Co-Parenting with a Very Young Child
Without a doubt, making the decision to physically separate from your spouse and/or partner is extremely difficult. It’s not a decision that anyone takes lightly, nor is there ever a perfect way or time to do it. When a shared child or children are added into the equation, the decision often becomes even more difficult and nuanced.
But for parents of a very young child (think 12 months and younger), there’s no doubt that the thought process underlying this type of decision is particularly complex. Indeed, all other things being equal and simply because of their young age, in no other context of parental separation will there be more missed milestones, missed holidays, and even simply missed time than separations involving a very young child. While this is, unquestionably, an overwhelming prospect, the reality is that, in many circumstances, on the other side of those parental sacrifices may lie a better situation for the child.
Ultimately, regardless of how or why a parent or parents of a very young child have arrived at the decision to separate, it is often important to take into account certain special considerations that are unique to this particular scenario, especially when crafting a custody arrangement and otherwise establishing a successful co-parenting relationship. While not intended to be all-inclusive, the following represent a handful of the considerations most commonly implicated in this specific context.
1.) This is a Marathon, not a Sprint
When parents of a very young child separate, it’s typically not the end of their relationship. In fact, for better or for worse, separated parents with a very young child will, to some degree, continue to be intertwined for many years to come—in some cases, for the next 18 years. As a result, it’s best to strike the right tone from the start. Flexibility and understanding go a long way to create and foster a positive co-parenting relationship. Of course, sometimes that’s simply not possible, especially to the extent there is domestic violence, severe substance abuse issues, or other legitimate safety concerns. In those instances, setting ground rules, expectations, and boundaries from the start is crucial, so as to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the very young child. Ultimately, recognizing that you are in it for the long haul and proceeding accordingly (whatever that may mean given the particular circumstances) will pay dividends down the road.
2.) Special Considerations for Parenting Time
Research suggests that, with all things being equal, it’s important for very young children to bond with both parents. Ultimately, fostering a strong bond with both parents will create a solid foundation for the child to establish positive relationships during his or her life. To this end, a parenting time schedule that enables frequent and regular contact with both parents is often best practice when possible. Further, frequency of parenting time versus duration of parenting time is usually emphasized when a very young child is involved. In this way, if circumstances permit, more frequent visits with each parent instead of fewer long visits tends to best enable the child to establish a solid bond with both parents. Ultimately, however, there is truly no one-size-fits all approach. Instead, parents of a very young child must work together to establish the particular parenting time routine that best works for their specific child and circumstances.
Another special nuance for co-parenting with a very young child is presented if the child is breastfeeding. If a child is obtaining his or her nutrition solely from breast milk, it’s even more imperative that the parents work together and be flexible so as to ensure that the child has adequate time to nurse. That said, especially once breastfeeding is well-established, the child’s need to nurse should be adequately balanced against the child’s need to bond with his or her father. In this way, absent unique circumstances, breastfeeding should not be used as a reason to deny a father regular and frequent parenting time with the child.
3.) Effective Communication is Critical
With a very young child, effective communication between the parents might be even more critical than it is in the case of an older child. As any parent of a young child knows, there are simply so many essential things that must be regularly documented and otherwise discussed—for example, amount and timing of feedings, type and number of dirty diapers, issues or changes that appear, etc. In this way, it can be difficult for parents of a very young child to navigate sharing the ample information necessary to effectively co-parent while also maintaining needed and appropriate boundaries over two households.
For some parents, exploring different ways of organizing and sharing this information may be helpful. For instance, there are a number of phone applications that are presently on the market which allow caregivers to easily and unintrusively document and share this type of day-to-day information with another co-caregiver.
Naturally, however, with sharing can come feedback or criticism. To this end, absent a safety or wellbeing issue, it’s important for each parent to respect the other parent’s parenting style and choices, with any concerns discussed in a constructive manner. While this is true in the context of parenting a child of any age, it takes on an even more heightened importance when parenting a very young child. Indeed, quite literally, both parents are in the process of getting to know the child, and to this end, it’s important to remember that each can likely benefit from wisdom gleaned by the other.
It likely goes without saying but very young children require a lot more “stuff” than their small size would otherwise suggest. Cribs, strollers, car seats, bassinets, diapers, changing supplies, just to name a few of the items that a very young child will likely need. As a result, when parents of a very young child are separated over two households, it’s important to ensure that each parent has an appropriate and safe setup for the child that is commensurate with the type of time that the child is spending with each parent. For example, if a parent does not have a safe place for the child to sleep, then overnight visits with that parent are likely not appropriate. This is especially true given the heightened safety concerns for very young children. Of course, if agreed, there is nothing stopping the parents from sharing certain gear—like a car seat or stroller, for example—between them. However, where possible, it is helpful for parents of very young children to discuss these types of circumstances and scenarios at the outset of their separation in order to ensure that there is a mutual understanding of expectations.
Being a parent of a very young child is tough. Add in the additional stresses of co-parenting over two households and parenting a very young child can become down-right overwhelming. That’s where we can help. For questions or guidance on these or other child custody issues, please contact Janet Stewart Scalley (JS@kjk.com), or another member of KJK Family Law by calling 216-696-8700.