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Custody and Attachment: Meeting the Needs of Babies and Children

I am often contacted by mothers who practice attachment parenting and who need help and support in custody cases where the courts are assigning shared custody of infants and toddlers.

Attachment parenting is a term invoked to explain that an infant must receive consistent attentive and appropriate care from his of her parents or caregiver. By having such a nurturing relationship, the infant develops a deep attachment and a sense of safety and security. It is important that these ties not be disrupted, even for short periods, by removing the baby from those adults with whom he or she feels familiar and totally secure.

Unfortunately, the court system, in attempting to create an equitable balance of time spent with the child, is often unaware of the developmental needs of these children who are, in their innocence, expecting that their peaceful lives will continue as before.

The attempt at fairness and equitable distribution is not feasible in the case of young children whose attachment to the primary caregiver is of paramount importance. The consistent nurturing relationship with the mother, especially in a situation where the toddler is breast­feeding (the norm in most areas of the world) cannot be reduced to a comparison of hours spent with either parent.

Most often it is the mother who feeds, rocks, diapers and comforts the baby from birth, responding consistently to the needs of the infant and thereby forming a strong emotional attachment. Toddlers and young children are in no way able to understand the concept of time and certainly have no awareness of the needs for a custody arrangement where there is a desire for an equitable arrangement that is satisfactory to both parents. Indeed, a child whose predictable routine has been altered without regard to the anxieties that would be engendered is under unimaginable stress, further compounded by the inability of the child to express verbally the distress that is being experienced.

Children who are attached to their mothers cannot be expected to endure having that relationship disrupted. The situation between these children's parents regarding their own needs for satisfaction is not their burden to bear, and yet, if pursued, (by removing them from their mother for many hours at a time, particularly overnight), the children would likely lose their sense of trust. In the long term, any resulting anxiety and depression would then be the forbearers of later emotional problems during early school years, adolescence, and in adulthood.

These consequences are not being exaggerated. Far from it: most, of not all, antisocial or dysfunctional behaviors have their roots in early childhood. The discussion of whether or not those individuals who have suffered emotional trauma in the early years are then responsible for their resulting behavior is far beyond the scope of this particular discussion. However, the recognition that early experiences are detrimental to one's ability to function as a healthy, mature adolescent and adult is the basis of my recommendation.

As a pediatrician who supports attachment parenting, I am an advocate of innocent children, who lack the language, the skills, the understanding of the trauma that they might be expected to experience through this disruptive process. Even if their parents both genuinely want what is best for these children, it is necessary that these parents, as well as the court system, be educated, enlightened and really committed to understanding the profound problems that will result if prolonged visits are allowed to occur away from the primary caregiver during this sensitive time in their development.

© Susan Markel, M.D., Board Certified Pediatrician, Attachment Parenting Doctor

Reprinted with permission.