelings about a situation in words? No doubt that the end to a marriage, and family dynamic, can be especially confusing and frightening to this age group.

The Problem with Overnight Visitations

Probably the most talked-about tension surrounding shared custody is when the courts system grants overnight visitation rights of an infant or young child to the parent who is not the primary caregiver, so that a baby who is accustomed to cosleeping and nursing at night is forced to be separated from the primary caregiver and put into the care of the parent who may be reluctant to continue attachment-promoting practices.

Infants and young children are especially vulnerable to overnights, not only because the more intense Attachment Parenting (AP) practices such as cosleeping and nursing at night are likely at this age but also because children this age have a difficult time understanding separation.

“Aloneness feels much more intense during the night, the dark,” Dr. Fox said.

She gave the example of Steven, a typical ten-month-old baby who has learned to handle the nighttime hours by seeking comfort in the smell, touch and holding, singing voice, and rocking motion provided through his mother. Steven’s father demands overnight visitations and the courts system grants his wish. While the situation could be aptly explained to an older child, who can also voice his concerns, Steven has no language development either to express his feelings or to be prepared through explanation for the sudden change in nighttime routines he’ll experience going from the familiarity of his mother’s care to unpredictability and perhaps fear and confusion, as in the case of a father who does not practice AP himself.

It is impossible for a parent to explain to a ten-month-old baby that she will be back. “All that stays with him is loss and anger and fear,” Dr. Fox said. “There is no cognitive understanding” of what is happening.

In Steven’s situation, there will be a lot of crying at his father’s home during the overnight stays. Eventually, the crying may stop but the rage remains. When Steven returns to his mother, he will be extremely clingy, irritable, and anxious about separation from her for several days after each overnight visitation. Steven will feel a sense of abandonment during each visitation, then anxiety upon returning to his mother, and literally a need to re-acclimate to his normal care routine. It’s an enormous amount of stress on a young child’s emotional capabilities.

The biology of this stress is illustrated through the high levels of the hormone Cortisol, which floods the brain and impairs development. Lifelong effects of chronic Cortisol release include anxiety disorders, anger problems, and withdrawal. In addition, overnight visitations do nothing to improve the attachment bond with the non-primary caregiver and actually strains it.

Attachment-Based, Not Biological

Dr. Fox’s recommendation against overnight visitations with a non-primary caregiver applies always with the primary caregiver, often the mother but perhaps the father or a grandparent. The trauma an infant or young child can experience is related to the threat to the attachment bond, not to the biological role of each parent. Therefore, “overnights away from this father [the primary caregiver] could be just as stressful as overnights away from the mother,” Dr. Fox said.

“There are 3 million stay-at-home fathers in the United States right now,” she added. “So, you can’t be judgmental; you have to see what the situation is,” and not assume the mother is always the primary caregiver.

The same holds true for families in which both parents are primary attachment figures to the child, a phenomenon known as tandem parenting and explained by James McKenna, MD, during API’s 15th Anniversary Think-Tank Event. The solution here would be to allow overnight visitations with the parent who is accustomed to putting the child to bed at night, whether or not he or she is the primary caregiver in all childcare tasks. “This is because sleep is different; it’s a process,” Dr. Fox said.

Alternative to Overnights

Night and day visitations have very different impacts on a young child, Dr. Fox said. A parent demanding overnight visitations must be especially careful of who is the primary attachment for the child, as well as whether the child is developmentally ready to handle an overnight visitation. A child normally isn’t ready to spend a night away from home, except an emotionally close family member, until at least the school-age years.

Rather, a parent who is not the primary caregiver and would otherwise wish for an overnight visitation should request more daytime visitation.

When Overnight Visitations are OK

If the parent can wait until the child is at least three years old before requesting overnight visitations, the effect is much smmother on the child who is able to better sense time and has improved language development. The child can not only better express their feelings but also can understand a parent’s explanation of what will happen during a visitation and afterwards.

“Wait until the child is two or three and is able to truly prepare for a different process of going asleep,” Dr. Fox said. “So, it isn’t such an abusive act to snatch the baby away from one parent and give him away to another.”

The Problem with this Logic

Whether a parent would ignore a child’s developmental needs in favor of overnight visitation rests in the parent’s maturity level as well as pressure from the courts system.

“The courts are miserable,” said Dr. Fox, who added that the system is under educated on how nighttime separations affect child development, to the point that some spouses who speak up for their children against overnight visitations are labeled as anti-father or anti-mother. The focus in Western society is on the rights of the parents, rather than that of the children. “Courts are very fair and equitable in what to give to each parent,” Dr. Fox said, “but a child is not a bank account to be divided.”

What it comes down to is the decisions made by the parent seeking custody. Dr. Fox told the Biblical story of Solomon who encountered two women claiming the same baby as her own. The woman who was truly the mother was the one who cared more about the baby’s wellbeing than custody of the child. The take-home message, then and now, is: The parents who love their children will focus on what’s best for their child, regardless of whether visitation is granted during the daytime only or overnight.

While there are many cases of the father being the primary caregiver, it is a recent development that non-primary caregiving fathers have started to demand overnight visitations. Part of this new trend, believes Dr. Fox, could be that if a father can get partial custody, he pays little to no child support.

“In years past, the courts never took children away from their mothers until three or four years old. Even then, preschoolers have a very difficult time moving from home to home,” Dr. Fox said.

A Compromise?

Some parents and therapists believe that getting infants and small children used to small separations away from their primary caregiver helps to prepare a child for overnight visitations. Dr. Fox warns of this advice, especially with the younger child: “I think three or four year olds can have small separations like going to a preschool or something else during the day, but overnights are a big deal!”

Inevitably, some parents will have to deal with shared custody and overnight visitations of their children at the non-primary caregiver’s home. So what does Dr. Fox recommend?

  • Talk about the situation and play it out with dolls or teddybears.
  • Teach the non-primary caregiver how to put the child down for a daytime nap to ease into the bedtime routine.

Divorce-Proofing Your Child

The future of marriage and stable family life lies in what our children learn about dealing with conflict and stress in relationships from our own marriages – and AP is helping parents to lay the foundation for future, healthy marriages.

“To make a good marriage, you have to have the capacity to form real, long-term commitments and you teach that in the first two years of life,” Dr. Fox said, further illustrating that overnight visitations are a bigger issue than who has custody rights.

80 Comments »

  • Gill says:

    The only way to stop damaging overnight visits is class actions against the courts and the non primary carer demanding overnights for the damage to infants and toddlers. It is the only way to stop it. Call for an independent investigation.

  • New Mom says:

    I’d like resources, my baby will be two months when we go to court and her Dad wants overnight visits all weekend at that time.
    My oldest started going overnight at the age of 11 months and I was okay with that, but I don’t think a two month old should be gone all weekend. Yes, I am breastfeeding and I will have to pump when I return to work, but there is no way, that she should go all weekend without skin to skin contact and feedings. I realize it seems as if some mother’s are trying to keep the Dad away, but I’ve done this before and the best interest for our daughter is to be stable and have this routine to encourage development… That being said, as she gets older, I am open to more time spent with her Dad… I just wish, he could see it as HER best interest… Please send me resources to help…

  • Dawn says:

    I am desperately trying to fight my 23 month old son’s father against overnights. I have always been my son’s primary care giver. We have a very secure attachment. He has night separation anxiety if he can’t find me, night terrors and attachment distress when he is with his father more than 7 hours.. plus he’s still nursing. Yet his father refuses to wait until our son is older and has outgrown these things and can speak for himself to let us know if he is ready or scared etc.
    I know in my heart that if he is taken away from me for 48 hours straight like his father wants it will permanently harm him emotionally and psychologically.
    I am having difficulty finding professionals to speak up for my son and get the courts to see the truth of the situation.

  • Dear New Mom,

    I have emailed you directly with a list of resources.

    ~Editor, The Attached Family.com

  • Momi says:

    Could I please have those resources too? New Mom? Editor?

    Please

  • Kimmy says:

    Can you provide any kind of resources please! I have a 21month old son and his dad and I have joint custody. 7days on and 7 days off Dad has never been apart of our son life as I has tried for over a year. We are going into the 4th week of the 7days. The week I had with my son since his first week with his Dad his behavior was: He sakes when he is sleep, I didn’t call me mommy until 3days later, He walks up to the wall and stand there and if I tell him come on you don’t have to stand there he SCREAMS NO!,STOP!,HELP!, He falls on the floor on his face and with his arm under him and screams help! He uses his fist to fight and sleeps with his fist balled up.
    So fed up I don’t know what to do. Please help I don’t know what to do, sad mommy.

  • cckw says:

    Could you please send me resources, as well? I am due anytime with my DD and already battling both visitation that would interferes with nursing on demand, as well as co-sleeping. My intention is to wear her during the day when she sleeps, and cosleep next to her at night in a crib I built onto my bed with my 7 yo son on the other side of me. :) It’s unfortunate when someone lies to you about their parenting beliefs, chooses to leave, and then tries hard to go against what you know is best for your children. I’ve already been in contact with a lawyer, but am continuing to search for one that has a more AP style and knows laws to defend it. Do you know of any magical method (one can wish!) to go about doing this? TIA!

  • Dear CCKW:

    I have emailed you as requested.

    ~Editor, The Attached Family.com

  • Momi,

    I have emailed you as requested.

    ~Editor, The Attached Family.com

  • Kimmy,

    I have responded to you via email.

    ~Editor, The Attached Family.com

  • Marie says:

    Can you please email me a list of resources as well? I’m going through a divorce and I’m struggling with this please help thanks

  • Marie – I have sent you an email per your request.

    ~Editor, The Attached Family.com

  • Anna says:

    I’m currently going through court to ask for no contact between abusive father and my 7 month old baby. I’m nursing and bed-sharing. The father is allowed temporary supervised visits until next court date. I think it’s really unlikely they will grant no contact though which is so worrying. The father wants to ultimately have overnights and holidays, this makes my stomach churn. Do you have anything that might help? Thank you.

  • Sonia says:

    Could you please send me more resources with regards to overnight visitation and the effects on babies – 18 months of age.

  • Karen says:

    I also would love any information on resources for this. I am just shocked at how the court system is more concerned with equal division vs. the well being of an infant. I have a 10 month old daughter whose father lives in another state. Our temporary orders are as such: I am responsible for flying my daughter 1,500 miles one way (Tennessee to Arizona) every other month so that the father can have his overnight visit with her for a weekend of Friday to Sunday. We also have to connect as there are no direct flights. Father is responsible for flying to her the other in between months and has his overnights (weekend) visit in a hotel. We have been doing this since she was 6 months old and my daughter is showing all the signs discussed in the above article – night terrors are the worst. Unfortunately, Arizona has jurisdiction over my daughter only because she was born there – she only lived there 3 weeks of her life! I am not even a resident of this state, and the father tried to make he courts keep us there permanently. While the judge refused to do so, I am now required to abide by this parenting plan. We can not seem to settle, as the father is now expecting me to leave her with him for longer periods of time. He wants me to fly her there and leave her for a week at minimum every other month. Am I the only one who thinks this is insane? I am the primary caretaker of her since she was born and he’s had 3 overnights with her – he actually takes her to his parents and stays with them during this time, so he hasn’t even cared for her by himself. We went to mediation and the attorney hired to mediate for us actually told me that if I go to trial, the judge would order MORE time away even as a baby! We are set to go to trial at the end of September. I am just sick over what this is doing to my baby girl. Father refuses to move to be closer to his daughter, yet will put her through this at such a young age. Why aren’t these family court judges educated in child psychology or forced to at least take some classes on this if they are the ones determining the fate of our small children? All they care about is 50/50 and I’m sorry, but when you have a baby or small child who lives with one primary caregiver and you put them through this, you are not making a decision that is in the best interest of that child. Now my daughter has to suffer because of a selfish father who only wants his interests served. Please direct me to any resources that can help.

  • Karen says:

    I wanted to clarify that the above travel is 3,000 miles round trip – 1,500 each way including a layover in between. I have been fortunate so far that our flights have gone smoothly thus far with no delays, weather, etc; however, everyone knows that airplanes and airports are the worst for exposure to airborne illnesses – especially for a baby whose immune system isn’t as strong as an adult. My only hope is that somewhere down the road, I will be able to get jurisdiction transferred out of Arizona. I have been told that Arizona is in the process of passing more laws geared towards 50/50 equality and while I support and recognize this in certain cases to be fair, I have been told by many attorneys that this is not the norm elsewhere and they too, are shocked that a court would order a parenting plan such as this for a baby is ordered. Sad and distressed mommy.

  • Isabella says:

    Hello, could you please email me with resources as well? I’m going through a long custody battle, father is wealthy and is winning more and time with our son, based on lies and due to his highly paid lawyer turning everything against me. I don’t have an attorney, cannot afford it. This time the court gave him significantly more time with our son. I will only see him every weekend and one day a week. He is only 4 years old and I was always the primary caregiver, breastfed him until he was 2 and a half. He is crying each time when he has to go for 7 days at time to his father bagging me not to let him go. Please help. Isabella

  • Isabella says:

    I’m sorry. I meant every other weekend and once day a week.

  • Isabella says:

    I’m appealing the court’s decision and I’m looking to find some law cases to support my argument, otherwise the court will not rule in my favor.

  • Isabella – I have responded to you directly via email.

    ~Editor, The Attached Family.com

  • Karen – I have responded to you directly via email.

    ~Editor, The Attached Family.com

  • Sonia – I have responded to you directly via email.

    ~Editor, The Attached Family.com

  • Anna – I have responded to you directly via email.

    ~Editor, The Attached Family.com

  • Amarie says:

    I’m blown away at the current state of the family court system. We had mediation and the mediator was pushing me to give our sons Father 3 overnights a week when he has never slept there. I tried to reason with her and compromise and she made me out like I was damaging our son… He has frequent contact with his Dad.. It’s not like I’m trying to deter the relationship. The whole idea that babies are a possession to be divided equally makes me sad. She told me it was going to happen tv the Judges orders anyways… It was almost cruel. She advocated completely for the Father. Her next idea was 2 days with him/2 days with me. Unreal! He is 19 months old. I refused to agree to it.I would love to receive more information.

  • Marie says:

    Hi, I’m currently going through a custody battle too. My baby’s father is persistent with having 50/50 or at the least a couple overnight stays, ever since our son was born!. Our son is now only 8 1/2 months, I not only nurse him, but cosleep with him as well. I am also a stay at home mom and will be taking up online college courses so I can continue to nurse him. He has visits with his father for 4 hours a few times a week for now. I feel it to be ridiculous that the state of CA is consistent with now granting 50/50 between parents no matter what age their baby/child is. And I also feel it is very selfish for his father to want to disrupt what he’s used to.
    I am determined to prove to the court that it is not in our sons best interest to have overnight stays at such an age.

    If you can please send me the resources to back this up that’s be great!
    Thanks in advance.

  • Lacey says:

    Hello, I would the resources? My husband (separated) is trying to ask for a week stay at his house and he also has roommates and my son is only 5 months old and as I am the primary caregiver my son and I have a very close attachment. Being in a completely new environment and several hours away from me, I feel will be harmful to him. My his father is stubborn and persiaent that it’s not fair to HIM etc. please help because I am in separate need of facts to show him thank you so much.

  • Lauren says:

    Would you send me the resources? My husband and I are not divorced, but are living in separate states now as I finish college. Our daughter lives with me, and has since she was born. I cosleep and bf her still at 14 months. He wants to take her to live with him full time until I am done with school in January. Actually, he works so she would most likely be spending time with his mother. I know this would be terrible for the baby, as she’s never met his mother(who has been out of the country since my daughter was born) and she(the baby) has only gotten to be with my husband and Me together for 4 days when she was 6 months old. I need some ways to make him understand that I am not being selfish, just looking out for her best interests. Thank you.

  • amanda says:

    I’d like a list of credible resources as well on overnights. I go to court on august first and my sons father wants overnights now.

    He’s only 6 months. His dad has past child endangerment charge against him that isnt holding up in court since the girl was 16. He should have been a sex offender. Has had 2 duis and last year should have had another but just got slapped with an open container!!! Help..

  • Carolann says:

    Hi,

    I am in process of going through custody issues with ex. I have a 3yr old and a nearly yr old who i am still co-sleeping and breastfeeding. My ex wants girls overnight I have said when my 3yr old agrees i will support it but not the year old as she is too young to be separated from me. My oldest was 2 before she spent a night away which he agreed with at the time. My 3yr old only will go with her dad if i go too which i am doing as it has only been 3wks and i want ti support her to adjust and come to terms with split in her own time. My ex wants to push her and if she gets distresses tough he says. She is clearly saying she doesnt want to stay overnight at the moment and even when we were together she refused to let him put her to bed only wanting me. I am at a loss what to do he never showed mucg interest when we were together but now he wants to play doting dad but he is not concerned with effects on girls. Please could you send me any resources you feel appropriate.

    Thankyou so much.

    Carolann.

  • Breanna says:

    My son will be two in October and the judge ordered his dad Friday to Sunday from 6 pm to 6 pm and I just feel like that’s entirely too much for a child this young whose not able to express how he feels in this time of change

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