Parents often assume that newborns and infants are too young to be negatively affected by parental divorce. Let me say clearly that this is 100% not true. While their reactions may be different than older children, newborns and very young children have very specific developmental needs, predictable responses to a parental divorce, and age-specific things they need from their parents to best cope with this family upheaval. Understanding these typical age-related reactions will help you to best understand your child’s emotional responses and to guide you in how to co-parent with a newborn.
Causes of psychological distress in newborns and infants
Children of this age are totally dependent upon their parents for their emotional needs and basic care. They look for and respond positively to consistency in their lives which a divorce can unsettle. They also react emotionally to their parents’ affect. For example, when a parent is emotionally distraught or angry, even a very young child can sense this upset. Given these factors, the three central causes of psychological distress for children of this age whose parents are separating are unpredictable daily routines, hostility/conflict between parents, and emotional distress of one or both parents (especially the primary caretaker).
This distress in very young children is typically seen in regression or backsliding in major developmental tasks. These changes will be seen in such things as:
- Eating: Your child might start refusing foods that they previously liked or return to using a bottle
- Emotional regulation: Your child might start crying more or become more easily frustrated
- Independence: Your child may become clingier or more anxious with a caregiver
- Language: Your child may revert to previous baby talk
- Sleeping: Your child may have increased struggles at bedtime or start having nightmares
- Toilet training: Your child may start bedwetting if they were previously dry through the night
Based upon this developmental understanding, children of this age need several specific things to help them cope with parental divorce. These include:
- Consistent and predictable daily schedules of where the child will be and who will be caring for them
- Reduced hostility between parents, especially in front of the child
- Maintenance of affectionate loving care
- Continued regular contact with both parents
- Decreased stress in the caretakers, especially the primary custodial parent if there is one
Parenting plans that meet the needs of newborns and infants
Separating or divorcing parents with very young children need to develop a custody agreement and visitation schedule based upon the specific developmental needs of their children. Those needs must be their highest priority, and nothing should get in the way of that goal. These early months and years are central to children’s healthy development and the child’s life going forward. Therefore, making co-parenting mistakes at this time can have huge negative impacts for years to come.
Creating a parenting plan that involves shared custody or joint custody is the ideal for children of this age and should be the goal if possible. It is essential for very young children to spend quality time with both of their separated parents. Given that, they should ideally live close to each other so that the baby isn’t spending long amounts of time being transported between two homes.
Consistency is also essential since it is the foundation for your infant’s development of a sense of trust in you as their parents. Whatever plan you develop, try to stick to it as closely as possible for as long as it still meets your child’s developmental needs. It is okay if the plan needs to be modified in the future as long as you re-establish a new sense of consistency surrounding that new plan.
The specific custody schedule must consider the baby’s feeding schedule, especially if the mother is breast feeding. That may mean that the initial childcare schedule is not exactly equal but that the breast feeding mother has more parenting time in the early months to accommodate these feeding needs. Overnight visits with the other parent may also not be feasible at this time for the same reason.
There is often the temptation for the parent not getting as much time with the child to become angry and resentful and to start legally wrangling for an exact 50/50 custody schedule. It is essential that you work hard to put aside your own needs at this time and to prioritize the needs of your baby who should not become the innocent victim of your relationship ending.
This is the time to be creative and child centered. Strive to work together to develop a stepwise plan that will change as your child gets older and their needs become different. For example, a truly equal 50/50 schedule with overnight visits will become more possible once the infant is no longer breast feeding. Be flexible and focus on what is in the best interest of your baby, not you.
The importance of your co-parenting relationship
The nature of your parenting relationship is also central to protecting your infant from harmful psychological distress. Successful co-parenting requires open and frequent communication with your co-parent, never exposing your baby to conflict, and establishing effective strategies for resolving that conflict. Remember, your baby will resonate to your negative emotions, and it is essential to shield them from those distressing emotions. If you are struggling to manage your painful feelings, seek the help of a professional. It will be a gift not just for yourself but for your young child as well.
Family break-ups that include an infant child are clearly not ideal and pose very specific challenges. However, following these specific recommendations will go a long way toward minimizing the potential emotional damage to your baby. Remember that you chose to bring them into this world, and you owe them at least that.
***Parts of this article are adapted from my book Your Healthy Divorce Journey: A Step-by-Step Guide Through the Process of Divorce.