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Care for Children Under 4

When it comes to family law, there is no “one size fits all” parenting plan. Most separated parents want to spend as much time as possible with their children.  However, research has shown that it is important to consider the age and developmental needs of children when considering time arrangements, particularly very young children.   

Generally speaking, more substantial or equal time arrangements may not be ideal for young children when their parents separate. Research tells us that children under 4 years of age are in a critical time of their development and accordingly need the stability and routine of a primary home base and primary carer.  You will see this is not gender based but based on a young child’s primary attachment, whether it is to their mother or father. 

As Robert Marvin, an American attachment theory expert explains “…young children are not designed to cope with separation from their parents, or with…alternating between two separate homes.” The stress of arrangements that may not be developmentally appropriate for young children can cause insecure attachment in children, developmental delays and behaviour issues later in life.

What is developmentally appropriate?

Each child and their circumstances will be different, but research recommends substantial and significant time in early years is more appropriate than equal time.

Often separated parents try to organise arrangements for their young children to accommodate their respective circumstances or wants however often, these arrangements may not best in the best interests of the child, for example if there is extensive travel involved or extensive periods away from a parent with whom the child identifies as their primary carer and attachment figure.  

Young children thrive on consistency, like knowing they will sleep in the same place every night.  Social research also often recommends slow introductions for overnight time whilst children are still young. According to Judith Soloman, a social scientist, “we have some good indications now that weekly overnights are too much of the wrong kind of contact for many young children … 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”.

Soloman also states “Little children who are forced to move between houses and sleep overnight in an unfamiliar location become very anxious and, in some circumstances, depressed. Babies become clingy, withdrawn and difficult to settle, while toddlers can display regressive behaviour such as bed-wetting, frequent crying, poor appetite, unexplained aggression and a disinterest in play. Children can also become irritable and suspicious of separation from their parents which makes it difficult for all family members.”

As Robert Marvin has said “Just because your children are young, does not mean that you should miss out on spending time with them. However, parenting arrangements need to be ‘developmentally appropriate.’”

How Can I still have a meaningful relationship with my young child?

Children do not have to spend nights with a parent to form a strong, long lasting bond. Relationships between grandchildren and their grandparent have repeatedly proved this to be accurate.

Quality daytime contact will allow a secure attachment to be formed but will minimise a child’s stress. As a child ages and matures, overnight time can be gradually introduced into their routine. Often as children get older, a more substantial or even equal time arrangement may be appropriate.

Parenting arrangements change as children change and grow and just because a parent is initially only having limited time with their child, does not mean that those arrangements will not be adjusted and changed to more substantial arrangements as children grow and their needs change.

The Practicalities

At the end of the day, the Court will make parenting decisions based on what is best for a child, rather than what is best for the parents.  

There have been many cases where more extensive arrangements have been implemented for young children in certain circumstances and ultimately every matter is determined on its particular facts.  There are also  a number of practicalities that will be taken into consideration. These may include:

  • The traits and resilience of a child (Is the child generally anxious? How mature is the child for their age?)
  • Their cognitive capacity (Do they understand what is happening and can they cope with change?)
  • Do they have sibling who will travel with them between households? (This can emotionally assist children with change and provide vital support)
  • Quality of relationship with parents (Has the child historically spent extensive time with each parent?)
  • Parent’s relationship with each other – (Are parents positive about the child spending time with the other parent, do they have a good attitude at changeovers, are routines maintained between houses, can parents communicate well?)
  • Are there other people involved in the child’s life who should be taken into account? (Is the child used to being with a stepsibling, grandparents or a parent’s new partner)
  • What are the child’s continuing needs? (Is the child being breastfed? Do they have medical conditions that need to be managed?)
  • How far does the child need to travel to visit each parent?
  • How will the time with each parent be spent?
  • What are the parent’s working commitments?
  • Are there any risk issues such as family violence, drug and alcohol issues?

If you are unsure about how these practicalities will affect your parenting situation, or if you need advice about possible parenting arrangements for your young child, you need to speak to a family lawyer. The lawyers at Neilan Stramandinoli Family Law has over 30 years of combined experience in family law and can assist you in relation to any family law issue you may have.

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