‘Commuter’ babies find it hard to bond

U. VIRGINIA (US) — Babies who spend at least one night a week away from their mothers may have trouble forming attachments to them, a new study suggests.

An attachment is defined as an enduring, deep, emotional connection between an infant and caregiver that develops within the child’s first year of life and serves as the basis for healthy relationships later in life, including adulthood.

A growing numbers of parents are living apart due to nonmarital childbirth, the breakup of cohabiting parents, separation, and divorce, researchers say and parents increasingly are choosing to share child rearing in some form of joint custody.

Often the legal system must determine custody arrangements for the children of parents who do not live together.


“Judges often find themselves making decisions regarding custody without knowing what actually may be in the best interest of the child, based on psychology research,” says lead author Samantha Tornello, a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Virginia.

“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?'”

Either the mother or father can be the primary caregiver, Tornello says, the point is that the child ideally is in the care each night of a loving and attentive caregiver. There may be something disruptive about an infant spending nights in different homes.

“We would 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 says. “It’s about having constant caregivers that’s important.”

For the study, published in Journal of Marriage and Family, Tornello and colleagues 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.

Of parents who were not cohabiting at the time of the study, 6.9 percent 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 percent spent between 1 percent and 35 percent of overnights away with their fathers. Another 6.8 percent spent 35 percent to 70 percent of overnights with their fathers.

Infants who spent at least one overnight a week away from their mothers had more insecure attachments to them compared to babies who had fewer overnights or stayed with their father only during the day. Forty-three percent of babies with weekly overnights were insecurely attached to their mothers, compared to 16 percent 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 says.

“I would like infants and toddlers to be securely attached to two parents, but I am more worried about them being securely attached to zero parents,” says Robert  Emery, professor of psychology and Tornello’s research adviser.

Parenting plans should evolve, he says, beginning with frequent regular day contact with fathers and minimal overnights away from the primary caregiver in the early years, then gradually increase to perhaps become equal in the preschool years.

“If mothers and fathers can be patient, cooperate and take a long view of child development, such evolving plans can work for both children and parents.”

Source: University of Virginia