Blog: Latest research on care needs of the very young

parent holds the hand of a small childMPG director Penelope Leach has been surveying the very latest research about the relationship between primary care-givers and very young children.  She writes:

The MPG book Family Breakdown was written to get separating parents, and all the other adults who advise them , thinking about the impact on children and how it may be lessened, so I’m glad that many people are responding. However the book is not an easy read for embattled parents and some have seen it as taking sides while a few question the research on which it is based.

Developmental neuroscience has made phenomenal progress in the last generation (Leckman & March, 2011 editorial “Developmental neuroscience comes of age” Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry)  and knowledge of the nature and importance of attachment has elevated it from a theory to a science in its own right. As Allan Schore, one of the leading lights of the field puts it : “.. the enduring impact of early maternal care ….during critical periods in early brain development in health and disease is likely to be one of the most important discoveries in all of science”. The attachment science literature is vast. A good way into it (more than 300 references but still readable) is Sue Gerhardt (2004) Why Love Matters; How affection shapes a baby’s brain.

Five-sixths of a baby’s brain grows after birth, astonishingly fast in the first year, very fast in the second and more slowly in the third. That growth is not all due to genetics and maturation, either. The way each individual baby’s brain develops and weaves itself together and functions, largely depends on his experiences in the last antenatal months and those first three years.

A baby’s significant experiences begin in the womb via biochemical connections and once he is delivered continue to centre on his mother if she is available, or on the father or whoever is his primary caregiver. The emotional relationship he shares and builds with that person is the foundation of all that is to follow: the actual structure and functioning of his brain, his personality, the way he will manage his feelings and relationships and cope with stress throughout his life.

Since a baby’s first or “ primary attachment” is almost always to his mother, it is difficult to write about infant development without sounding as if fathers are the less important parents. That isn’t the case though. A child’s relationships with each parent are equally important but different in timing and in kind. For a baby in the womb there is only mother, and in the first year or so what that baby needs most is attention and sociable responses, the regulation of emotions he can’t manage for himself:, soothing fear before it becomes panic; feeding him before he is beside himself with hunger. These are typically but not necessarily mothering interactions but as long as dad is around, the baby will gradually build an attachment to him too which may peak in the second year as the toddler increasingly wants to explore and understand the physical world, supported by new experiences and more challenging play.Those are typically but not necessarily fathering interactions. Fortunate infants have both.

People go on developing attachments all through their lives but these first attachments are the foundation of all that follow. Anyone who has heard my book described as “anti-father” might like to check Page 8 for the first of many references to the life-long importance to children of a close relationship with their fathers from the beginning.

Fortunate infants have both mothers and fathers. Unfortunately parental separation or divorce means that he can no longer have both at the same time and so will have less of either of them. The parent a child lives with has a big advantage over the other parent, and in the UK 92% of single parents are mothers. It’s in an attempt to make sure that a child whose parents have separated goes on having both of them in his life that “equal parenting” has become recognised in family law. Being equal in the eyes of the law can be taken to mean that parenting should be shared equally: 50% of a child’s time with one parent, 50% with the other. But should it?

How physical parenting should be shared is extensively debated by those concerned with divorce law and – especially when babies and toddlers are concerned -attachment science. 50% of mum and 50% of dad gives a child 100% of parenting but only half of the mothering and half of the fathering she would have had if they had stayed together. Furthermore, unless a baby or toddler is already closely attached to both parents and given time to become familiar with both homes, being moved routinely from one parent and place to the other is potentially disruptive .. As Jennifer McIntosh put it a paper published on the web in 2011 and called “Special considerations for infants and toddlers in separation/divorce: developmental issues in the family law context” (Encyclopaedia on early childhood development 2011)  “Neuro-scientists and attachment researchers alike find that…..psycho-emotional development in infancy depends to a great extent upon continuous, predictable, emotionally-available care-giving through which infants are shielded from overwhelming and unsafe experiences, enabled to form organised attachments, and supported to develop their capacities for self-regulation and growing autonomy”.

Debate concerning the post-divorce care of very young children is ongoing. All too often it is polarised between encouraging and protecting attachment and ensuring the involvement of both parents. Integrating the two is as difficult as it is necessary.

A Think Tank convened by the US Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) Parental separation and overnight care of young children, Part 1. Consensus through Theoretical and Empirical Integration. Part 1. Marsha Kline Pruett, Jennifer E. McKintosh & Joan B. Kelly Family Court Review Vol 52. Issue 2 April 2014 reached no overall agreement. Research into the outcomes for very young children of different patterns of shared care, including overnights with the non-resident parent consists of only five studies and since their samples, data sources and analysed variables differ they cannot be evidentially grouped. However the group did reach a concensus that “The small group of relevant studies to date substantiates caution about high frequency overnight time schedules in the 0-3 period particularly when the child’s security with a parent is unformed or parents cannot agree on how to share care of the child……. (but that) cautions against any overnight care in the first three years have not been supported” . There was also a consensus as to the importance of post-divorce care arrangements taking account of both early attachment formation and joint parental involvement.   Part 11, Putting theory into practice charts overnight care recommendations from . “Rare or no overnights” through 1-4 per month to 5+ per month, against eight considerations. “Rare or no overnights” should be considered   if a child is not safe with both parents or the parents with each other; if the child does not have an established trusting relationship of at least six months with either parent; if the parent is not sensitive to the child’s needs; if the child shows signs of stress such as irritability, clinging or crying.

These particular papers appeared too late to be references in the first printing of Family Breakdown; helping children hang on to both parents but the research they report and the suggestions they make, intended for the use of family court personnel, are similar to those made in the book to help parents make the best possible plans for their children’s post-separation parenting.








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