Could a sleepover with their parent damage a child?
Parenting guru Penelope Leach claims children may suffer emotional and developmental damage by sleeping over at an absent parent’s home.
Published 18/07/2014 | 02:30
As if parenting for separated couples wasn’t complicated enough, it just got a whole lot more fraught, with a childcare guru claiming that overnight stays away from the main home could be damaging to children.
According to author and veteran parenting expert Penelope Leach, children under the age of four may suffer emotional and developmental damage by sleeping over at an absent parent’s home — usually the father’s.
The comments provoked a wave of heated debate on Ireland’s parenting forums. “This is absolute twaddle,” fumed one dad. “I’m nearly in tears reading this,” added one mum. “That any parent would be denied the right to put their child to bed — talk about a living hell. You’d want to be a heartless cow to deny another human being this. And what about the poor child? Not spending a night with dad until they’re four! Then are they magically expected to be emotionally ok with this all of a sudden. Pure BS.”
Eamonn Quinn, the main mentor for Unmarried and Separated Parents of Ireland (uspi.ie) for 14 years, was quick to condemn the childcare guru’s viewpoint.
“It is my understanding that what Ms Leach is advocating is emotional abuse and the denial of proper bonding of a child to either absent parent, mainly a father,” he says.
“When you are a responsible father/parent, then no-one should be able to deny you a right to know and love and care for your child. For Ms Leach to advocate that a child should not have overnight access until after four years seems cruel.”
Leach is understood to have based her views, which appear in her new book Family Breakdown, on an Australian study which she cites as suggesting that overnights away from the primary caregiver can undermine young children’s security, make them more irritable and potentially interfere with their social development.
But while the thrust of her argument may be unpalatable to some, others believe the child psychologist’s assertions have shone a spotlight on the difficulties involved in navigating shared childcare.
“What Penelope Leach has done is raise important questions about how separated parents and their respective ‘sides’ of the family must set their differences aside and put the child or children’s needs central to the care arrangement,” says Teresa Heeney, CEO of Early Childhood Ireland.
“There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to that care arrangement and parents must sit down together and calmly and logically plan the best model to suit their child first, and themselves second.”
Reliability of the arrangements, good communication and reassurance in place, are key to ensuring overnight stays run smoothly.
“Babies and young children like predictability and routines, so separated parents should resist the temptation of overloading the schedule on ‘their watch’ with spontaneous treats and intensive days out, which can leave the child exhausted and irritable,” explains Heeney.
“With the right approach, these sleepovers become a normal part of the routine, with little or no discomfort to the child socially or emotionally.”
Laura Haugh, of Mummypages.ie, agrees. “If they can work together, parents can ensure that their child’s routine remains as unaffected as possible by the separation,” she says.
“This means sticking to the same pre-bedtime routine and ensuring the child feels loved and in a safe environment where they feel comfortable and happy. Providing this is true, it shouldn’t matter whether they spend a night in mum or dad’s house.”
But, in particular instances, some parents reckon there’s merit to Leach’s advice. “My little one is 22 months old and was 10 months when my ex left,” writes one Irish mum, commenting on the issue on a popular parenting forum. “He sees her during daytime. I feel it would be very unsettling for her going for overnights with the ex. I don’t think it is in my child’s best interest at this age for overnights.”
Another agrees: “My 18-month-old would be super upset if she had to spend a night away from me, she still nurses at night and her older sister did until she was nearly three.”
Other parents experiencing difficult relationships with their former partners share the same viewpoint, with some anxious that their children come back clingy or upset from overnight visits leaving them wondering what happened at the other end.
Under the age of four, children are still developing attachment patterns and it’s a fact that some will struggle with being away from the primary caregiver.
Joanna Fortune from Solamh Parent and Child Relationship Clinic (solamh.com) explains: “From birth to six or eight months, children go through what is called the co-dependent stage of development whereby they have not yet internalised that they are separate beings from their mothers. When their mother looks at them with love, they do not see her but rather see themselves reflected through her.
“This experience teaches them that they are lovable and they will seek to repeat this feeling in other attachment relationships. This is a very important stage of development and forms the groundwork for attachment development — regular overnights away from their mother or primary caregiver at this stage is not advised developmentally.”
She adds: “Between 12 and 18 months, children also start to learn that even though they might not be able to see someone, they still exist. Initially they might fret if mum or dad leaves a room, but through repetition and reassurance they begin to understand this.
“In many young toddlers who experience parental separation we may see a regression in this stage of development.”
While this means there may be some truth in Leach’s claims, Fortune is keen to stress that there’s no basis for any one-size-fits-all approach to shared parenting.
Rather than get bogged down in the claims of studies or childcare advice books the most important guiding factor in any case is the child.
“There can be no absolutes when it comes to children as they all develop and react in their own unique way and each parenting or co-parenting situation is different,” says Fortune.
“A child who has never known their parents together and has done overnight access from infancy will not react in the same way an 18-month or two-year-old child whose parents have just split and is now spending this time away.
“Research does not support Leach’s assertion as an absolute, and really it is case-by-case and family-by-family as to what will work for a child or not.”
HOW TO NAVIGATE SHARED PARENTING SUCCESSFULLY
1) Recognise the signs that your shared parenting routine might not be working for your child
“Children are very good at showing us when something is not working for them either by experiencing disrupted sleep, disrupted learing patterns, temper tantrums and clingy or regressed behaviour,” says Joanna Fortune. “This is their way of saying ‘I’m not doing well with this arrangement’.”
2) Keep the child informed
“The key is to explain the schedule and the arrangements to children in a clear and timely manner,” says Teresa Heeney. “Tone of voice is important and children will want to know well in advance if they will be sleeping at daddy’s or mummy’s — they need time to ask lots of questions.”
3) Consider keeping the venue the same
“One solution is that dad comes to the primary home and stays overnight with the child there while mum stays away for one night, this way the child is in their own familiar surroundings,” says Fortune.
4) Be mature
“Parents must sit down together and calmly and logically plan the best model to suit their child first and themselves second,” says Heeney. “This also means refraining from negative talk about mummy or daddy as children will pick up on tension, making sleepovers more stressful.”
5) Involve the child in the sleepover arrangement
“Ideally children should have an active part in decorating their rooms in the new home and have time to see it and be comfortable in it before they do an overnight,” explains Fortune. Heeney adds: “Remember little things can be so important to settling your child into the new routine, such as familiar toys, favourite books and so on, that will comfort the child and ensure a ‘home from home’ atmosphere.”