When parents separate, a decision has to be made about access and custody of the children. If the child is still breastfeeding with a strong attachment to his mother, she may be very worried how her baby will handle any lengthy separation from her. If the parents are not on speaking terms, or if the father hasn’t witnessed this special bond, he may think breastfeeding is being used as a ploy to keep him away from his baby. This is rarely the case. But, however difficult, it is better for the parents to come to an arrangement of access themselves that takes the best interests of their child into account, without involving the courts. The best interests for the child include both breastfeeding
and a close relationship with both parents.
If the parents can’t agree on custody arrangements, the courts will have to be involved. And if the court feels breastfeeding is being used as an obstacle to a father’s access they may see weaning or pumping as the solution. A court probably won’t value breastfeeding above a father’s time with his child. However, forcing a child into long separations from his mother before he is ready is not as straightforward as it may sound—with or without breastfeeding. It can result in a very miserable baby or toddler instead of one who is emotionally secure. It is in both parents’ interests to have a happy child. With a little give and take, breastfeeding—and all its health benefits—need not be sacrificed prematurely.
Breastfeeding is very closely linked with secure attachment, emotional regulation and mothering.
It is a way of settling a baby to sleep (often repeatedly during a single day or night), calming them down, pain relief for teething or 1 colic, meeting suckling needs, it is their security blanket and their food. However, focusing just on a child’s reliance on breastfeeding is not taking into account the bigger picture of healthy attachment. It is very desirable for a baby to have a primary attachment figure as this affects a child’s emotional health throughout their life. Attachment Parenting International explains: 2
infants are born “hardwired” with strong needs to be nurtured and to remain physically close to the primary caregiver, usually the mother, during the first few years of life. The child’s emotional, physical, and neurological development is greatly enhanced when these basic needs are met consistently and appropriately.
Separation is traumatic
Separation from their primary care giver (usually the mother) is traumatic for a young baby or toddler, particularly in the first four years. They are unable to process where their mother has gone and even though they may seem “happy” when separated they are still suffering trauma. Psychiatrist Peter Cook writes:
It may be thought that the child has “settled”, and he or she may appear happy. He may be friendly to almost anyone, except to his mother if she re-appears. Children in this state will often turn away from their mothers or appear not to recognize them. It seems that they cannot bear to have the feelings of hurt and longing brought up again. These reactions are more likely when the child is away from home and in a strange environment. They may be less, or absent, if the child has good substitute mothering, preferably from a known member of his or her own family, throughout the period of separation.
Effects of trauma
When children have been prevented from developing a secure attachment this is felt as early life stress or trauma. This could lead to developing a stutter, learning problems
or developing trauma induced epigenetic changes affecting the child’s mental health 3 : 4
Research has shown that children who do not develop secure attachments with a primary caregiver during the first years of life later are unable to calm themselves down; they are more likely than are secure children to overreact to stimuli. Insecure children have less impulse control, less ability to tolerate stress, and less ability to tolerate frustration than do individuals who have experienced a more secure childhood (Toth & Cicchetti, 1998). They also are more at risk for anxiety, depression, aggression, violence, suicide, and substance abuse.
Time away from the primary carer (usually the mother) can be built up slowly at the child’s pace A child’s bond with both parents is very important
Breastfeeding does not prevent a father or other co-parent from forming their own loving and secure relationship with their child. The following article discusses the importance of the father’s bond with their child and the importance of parents trying to resolve arguments about access for the sake of their child:
E. N. Baldwin and K. A. Friedman, The Breastfeeding Relationship and Visitation Plans, New Beginnings, LLLI, 1996
The father’s bond with the child is just as important as the mother’s. However, it should rarely, if ever, be necessary to interfere with the child’s attachment to the mother in order for the father’s relationship to be promoted and encouraged. In the ideal relationship, the bond with the father and siblings flows out of the strong bond with the mother. But in any case, the child should not be torn from one parent, or forced to choose. The child should feel that both parents will protect and encourage the other parent’s relationship with the child, and both will help the child to feel safe.
No father wants to come for his child and have him clutching his mother’s legs screaming not to make him go! Both mother and father will benefit if their child gleefully leaps into his arms, so excited to see him and go off with him!
A group of physicians with a special interest in breastfeeding, Breastfeeding for Doctors (
Facebook group), express concern that attempts from a father or co-parent to sabotage breastfeeding could be considered a form of abusive control:
In our professional experience, seeking to control or undermine the breastfeeding relationship may be an example of coercive control. Certainly, any attempt to pursue sabotaging the breastfeeding relationship is a direct example of failure to prioritise the best interests of the child, and to undermine their primary caregiver’s bodily autonomy.
Mediation for parental conflict
The anger between parents can negatively affect children as well as the divorce or separation itself. If parents are unable to put their child’s needs first without arguments, mediation may be helpful. In mediation an independent third party helps both sides come to an agreement. For mediation help in the UK contact the
Family Mediation Council.
Children are at a greater risk of developing emotional, social, cognitive and behavioural problems in families where there is a high level of conflict and animosity between parents
Work up to longer separations gradually
When a child is securely attached to one parent, whether breastfed or not, separation from that parent can be built up gradually taking into account their developmental needs. Psychotherapist Isabelle Fox and lawyer Elizabeth Baldwin explain how this can be achieved in the following two excerpts:
Typically, dad might play with the child in the mom’s home or take the child for a walk to a local park or to the father’s own residence. Such visitations are to be encouraged since a relationship with both parents is not only desirable, but essential. But it should take place regularly and frequently. First, one or two hours visitation several days a week may be appropriate. When the infant becomes a toddler, the time may be extended to three or four hours. If the child seems disturbed – continues to cry, etc., consideration should be given to a prompt return to the mother or other primary attachment figure. Eventually, the child begins to trust that both parents are responding to its needs. The child should not be made to feel that one parent is abandoning him nor that the other is punitively keeping him away from the parent who provides comfort and protection.
In the Best Interest of Breastfed Babies (custody issues), Baldwin et al, LLLI, 1997
a six-month-old child who has been separated from the mother for two hours at a time on occasion but is otherwise glued to her could easily begin two-hour visits with Daddy several times a week or every day. But if the mother works and is apart from her baby eight hours a day five days a week, visitation could begin with eight-hour weekend visits, or with the father caring for the baby while the mother works. If a mother of a four month old leaves the child with a nanny on weekends, the baby could similarly begin weekend visitation with the father.
The difference between night and day
Days and nights are not the same to a small child. Most babies and toddlers will not be ready to be parted from their primary attachment figure over night for quite some time. Many breastfeeding children continue to
wake at night for several years for the security of connecting with their mother for a night-time feed. This is quite normal baby/child behaviour. By understanding this, parents, lawyers and the legal system could put the needs of the child first and avoid causing unnecessary anxiety and distress by demanding something for which the child is not developmentally ready.
Infants, toddlers and preschoolers up to the age of 5 often show extreme distress, anger, and fear when sleep routines are abruptly changed and they are separated from their primary caregiver with little or no preparation. The child feels enraged at both parents. Anger is expressed at the one who has taken him or her to a new situation and to the other parent for allowing it to happen. A nighttime with screaming is an ordeal for all, and often results in emotional consequences for the child.
In many cases it is the father who wants equal time and presses the court for overnights. But it is in the waking hours that children will experience, explore, feel safe with and enjoy their father. More time with this parent should be scheduled during daytime, but the child should be returned to his or her familiar secure environment during the night.
When will a child be ready for overnight separation from their main caregiver?
The Australian Association for Infant Mental Health Inc (AAIMHI) recognises that shared overnight parenting can be very disruptive for young children and offers guidelines on handling overnight care in
Infants and Overnight Care–Post Separation and Divorce. AAIMHI recommendations include:
Promote a safe, healthy attachment with the main caregiver while building a warm relationship wth the other parent.
Day time separation should be gradually increased at the child’s pace.
Attention should always be paid to a child’s emotional security and developmental readiness for separation.
Overnight separation from the primary care giver is not recommended under two years of age and most children won’t be developmentally ready until at least three years of age. Developmental milestones
AAIMHI lists several developmental traits to guide a child’s readiness for overnight separation (see excerpt). It also stresses the importance of parents being able to avoid conflict, speak positively about each other and be cooperative for the sake of the child.
4.1 The young child should be able to:
a) at least in part, calm him/herself when stressed and/or upset, and to use the other parent or caregiver to become soothed;
b) imagine the main caregiver even when that person is not present;
c) understand what is being said to him/her;
d) anticipate events beyond the here and now, that is, to understand what ‘tomorrow’ means;
e) communicate about past and future events, and verbally express his/her basic needs and feelings;
f) receive an understanding response if a trial sleepover does not turn out to be as expected and future sleepovers to be postponed for a period of time.
(Note: two-year-olds do not generally have the ability to foresee how they will feel in a new situation that they think they will enjoy).
See the full document for guidance when child protection is a concern.
Most babies and toddlers will not be ready to be parted from their primary attachment figure over night for quite some time It won’t last forever
Children grow and adapt quickly, and the need to stay close to their primary attachment figure does not last forever. Similarly breastfeeding is naturally outgrown in the early years. By respecting developmental needs and by the other parent returning the child to his mother when the little one needs it; parent-child relationships will be built on trust and security.
A mother’s story
Here is a story of how one mother negotiated shorter more frequent visits between father and son as a starting point;
At first he said no and then my tongue moved faster then it ever had. I was quoting the pages I had highlighted. I really didn’t even know I had them memorized. And he got it. He understood that Keegan would only be little for a short time. That soon he wouldn’t be breastfeeding and needing mommy all day. He understood that he needed short frequent visits. He understood that breastfeeding until Keegan self-weaned and the attachment parenting I was doing was what was best for Keegan.
Breastfeeding is very closely linked with secure attachment, emotional regulation and mothering Breastfeeding a toddler or older child
It may be better not to raise breastfeeding as an obstacle to sharing custody past one or two years of age however
biologically normal this is. Many “experts” are unsupportive and uneducated about breastfeeding past infancy and the courts may not favour breastfeeding if it seems to interfere with a bond with the father/other parent such as preventing overnight stays. Focusing on breastfeeding is ignoring the bigger issue of separation and attachment. Securely attached children who are not used to being away from their mother would be upset by long separations whether or not they were breastfeeding. Excerpt from
Extended Breastfeeding and the Law, Breastfeeding Abstracts, LLLI, Baldwin, February 2001 [accessed 24 January 2022]
Misinformation about breastfeeding affects everyone in our society, including lawyers, judges, psychologists, and social workers. While there is no harm in breastfeeding past infancy and allowing a child to wean naturally, many professionals in social service agencies and family law courts are quite shocked to learn just how long a child may breastfeed. Lacking accurate information, these officials may overreact and conclude that breastfeeding a child of two, three, or four is somehow improper.
Letter to the court template
If breastfeeding past the tiny baby stage is scrutinised in a custody battle, Katherine A Dettwyler has provided a template for a letter that defends natural term breastfeeding and co-sleeping for use in a court situation.
Breastfeeding and Family Break Up in the UK (Association of Breastfeeding Mothers) lists places where families can find legal information relating to custody issues, discusses international law that may be relevant and shares examples of how courts in UK have applied the law. Human rights and breastfeeding?
With regard to human rights legislation,
Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights may be affected by a disproportionate contact order from the court. Article 8 is: “The right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence” and includes the right to physical and moral integrity. The baby also has his own rights under Article 8. This could be discussed with your legal representative.
Peter Haiman believes the child needs their own legal representation and advocates in court:
Every child should have the right to have his or her developmental needs fully described in court. That child’s unique life history must be understood if informed decisions are to be made on his or her behalf, and appropriate parenting plans created. This requires an understanding of the research as well as of the individual child. It cannot be accomplished by lawyers alone. Children also need advocates who understand developmental theory and research, and who are able competently to represent the child’s particular needs.
Young children need the stability and consistency of strong attachment to a single primary care-giver in their early years for their long term emotional health. Long separations of a child from their mother before they are ready can be traumatic, irrespective of whether they are breastfeeding. This does not mean a father or co-parent shouldn’t see his child frequently. Whenever possible, parents should put the needs of their child first and come to an access arrangement where separations from the mother are built up gradually, at the child’s pace. Relying on the legal system to come to a satisfactory arrangement ought to be a last resort because courts may not appreciate the developmental need of a particular child for his mother or for breastfeeding.