Young Children and Overnight Care

As a family lawyer, I frequently see separated parents wanting to know what parenting arrangements should be put in place for their very young children. For the purpose of this blog, when I say very young, children, I mean children between the ages of 0 to 4. Parents ask me questions about whether a young child can spend equal time with each parent or whether a young child can spend overnight time with a parent.

In most cases, parents will know what arrangements will suit their young child best but if there is a dispute, the Family Law Act 1975 and the family law Courts can decide.

There has been wide (and at times controversial and opposing) research about what arrangements should be put in place for very young children. What the research does tell us is that children experience a considerable developmental stage between birth and 4 years of age. It is during this period of time that their psychological attachments and bonds are created and young children are very vulnerable at this time, not only physically but also from a developmental point of view. In order to grow into confident, secure and self-sufficient older children and later, adults, very young children need the psychological safety of maintaining healthy attachments, including to their primary attachment figure (who could be the father or the mother).

Some of the research also speaks about young children being particularly vulnerable at night time and needing the comfort of their primary attachment figure (whether it be their father or mother). More recent research is less strict about the issue but still, overnight time for very young children has been approached cautiously in family law. While this is the case, the research also talks about the fact that generally speaking, the other parent should be having a lot of frequent day time visits to maintain the child’s attachment with that parent.

The research also tells us that older children may be better able to move more easily from one household to another and so overnight time and even more significant time arrangements can be considered more easily as a child gets older.

Family law, when dealing with parenting disputes where you have parents seeking significant time with a young child or even overnight time, has to do a fine balancing act of facilitating a meaningful relationship with both parents and at the same time being careful not to disrupt or damage the attachment of the child with a primary carer.

There is no formula that is applied to parenting matters and there is no ‘one size fits all’ arrangement for young children. In a parenting dispute, each matter is determined on its own particular facts and the law says that a child has a right to have a meaningful relationship with both parents but that has to be balanced by protecting children from harm, including psychological harm.

As a family lawyer, I have been involved in many parenting cases involving very young children and have first-hand knowledge of how the circumstances of every case must be carefully considered, including overnight time. There are cases which support some overnight time for very young children with the other parent and cases that do not. These are complicated family law issues and you need a family law specialist who understands the law and research relating to parenting disputes concerning young children.

Farrar Gesini Dunn are specialists in family law and we can assist you with all of your family law issues.