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Equal shared parenting better for infants, toddlers: research

Equal shared parenting (ESP) can work for infants and toddlers, as well as older children, Toronto family lawyer Gene C. Colman tells AdvocateDaily.com.

“There is now a growing consensus among researchers supporting the regular and frequent involvement of both parents for babies and toddlers, including overnight,” says Colman, principal of Gene C. Colman Family Law Centre. “When we deprive infants and toddlers of their fathers overnight, research shows that it compromises the quality of the father-child relationship.”

Although it may run contrary to conventional wisdom, Colman says a recent study by clinical psychologist Richard Warshak suggests children under the age of four years whose parents live apart are better served by shared residential arrangements dividing their time between two households, as opposed to spending time predominantly in the care of one parent.

Still, Colman acknowledges that for very young children, the issue of breastfeeding can prove a challenge. But these practical impediments can be overcome, he adds.

“Where you have co-operative parents, a mom may be willing to pump some milk to facilitate the father having the child overnight, which will work fine,” he says. “There’s an advantage to having a willing parent, who can give mom a much-needed rest, while also cementing the infant’s relationship with its father.”

In high-conflict cases where co-operation is in short supply, Colman advises his father clients with newborns to request frequent daytime contact — daily if possible.

“If they can’t make overnight visits work, they should try to have contact during the day. It doesn’t have to be extended — perhaps an hour or two every day — but those early days and months are extremely important in terms of a child’s bonding to its caregivers,” says Colman, who reacts strongly against parents who attempt to postpone the introduction of regular involvement by the other parent.  

“We’re not talking about a teenager, where you can take a couple of extra weekends later,” he says. “There isn't a makeup time that can replace parenting time in those crucial first few months.”  

In fact, Colman says the source of the myth that ESP cannot work for very young children probably lies in traditional and outdated attachment theory, which suggests that infants depend more heavily on a primary attachment, most often to its mother, and that any weakening of that bond can be damaging.

“Study after study has demonstrated that the idea is wrong and that infants need close relationships with both parents,” Colman says, adding that other research lends weight to the adage that “it takes a village to raise a child.”

“Science has proven that infants and toddlers are capable of multiple primary attachments and that their outcomes are better as a result,” he says. “The more caregivers, the better, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and new partners, as well as their biological parents.”

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