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Shared parenting for babies?

It is overwhelming to become a parent to a child. For those who separate while the child is still very young or perhaps before the child is born, it can add an extra dimension of challenge around cooperation regarding the child. From the child’s perspective, however, it is natural to be cared for by several people during their first years. Many parents share parental leave to some extent with each other. Over 80 percent of all children are enrolled in preschool in Sweden. So it is possible for children to connect with several present adults early on. Many parents still wonder “What do small children need?” “Is it suitable for young children under three to live alternately with their parents?”

In this article Child psychologist Malin Bergström gives advice on what you as a parent or relative of a small child need to think about.

Children do best with a connection to both of their parents

Parents of a newborn child

It is completely natural for new parents to long for peace and quiet with their baby. For those who are trying to get breastfeeding or feeding going, the other parent’s desire to also take care of their child can almost feel like an intrusion. As a new parent, you are in a field of biological, psychological and social forces that make you particularly emotional and vulnerable. The thought of having to be away from your baby can evoke feelings of anxiety and anger. The feelings can be amplified by questions or demands for alternating residence for a small baby.

The newborn child’s needs

It’s important from your child’s perspective to be taken care of by both parents from the beginning. If the parent is engaged early on, it increases the chance that they will continue to be present as a parent. When children are taken care of by each parent individually, the parent’s responsiveness is awakened and the child’s attachment relationship is activated.

The attachment system is turned on when the child is sad, tired, or hungry and seeks comfort, protection, and consolation. For example, when a father calms the child, the hormone oxytocin is released in his body and his emotional responsiveness to the child increases. If the mother is always present and “steps in,” nothing happens between the father and the child. It instead risks confirming his role as less important than the mother – even when the child is older.

Historically, the mothers’ lead in contact with children has contributed to many children losing contact with their father after a separation. But thanks to changing norms and behaviors, that trend is beginning to change.

Parallel relationships are ones where both people are on the same level

It is difficult for children to lose contact with a parent, even if that parent has had a minor role. Today we know that children’s attachment relationships with both parents develop parallel during the first years. So it is quite natural that they exist side by side as long as both parents are given the opportunity to take care of the child alone. This can be a good starting point for reflection on alternating living further down the line.

Are overnight stays in two homes bad or good for the youngest children?

When we plan for small children’s socializing and housing, we must rely on experience and theoretical knowledge because there is a lack of scientific support.

It seems best for the children if the parents gradually build up trust with both parents. Before the baby lives and sleeps with both parents, take turns being with the child during the day and change often.

If you separate during the baby’s first year, start from how the division of responsibility for your child looked before the separation. If you have the same habit of taking care of the child and the child clings to both of you, take turns. Start with short periods and increase the time with each parent when you feel it works. Think hours and not days during the first six months after separation.

If you can’t see each other as often, it may take a little longer before the parent-child relationship sets in. Of course there is no harm. That’s life. You need to take that into account and that it often takes longer before the child can spend longer periods with the parent. This also applies to overnight stays. Children and parents have different needs. The most important thing is that the child and you find your way and enjoy it.

Trust in each other’s ability to care

It can be emotionally challenging to have the child every other night when you have separated or maybe never even lived together, because you often have less trust in each other’s parenting skills than when you are a couple living under the same roof. It is therefore important for the parent who has had the child most in the beginning, to be available if the child wakes up and is sad.

It can be difficult for the other parent to understand that the overnight stays are particularly sensitive, as one should sleep at night. If one parent has a hard time letting go, it helps if the other parent is soft and receptive to the child’s needs. You can confirm that you see the concern in the co-parent but at the same time assure them that the child will be taken care of and comforted when they wake up. But in order for the concern to dissipate, the other parent must be given the opportunity to try in order to find their own ways to calm the child at night.

Make a long-term plan with your coparent

If you yourself feel separation anxiety and fear when you leave your child at daycare, your child will have worse conditions for thriving. In the same way, your child can react negatively to a lack of respect and trust between the parents during overnight stays.

The best thing is if you can talk to each other and make a long-term plan and escalation that everyone can live with. Remember to show respect for each other’s feelings and needs. Explain to each other why you react the way you do and tell each other about the fears you have. No one is a professional at taking care of a child at first. Share your experiences and situations when you have felt that you have not been able to comfort or calm the child. Ironically, it can be easier to trust the one who dares to show his insecurity than the one who never does. Parents also need to be humble in front of the fact that the child has his own personality and will and that the plan must be based on the child’s needs. It can be motherly or fatherly in periods. The child can also get a cold and prefer one parent over the other during recovery.

Malin Bergström
Child psychologist