Custody and Breastfeeding

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.

Custody and breastfeeding

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.

Baby asleep on dad's shoulder
Breastfeeding does not prevent a father or other co-parent from forming their own loving and secure relationship with their child

Shared custody and breastfeeding is possible

Ideally parents will work out a visiting plan or formal parenting agreement that respects the child’s need to be with his mother and to continue breastfeeding while still seeing the other parent. Dr Jack Newman, a Canadian paediatrician explains:

A child needs his father, even at 6 months, 19 months or three years of age and I am not in any way suggesting that the father not have appropriate access, but forcing the child to stop breastfeeding (even if the demand is not explicitly stated) is not appropriate. However, surely some sort of arrangement can be made to allow the father reasonable access without interfering with the breastfeeding relationship. Even occasional overnight separation for a child who wakes during the night to breastfeed is not appropriate, in my opinion. It is, in my view, in the best interest of the child that both parents support or facilitate the continued breastfeeding relationship.

Not just about the breast

Breastfeeding is very closely linked with secure attachment, emotional regulation and mothering.1 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 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.2 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: