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It's a famous biblical story: Two women were fighting over a baby each claimed as her own. Wise King Solomon had the women brought before him. Appearing to rule fairly, he ordered that the baby be cut in half, with one half given to each woman. While the pretender agreed with this decree, the real mother was horrified and screamed, “No! Give the baby to her!” King Solomon then knew that she was the real mother.
Although it's important for both parents to maintain a relationship with their children, visitation schedules based simply on dividing up the number of days in a calendar year without regard for the children's age, psychological needs, or temperament can cause unnecessary stress; for very young children, ignoring these factors may cause permanent psychological harm.
For most children, the ability to make transitions from place to place increases with age. For time-sharing to work, both parents must be attuned to their children's unique requirements and needs, as well as the general developmental pattern that most children follow from birth through the teen years.
Infancy to Two-and-a-Half Years
Infancy, psychologists agree, is a time for building an attachment to the primary caretaker. (Attachment to two primary caretakers, a mother and father, is increasingly common, too.) The infant's developmental task is to form trust in the environment. Long separations from the primary caretaker can result in symptoms of depression and regression and later may result in problems with separation and the ability to form relationships.
If your very young child is grieving for the other parent, he will not be able to focus on his relationship with you. Give your child the time he needs to adjust to separation from his primary caregiver.
Toddlers are beginning to develop a sense of independence. They are becoming aware of themselves and begin to speak and walk. They can use symbols to comfort themselves, such as a picture of Mom or a toy she gave them.
Because the successful attainment of these developmental tasks lays the foundation for secure and healthy children, parents should design a schedule that fits a child's needs at this stage. The best schedule, say the experts, is short but frequent time with the noncustodial parent: short because infants and toddlers can't maintain the image of their primary caretaker for long and frequent to enable them to bond with the noncustodial parent. Most psychologists agree there should be no overnight visitation for very young children.
In cases where both parents share physical custody, frequent daily time with each parent is the ideal.
There are many innovative ways to share parenting responsibility at this stage. We know one couple who bought a second home in the wife's name following the divorce. Their child, a little girl, stayed on in the old house, now in the father's name. The parents shared custody by taking turns staying in the original family homestead. The “off-duty” parent lived in the new house. In short, the child had one stable home; instead, it was the parents who bore the brunt of constant change by moving back and forth. This model is known as “nesting” or “bird nesting” for the obvious reason that the young remain in the nest, as the parents come and go.
Two-and-a-Half to Five Years
This is a time of continued growth and individuality. These young children can now hold the absent parent in mind for longer periods of time. Their language is developed enough to enable these youngsters to express feelings and needs. They have more control over their feelings and bodily functions. This is also the age when children begin to identify more with the same-sex parent.
Although it ultimately depends on the temperament of the individual child, this is typically the age where time away from the primary caretaker can increase, and overnights can be introduced. If the child resists long periods away from her primary caretaker, short but frequent visits should continue until the child is better able to withstand longer separations.
Those who share physical custody must continue to be sensitive to their child's reaction to continual change.