Infants and Separation

Advice on when your baby will be ready to handle a sleepover.

With more separated parents sharing custody, babies and toddlers are going back and forth between Mom and Dad for overnight visits. But parents should make sure that their wee one is handling this type of separation well, for such sleepovers can be stressful for the very young, says Dr. Judith Solomon, a U.S. infant mental-health expert. Formerly of the Early Childhood Mental Health Program in Richmond, Calif., she observed 145 babies 12–18months old, as they were separated from and then reunited with each parent.

With the Ainsworth Strange Situation Assessment measuring their sense of security around their parents, two-thirds of the babies of split families who lived with one parent and had overnight visits with the other displayed attachment problems toward both. They had difficulty with separations and reunions and did not trust their parents as resources for handling stress.

This was not true for children whose parents lived together or who visited the non-custodial parent only in the daytime. “Very young children are easily made anxious by separations from their primary attachment figure,” says Solomon. So parents should carefully assess how an overnight visit affects the child. At first, it is quite normal for a toddler to be upset at leaving the primary caregiver and to express anger and/or sadness when returning, but such behaviour should subside within a few weeks. Signs of chronic maladjustment include unexplained or unnaturally intense agitation and sleep difficulties. Solomon says parents should “talk with their partner about what seems to make the child more comfortable or less comfortable and adjust the arrangements accordingly.” Longer, less frequent separations from the primary caregiver may be better than shorter, more numerous ones.

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