No matter what their age, children benefit from living in stable, calm and loving environments.  For some families this includes two parents who live together in harmony for other families their living arrangements may include two homes where parents live separated but continue to share the care and upbringing of their children.

Neither family unit is better than the other, the most important factor that defines whether a child will thrive and reach his or her full emotional, physical and psychological potential depends on the quality of the child’s care givers relationship and their willingness to work co-operatively no matter what.

This is particularly relevant for separated parents with children under the age of 5 years. The social science literature tells us that the ages from 0-4 is a stage of massive developmental change and growth.  You simply need to observe the pace at which a newborn becomes a toddler and moves from each stage of growth in the first 12months to know this.

What are the best interests of a child aged 0-4 years?

Since 2006, we have seen an increase in the number of parents and applications at Court where parents are seeking equal time or shared care arrangements for children of this age group. To make matters worse, it is assumed that a presumption of equal shared parental responsibility automatically means equal share of children.  This is not so. It is especially less so, when children are aged 0-4 years of age.

To determine what parenting arrangements are in the best interest of the children we must turn to the law and consider all the section 60CC factors.

Attachments

Babies and toddler need a primary attachment figure to feel secure, to be comforted and from whom they can trust to grow and develop.  Which parent/carer does the child naturally turns for comfort?  This will be the primary attachment person for the child.

We know that a child who is regularly removed and spends long time away from the care of their primary attachment person will show signs of stress.  Stress can be displayed as difficult to settle, clinginess, withdrawn, regressive behaviours such as bed-wetting.

So, when looking at what is in the best interests of a child aged 0-4 years, we must consider their biological and psychological need to keep their attachments secure as well as find ways of promoting the relationship with the secondary attachment parent.

One way of managing this situation is to start with parenting arrangements that provide for short but regular time with the secondary attachment parent.  This may be twice or three times a week of approximately 1 to 2 hours at a time with a view to gradually increase as the child continues his/her development to detach gently.

When should overnight time start?

This is a vexed question for many parents.  Unfortunately, the more we push and rush this process, the worse it can be in the long run. However, there are no hard and fast rules other than to bear in mind the higher the distrust, disagreement and disrespect the parents have towards each other the less likely that overnight time will be a positive experience for the child.

Generally, where parents are in bitter custody disputes then overnight time may not commence until the child is around 2 and half or 3 years of age and this will usually be one overnight with a view to gradually increase it.

When should equal time start?

A cautious and conservative approach must be taken when separated parents agree to start equal time arrangements. Research tells us that if we start too early or it is rushed or pressured or against the wishes of one parent, it can have disastrous results for the children and parents.  As a rule of thumb, it is recommended that equal time arrangement start around the time children start kindergarten or year one.

To optimise the equal time arrangements then the following factors must be present:

  1. The parents each support the other having a co-parenting relationship;
  2. The families live in close physical proximity;
  3. The parents each have close, warm and secure attachments to the children;
  4. The parents have learnt to discuss any issues that arise away from the children and keep their personal feelings in check;
  5. The parents understand what it means to put the children and the co-parenting relationship first always and find ways to do this.

More Information and Resources

This article is not legal advice. It is general information only. For more information check out:

  1. McIntosh J, Smyth B, Kelaher M, Wells Y Long (2010) – Post Separation Parenting Arrangements and Development Outcomes for Infants and Children
  2. www.healthydivorce.com.au
  3. www.relationships.org.au
  4. www.cominosfamilylawyers.com.au

Contact Pamela Cominos – Principal Cominos Family Lawyers

If you wish to contact Pamela, please email [email protected]