The difficulty of co-parenting infants and young children aged 0-4 years of age. This article discusses the stress and anxiety created when a relationship ends through separation or divorce and where infants or young children are involved.

In addition to personal anxieties and fears, navigating parenting arrangements for infants and young children creates an additional level of stress for all. The author highlights the need for parents to be aware of the changing emotional, psychological, and physical needs of infants and young children.

The article also discusses the importance of understanding an infant and young child needs of attachments. It explores the need of children having healthy and functional attachments with parents and others.

The breakdown of a marriage or de facto relationship is one of life’s most stressful events. Sometimes, it can even be more painful than a death of a loved one, because divorce does not come with the ritual of grief and mourning. Instead, people are told to ‘deal’ with it and ‘get on with it”. The anxiety and upset becomes worse when parents also need to navigate co-parenting infants and young children aged 0-4 years of age.

The Law in Australia on Parenting Children when Parents Separate

Currently there is no consistency or uniform law that stipulates how parents of infants, and young children 0-4 years deal with co-parenting arrangements. The law does not provide any specific guidance or regulation to advise separating parents on the best ways to parent children are aged 0-4 years.

The overarching principle that guides judges, family lawyers, mediators and separating parents is that a child’s best interests are paramount when determining the best parenting arrangements for them.

The ‘best interest’ principle is not unfettered, however. Currently under the law it is considered that it is in the best interests of all children to have a meaningful relationship with their parents and to be protected from neglect, psychological, physical, and sexual harm.

The law in Australia also considers that it is in the best interests of all children to have both their parents make equal and joint decisions about major issues, such as religion, education, medical and where they will reside.

Although the principle of the ‘best interests of the child’ is commendable. The current difficulty lies in the mandatory and automatic requirement that an equal time parenting regime be also considered (irrespective of their age). Where it is not found to be in the best interests of a child to have an equal-shared or co-parenting arrangement imposed on them, then we are obliged to consider what is called “significant and substantial time”.

Significant and substantial time means that a child lives with one parent for 4 or 5 nights a week and with the other parent 2-3 nights per week.

Again, these arrangements may be achievable and meaningful for a child over the age of 5 years, but they become fraught with complexity, conflict, and anxiety when children are babies and between 0-4 years of age.

Why do parents who separate when a child is 0-4 years of age have difficulty co-parenting?

There is of course, no easy answer to this complex question.

As a starting point, we need to consider that these relationships are often relatively short themselves. Parents who separate when children are under the age of 4 years old have often not been a couple for long. These individuals have not had the opportunity to deeply know each other and concerns around trust, respect and dependability lie in the background.

High Emotions: When intimate relationships break down, emotions can be intense and overwhelming. In shorter -relationships the emotions can be difficult to manage because expectations that the relationship will be long- lasting and happy are quickly shattered. Consequently, emotions such as anger, sadness and fear make communication and co-parenting difficult.

Lack of Experience: When it comes to parenting a child 0-4 years of age, new parents have limited experience and skill to parent, let alone co-parent when a relationship breaks down. The lack of experience applies to both parents in this situation and each may feel unsure of their own parenting abilities as well as that of the other parent.

Different Parenting Styles: Although this is a common problem for many separated parents, when children are aged 0-4 years, the problem is exacerbated because a child of this age demands consistency in bed, bath and feeding routine as well as consistency in teaching the child how to behave appropriately.

Communication Breakdown: Co-parenting requires a willingness by separated parents to communicate with respect and in a timely and co-operative manner. The experience however of many separated couples navigating parenting arrangements for a child 0-4 years of age is far from easy. The breakdown of communication is one of the key factors that makes co-parenting fraught with problems.

Parents who have never lived together:  For many reasons, there are individuals who may be parents but have never lived together as a couple nor have they ever parented ‘together’ with their child in the one home. We find that in these relationships parenting following the breakdown of these relationships is highly complex, and stressful. Special care and expertise must be applied when advising or assisting these parents.

The attachment needs of babies and infants.

The original work on attachment theory for babies and theories expounded by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth identified that babies required a primary attachment figure. This person was typically the mother of the child, and it was recognised that provided that the attachment between the mother and child was secure and safe this was to be promoted and encouraged.

Do not however assume that dysfunctional or avoidant attachments between a mother and child were recommended by John Bowlby or Mary Ainsworth.

Sir Richard Bowlby, the son of John Bowlby when interviewed by one of Australia’s leading child psychologists Professor Jennifer McIntosh on his father’s attachment theory said:

“I get somewhat heated about the misinterpretations of attachment theory, because it leads to things such as a young child being ordered to spend a month in one place with one parent, and then a month with the other parent…which is a form of madness…”

The current understanding regarding ‘attachment theory’ focuses on the quality and responsiveness of parenting as vital to the child’s developmental needs. A child aged 0-4 years of age undergoes significant neurological and behavioural changes in this period of time.

The primary role of children of these ages is to form trusting and secure bonds with their attachment figures which enables them to confidently explore, learn and interpret the world around them.

Today, it is also accepted that a child may have more than one attachment figure, although this number will be a small one and children will have a stronger preference for one attachment figure over another.

There is an understanding that attachments are developed in stages, and they are adaptive. As a child grows and from around the age 2 years, they can forge multiple healthy attachments.

By way of example if a young child is attached to his mother, and this attachment is healthy and secure, he may also be attached to his father in an equal manner and even to a third person, such as his grandmother.

But if the child is in pain or upset, he may prefer the care and attention of his mother above that of the father or grandmother. This is perfectly normal and part of being human.

Do children aged 0-4 years need their mothers as primary attachment figures?

In Australia as in most Western Countries mothers provide the caring roles of children in intact families. This trend continues when parents separate. It is mothers who forgo their careers and modify their employment commitments to meet the needs of children and women continue to bear the burden of home-duties.

Whether a child needs his mother as their primary attachment figure will depend on the individual circumstances of the child. It will depend upon the age of the child, the quality, frequency and stability of attachment and care the child has received and the understanding that as a child grows, their needs will also change.

There is definitely no hard and fast rule that the mother of a child 0-4 will be his or her primary carer. However, as we continue to have more mothers than fathers fulfil the care-giving role intact families and if this continues post-separation then it is highly foreseeable that the mother will be regarded as the child’s main attachment figure.

According to the research of Professor Judy Cashmore and Professor Patrick Parkinson (2012), until the age of 8 months, infants are not able to hold in mind people that are not present. As the child grows and from around the age of 2-3years, children can tolerate longer separation periods from their parents without unnecessary stress.

When should overnight time start for children 0-4 years of age.

This is a vexed question which creates overwhelming anxiety, fear and concern for many separated parents. Notwithstanding that attachment theory has been around for more than 60 years, there is very little reliable empirical studies on when overnight time should start for children 0-4 years of age.

The other interesting fact about ‘overnight time, is that it has vulnerable element about it. The nights are a time of routines such as bath-time and winding down time via breast or bottle feeding, cuddling, reading or telling stories. This is a special time between a young child and his or her parent.

In addition, and according to well respected social scientist Judith Solomon, night-time is a time when young children are especially anxious and worried about the darkness:

  • “Going to sleep at night is a separation and children at all ages make it really clear that night-time sleeps are a big deal.”
  • “There is a special vulnerability about night-time. The state of the organism is to be more anxious at night. That is hard-wired in our cortisol rhythms.”

The question of when time should overnight start for children 0-4 years of age has unfortunately no precise or clear-cut answer. The best we can recommend is that advisors and those assisting parents with this question be aware of the context and the degree of co-operation, respect and sensitivity the parents have to each other as well as the needs of their young child.

According to of Professor Judy Cashmore and Professor Patrick Parkinson (2012), what matters is “the degree of warmth and responsiveness of parents, the level of communication and cooperation, and hostility between the parents, and the importance of the continuity and consistency of the care arrangements and the number of caregivers the children have.”

The decision as to when overnight time should start for children 0-4 years of age depends on a number of factors including the practicality aspect of parents effectively managing overnight time.

Practical aspects include:

1. The distance the child is required to travel between the parents’ home. It is not realistic to have an overnight regime where a child is compelled to travel 2 hours in a car on a regular basis.

2. Where the child will sleep and whether both parents have appropriate bedding, comfort toys and clothing for the child.

3. Whether the baby is being breastfeed.

4. Whether the child sleeps through the day and whether a parent is able to provide the routine and quiet time that a child needs.

5. The working commitments of the parents.

The optimal situation for introducing an overnight care arrangement of children aged 0-4 years is when:

1. Secure and warm relationship exists between parents and the child before separation.

2. The mother supports and encourages the relationship between child and father.

3. Routine is consistent and predictable for the child when he or she is separated from the other parent for a day or more.

4. The child is not exposed to any aggression, conflict, emotional disturbance in any way or at any time.

5. Any separation anxiety that the child experiences, including prolonged crying and irritation is conveyed to the other parent.

Until this is present, then a cautious and gradual approach will be taken when it comes to introducing over-night care.

What can you do if your relationship with the other parent is difficult, challenging, or dysfunctional?

Like anything, building trust and respect takes effort, commitment, and patience.

It starts with self-awareness and an understanding that until and unless you manage to turn the relationship into one that is functional, then parenting a child aged 0-4 years of age will be problematic.

You can take steps towards minimising the challenges by doing some of the following:

  • Getting divorce or separation counselling to help you deal with the separation and end of the relationship;
  • Finding a child-focused mediator whom you and your ex-partner can engage to help with ongoing communication or parenting issues.
  • Enrolling and participating in parenting courses for children aged 0-4years of age. You can invite the other parent to these courses.
  • Keeping the lines of communication open with boundaries. For example you communicate in a factual manner and only through email or text messages.
  • Removing yourself from situations that could trigger conflict. For example, changeovers can be conducted with the help of a third party or in a neutral location.
  • Engaging the services of a specialist family lawyer who has knowledge, expertise and is aware of the needs of children aged 0-4 years.

Note: where family violence exists, which includes emotional, financial, physical, or coercive control behaviours, then co-parenting is not in the best interests of children. Primary carers (typically mothers) must be vigilant and protective and not be coerced into entering parenting arrangements that perpetuate the abuse.


Below are a list of websites and resources for further information and support:

  2. Parenting Arrangements for Young Children: Messages from Research Australian Journal of Family Law, Vol. 25, No. 3, 31 Jan 2012
  3. Triple P Parenting Courses
  7. Mind Help, Minds Journal Pvt. Limited, Digital Image “Stages of Attachment”, 2023,


The information provided in this article is not legal advice. It is intended to inform you and to provide some general guidance on the topic of parenting a child aged 0-4 years of age when parents separate.

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