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In the Best Interest of Breastfed Children

By Elizabeth N. Baldwin, Esq., Kenneth A. Friedman, Esq., and Steve Harvey

Breastfeeding mothers are faced with a difficult challenge when they separate from the baby's father. The baby needs to spend time with the father frequently and without lengthy separations from the mother, in order to promote and protect the father's bond and the breastfeeding relationship. Many people (including the baby's father, lawyers, or judges) may not understand why it is important to protect the breastfeeding relationship. A mother must educate everyone involved about the importance of breastfeeding and how parenting time can be shaped to encourage the father's bond.

The decision to breastfeed is both a lifestyle choice and a significant health choice for mother and baby. Though the value of breastfeeding for at least one year is commonly recognized, not everyone realizes that UNICEF, the world Health Organization, and even former Surgeon General Antonio Novello, MD, recommend breastfeeding until age two or beyond. Breastfeeding provides health benefits both for the baby (reducing the risk of juvenile diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome [SIDS]), meningitis, Crohn's disease, celiac disease, chronic liver disorders, childhood cancers, asthma, ear infections, and so forth), and for the mother, decreasing her risk of breast, ovarian, and cervical cancer. The longer a mother breastfeeds, the more she reduces these risks. In addition, breastfeeding helps mothers bond securely with their babies, which is essential to a child's future well-being.

While a baby is breastfeeding, a visitation plan should be tailored to each individual family. Factors to consider include:

  1. Visits should not exceed the amount of time away from the mother to which the child is accustomed or has worked up to. To determine this initially, review previous separations from the mother. How long and how often were they? Who was the child left with? The father should have time with his baby for at least that long without interruption. Also consider the style of parenting the mother has engaged in since the birth. For example, 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.

    It is also important to look at what involvement the father has had since birth and what style of parenting the mother has chosen. If she is following an attachment style (nursing on demand, shared sleeping, and so forth), this type of relationship should be protected and encouraged, with overnights worked up to gradually. However, if the baby is used to a crib in a separate room, or Grandma often babysits at night, Daddy can do this just as well. Basically, any time the father spent with the child before separation he can spend now.

  2. The younger the baby, the more important it is to have frequent, rather than lengthy, contacts with the father. In addition, longer visits are easier to work up to when the baby has more frequent experience with the father and others. Babies do not have long memories. Seeing the father every day, rather than every other weekend, will deepen their bond. Consider how close-by-you live, what your schedules are, and how you can allow the father frequent and continuing contact.

  3. Visitation should gradually increase every month or two, but overnights should not begin until the child has become accustomed to one or two full-day stays. Full-day visits must also be worked up to by increasing time lengths by an hour or two every month or so. Once the overnights begin, keep them short at first (12 or 15 hours). Then increase overnights a few hours every month, gradually working up to full weekends. Weeklong separations are inappropriate for children under five. Most fathers need to acquire certain parenting skills as the baby grows. As visitations gradually lengthen, the father must learn how to cope with his child, responding to the child's needs and patterns, such as bath time, naps, allergies, and favorite foods.

A good visitation plan may require sacrifices or compromises by both parents. Your own convenience should always take lower priority than what is best for the child. Too often the father is not willing to visit frequently, or the mother does not want to see the father so often. If the child's needs are to be a first priority, this attitude must be reexamined. For instance, if the father works a few minutes away, could he see the child each day on his lunch break? For an hour or two after work?

It is such a short time that children are so needy. In a few years they will be able to handle the "requested" visitation. And yet, no one seems willing to wait. Children are not ruined by divorce per se but by the anger between their parents. If the parents can talk each week and flexibly work out what visits will be best for their child, the child will definitely benefit. Young children need consistent attention from both parents. End the war and treat each other as civilized human beings. Promote a close bond with the father by frequent contact--seeing Dad every day, if possible--rather than by lengthy separations from the mother.


Children need the active, consistent, and engaged involvement of both parents throughout their lifetime. These attachments directly affect their quality of life and must be considered from the long-term perspective. While mothers and primary caregivers may need to spend more time with children during infant and toddler years to foster security, fathers can become significantly more important in latency and teenage years.

Clearly, children with a good father figure do better. Evidence suggests that their positive relationship with the father helps them to explore the social world more fully. In my practice, for example, children with attachment difficulties progress much more when fathers are actively involved.

We also know that the two parents' direct, reciprocal, and attuned relationship with each other helps their children feel securely attached. Experiences with both parents enable a child to trust, form intimacy, and feel secure enough to positively explore, both within close relationships and in academic, cognitive, and social matters. This attachment relationship is not limited to the first year, but rather grows and changes throughout children's lives, based on their experiences with both parents.

These facts suggest the necessity of visitation that is age- and attachment-appropriate. Many mental health professionals still prefer to see a single residence or "secure base" for children under five. In cases where only minimal to mild conflict exists, children under age three should have a primary residence based on the caretaking and attachment history, while the other parent has short, frequent daily visits, depending on his or her availability and caretaking history. With young babies not accustomed to any separations, visits could begin with about one to two hours, increasing to an afternoon, then to a full day gradually. Ideally, with securely attached children not accustomed to lengthy separations, overnight stays can start at approximately age three, but visits of three days or a long weekend should be avoided until age four to five.

Consider changing your visitation plan if your child shows extended periods of such symptoms as clingingness, insomnia, aggression, or anxiety-related behavior.


Psychologists use more test results, review more materials, and are less likely to make recommendations on the basis of a single variable than they were ten years ago. In 1986, 75% of psychologists, psychiatrists, and master's-level practitioners conducted testing with children or adults involved in custody cases. In 1996, testing had increased significantly, with 92% of 201 psychologists polled testing children and 98% testing adults.

In the past ten years, psychologists have also become more careful in their decision-making process, greatly favoring joint custody over sole- or single-parent custody.

Other attitudes are changing, as well. Eleven years ago, 54% of psychologists polled said they would not be inclined to endorse custody if a parent were involved in a homosexual relationship. But, by 1996, 88% said parents' sexual orientation would not be a factor in their custody endorsements.

Another major shift involves how psychologists preferred to be retained. In 1986, nearly a third surveyed preferred to be retained by one parent only. But, ten years later almost all wished to be retained by the court, the child's legal guardian, or both parents.

"Custody Evaluation Practices: A Survey of Experienced Professionals (Revisited)," by Marc J. Ackerman, PhD, Wisconsin School of Professional Psychology, and Melissa Ackerman, University of Denver. In Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 28, no. 2. Full text available from the American Psychological Journal. Public Affairs Office, 202-336-5700. Fax 202-336-5708. E-mail:

For More Information

Gordon, Thomas. Parent Effectiveness Training or P.E.T. in Action. New York: Bantam Books, 1988. [This book helps parents develop more effective communication skills, which can help tremendously in learning to work together.]

Hodges, William E Interventions for Children of Divorce: Custody Access and Psychotherapy. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1991. [Written for mental health professionals and lawyers, it contains information on age-appropriate visitation.]

Karen, Robert. Becoming Attached. New York: Warner Books, 1994. [Traces the history of bonding and separation and their impact on later life.]


Steve Harvey is a psychologist who works with families. He is the father of breastfed children. Elizabeth N. Baldwin was an attorney and family mediator in private practice with her husband, Kenneth A. Friedman, in Miami, Florida. She died in March 2003 after an extended illness. Her family law practice primarily focused on protecting young, securely attached and breastfed babies in divorce cases. Elizabeth was also a La Leche League Leader, and a member of LLLI's Professional Advisory Board, Legal Advisory Council. She published numerous articles on breastfeeding and the law, and often spoke at conferences. She assisted hundreds of parents involved in breastfeeding legal cases, and provided information and help to parents, attorneys and other professionals dealing with these issues.

This article originally appeared in Mothering Magazine in 1997. We thank them for allowing us to reprint it.

This article may be printed out for personal use but may not be reproduced in any other manner nor for any other purpose without permission.

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