OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 1
Running Head: OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS
Should Infants and Toddlers Have Frequent Overnight Parenting Time With Fathers?
The Policy Debate and New Data
William V. Fabricius
Go Woon Suh
Arizona State University
Accepted for publication in Psychology, Public Policy and Law, on October 17, 2016.
This article may not exactly replicate the authoritative document published in Psychology, Public
Policy and Law. It is not the copy of record. © 2016 American Psychology Association.
Thanks are due to Meline Arzumanyan and Nicole Speranza for generous help in collecting the
data, and to Barbara Atwood, Solangel Maldonado, Linda Nielsen, Irwin Sandler, Avi Sagi-
Sscwartz, Alan Sroufe, and Richard Warshak for comments. Portions of the data were presented
at the annual meetings of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, Toronto, May,
2014, and the biennial meetings of the Society for Research in Child Development, Philadelphia,
Correspondence should be addressed to W. Fabricius at the Department of Psychology, Arizona
State University, 950 S. McAllister, Box 871104, Tempe, AZ 85287-1104 or electronically at
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 2
Whether children of separated parents 2 years of age and younger should have frequent overnight
parenting time with non-custodial fathers has been the subject of much debate but little data.
Contrary to some previous findings, the current study found benefits to both parent-child
relationships associated with overnights (a) up to and including equal numbers of overnights at
both parents’ homes, (b) for both the long-term mother-child and father-child relationships, and
(c) both when children were 2 years old, as well as when they were under 1 year of age. These
benefits held after controlling for subsequent parenting time with fathers in childhood and
adolescence, parent education and conflict up to five years after the separation, and children’s
sex and age at separation. While the findings do not establish causality they provide strong
support for policies to encourage frequent overnight parenting time for infants and toddlers,
because the benefits associated with overnights also held for parents who initially agreed about
overnights as well as for those who disagreed and had the overnight parenting plan imposed over
one parent’s objections. The observed benefits for the long-term father-child relationship are
consistent with findings from intervention studies showing that fathers who are more involved
with infants and toddlers develop better parenting skills and relationships with their children.
Keywords: shared parenting time; parent-child relationships; infants; parent conflict; child
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 3
Should Infants and Toddlers Have Frequent Overnight Parenting Time with Fathers?
The Policy Debate and New Data
About 15 years ago, a debate arose among family policymakers, researchers, legal
scholars, and mental health professionals about potential risks and benefits of infants and young
children of divorced or separated parents spending overnight parenting time with their non-
custodial fathers (Biringen, Howard, & Tanner, 2002; Kelly & Lamb, 2000; Lamb & Kelly,
2001; Solomon & Biringen, 2001; Warshak, 2000; 2002). Recently, a special issue on attachment
and overnights appeared in July 2011 in Family Court Review, the journal of the international
Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC), followed by several commentaries
(Garber, 2012; Hynan, 2012; Lamb, 2012; Ludolph, 2012). In the special issue several prominent
attachment researchers, including Carol George, Judith Solomon (George, Solomon, &
McIntosh, 2011), Mary Main (Main, Hesse, & Hesse, 2011), and Alan Sroufe (Sroufe &
McIntosh, 2011) offered specific policy recommendations to the professional community, and by
extension to parents, against frequent overnight parenting time with fathers. Sroufe appeared to
speak for the group when he concluded that “prior to age 18 months, overnights away from the
primary carer (sic) should be quite rare. … At 3 [years], I would not recommend it to be equal
time. It is easier to see that happening when the child is 6 or 8” (Sroufe & McIntosh, 2011, pp.
472 – 473). Sroufe assured readers that these recommendations came with “the weight of expert
attachment opinion” behind them (p. 472). The theoretical justification for the policy
recommendation that overnight parenting time during infancy and toddlerhood should be “quite
rare” is the notion of monotropy, originally proposed by John Bowlby in his formulation of
modern attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969/1982), that the infant initially forms an attachment to
only the primary caregiver. According to this reasoning, overnight separations from the primary
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 4
caregiver risk damage to that first relationship, with potentially far-reaching consequences.
Conversely, postponing overnights should not harm the child’s relationship with the other parent
because the child is initially forming an attachment with only the primary parent. The attachment
relationship with the other parent should be more affected by parenting time during later years
than during infancy. However, as Everett Waters, another prominent attachment researcher
pointed out also in the special issue, “Bowlby softened up on the idea of monotropy and it is not
well justified in the logic of the theory that is understood today. There are people who would
assert this, but there are no propositions of attachment theory that lead you to deduce that we
must have this monotropic tendency. It is possible for infants and children and for adults to use a
multiplicity of figures for secure-base support” (Waters & McIntosh, 2011, pp. 479 -480).
Soon after, a neutral stance was taken in a second special issue (Pruett & DiFonzo, 2014)
that reported on a “think tank on shared parenting” convened by AFCC and composed of 19
social scientists and mental health practitioners, 12 legal professionals, and 1 activist-educator.
The report concluded that research had not settled the issue and eschewed any prescriptions
about the amount of overnight parenting time for young children.
At the same time, two review papers appeared in support of overnight parenting time
during the child’s first three years. Warshak (2014) was published with the endorsement of 110
developmental psychologists and mental health practitioners, and argued that the broader
literature and theory justified frequent overnights as beneficial to the father-child relationship
and not harmful to the mother-child relationship. Nielsen (2014) argued that the overnighting
debate is the latest example in which advocates, in this case those opposed to overnights for
young children, have promoted and misrepresented one or two studies in order to influence
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 5
This issue of the effects of the quantity of parenting time (i.e., frequency of overnights)
on parent-child relationships signals an important change of focus. It has been common in the
research literature to find statements that “it is the quality – not the quantity – of time that
matters most to children’s outcomes” (Pruett, Cowan, Cowan, Pradhan, Robbins, & Pruett, 2016,
p. 91), and to find researchers (e.g., Adamsons & Johnson, 2013) testing the “straw man”
question of whether the quantity of time or father–child relationships better predict child
outcomes (Fabricius, Sokol, Diaz, & Braver, 2012; 2016). Research on overnights redirects us
toward the more appropriate question of whether the quantity of time predicts better
relationships, which in turn predict other outcomes. This question grounds the research on
parenting time in child developmental theory, central to which is attachment theory (Fabricius,
Braver, Diaz, & Velez, 2010). This will allow us to understand and test hypothesized causal
mechanisms connecting the quantity of parenting time to parent-child relationships, and
relationships to long-term outcomes. The shared parenting literature has been rightly criticized
for being a-theoretical (Irving & Benjamin, 1995; Smyth, McIntosh, Emery, & Howarth, 2016),
but in this time of social change with policies at stake hypothesis-testing of well-grounded
theoretical models is critical to understand how these complex processes work. However, there
are to date only three empirical studies of parenting time and parent-child relationships for
infants and toddlers (McIntosh, Smyth, & Kelaher, 2010; 2013; Solomon & George; 1999;
Tornello, Emery, Rowen, Potter, Ocker, & Xu, 2013). One other (Pruett, Ebling, & Insabella,
2004) did not assess parent-child relationships.
In the initial study (Solomon & George; 1999), researchers assessed 16-month-olds’
attachments to each of their parents one month apart in the Strange Situation. Those with at least
one overnight with father per month formed the Overnight group and those with at least one
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 6
daytime visit but no overnights formed the No Overnight group. The researchers also included a
Married group, but the meaningful comparison is the Overnight group to the No Overnight
group, not to the Married group because that comparison confounds effects due to divorce with
effects due to overnights.
Attachment classifications were not significantly different in the Overnight group
compared to the No Overnight group, for either mothers or fathers. Nevertheless, given a non-
significant trend (p = .10) for Overnight mothers to have fewer secure and more disorganized or
unclassifiable attachments, the researchers tested whether two sets of factors were related to
attachment within the Overnight group. The first set tested the linear effects hypothesis that
effects of overnights “should be more pronounced the longer and/or the more frequent the
overnight separations are and the earlier such arrangements are put into place” (Solomon &
George, 1999, p. 5), and included eight measures (e.g., longest number of consecutive overnights
per month, total number of overnights per month). The findings did not support the linear effects
hypothesis. None of the measures of length, frequency, or age of initiation of overnight
separations from the mother was related to attachment classifications for either parent.
The second set tested the hypothesis that “risk [of overnights] may be potentiated and
maintained by adverse conditions, or … may under supportive conditions, be prevented” (p. 5),
and included the mother’s “psychological protection” (i.e., her report of how well she adapted
the visitation schedule to infants’ needs and responded to signs of stress during transitions), the
mother’s mental health, and the mother’s report of the parents’ communication and conflict. The
authors reasoned that overnights might make mother-infant attachment security more susceptible
to deficiencies in each of these factors, in which case these factors should relate to infant- mother
attachment only, or especially, in the Overnight group. Parent conflict showed the predicted
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 7
effects. Only in the Overnight group was more parent conflict associated with less mother-child
security. Parent communication was not significantly related to attachment in the Overnight
group (p = .09), although the means for both groups were in the predicted directions, and there
was no evidence of overnight-related attachment susceptibility to deficiencies in mother’s mental
health or psychological protection. For fathers, better mental health, more communication, and
less conflict might have been expected to facilitate secure attachments, but these three factors did
not predict attachment to fathers more so in the Overnight than in the No Overnight group.
In sum, the initial study provided limited evidence for effects of overnights on infant-
parent attachment. Out of 12 analyses for mothers, there was one significant finding (overnight-
related susceptibility to parent conflict) and two non-significant trends (overnight-related
susceptibility to poor parent communication, and fewer secure attachments in the Overnight
group). Out of 12 analyses for fathers, there were no effects associated with overnights.
Pruett, Ebling, & Insabella (2004) studied parents with either a young child (0 to 3 years)
or an older child (4 to 6 years) at the time of their court filing. Testing occurred 15 to 18 months
later. Both parents rated the child’s behavior problems using nine subscales of the Child
Behavior Checklist (CBCL) (Achenbach & Edelbrock, 1983). Overnights were scored
dichotomously (present or absent) because analyzing frequency did not add any information;
thus, as in Solomon and George (1999) there was no support for the linear effects hypothesis.
After controlling for age and sex of the child, parent conflict, and negative changes in the
father-child relationship since the separation, only the Social Problems subscale of the CBCL
was related to overnights. Fathers reported that children with overnights in both age groups
showed fewer social problems. The Social Problems subscale was administered only to those
aged 4 years or older, which meant that it probably included less than half of the younger group
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 8
(i.e., those from about 2 ½ through 3 years). Thus, overnights for children aged 2 and 3 years
were significantly associated with one behavioral benefit 15 to 18 months later, while in
Solomon and George (1999) they were significantly associated with one cost to infant-mother
attachment, but both studies yielded mostly null findings.
McIntosh, Smyth and Kelaher (2010; 2013) examined infants (aged 0 to 1) and 2- to 3-
year-olds in the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children, controlling for family socio-
economic status, parenting warmth, hostility toward the child, and parent cooperation and
conflict. Children were divided into three ordinal groups (no overnights with some daytime-only
visits, moderate number of overnights, and high number of overnights). Three groups are the
minimum needed to test the linear effects hypothesis that more overnights result in more
problems. If true, then as illustrated in Figure 1a, there should be an increase in problems
between the no overnight group and the moderate group, and a similar increase between the
moderate and high groups, resulting in a more-or-less straight line. Two types of non-linear,
threshold effects could also result from overnights, one in which only the high group showed
elevated levels of problems (Figure 1b) and one in which both the moderate and high groups
showed equivalent elevated levels of problems (Figure 1c). These non-linear patterns would
require special explanation. Finally, U-shaped patterns (Figure 1d), in which the no overnight
and high groups show similar elevated levels of problems and the moderate group has less
problems, have no clear interpretation and cannot be taken at face value as evidence for effects of
The researchers (McIntosh, Smyth & Kelaher, 2010; 2013) compared the moderate group
to the high group, but for reasons unexplained they did not compare the no overnight group to
the moderate group. Instead they also compared the no overnight group to the high group. That
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 9
analysis plan does not allow a clear test of the linear effects hypothesis because it does not
compare the no overnight group to the moderate group; thus, the following characterizations of
the patterns of their findings are based on the results of the two comparisons they did test. For
consistency with their report, I follow their convention of interpreting effects with p < .08.
For infants, there were no linear patterns. There were two U-shaped patterns similar to
Figure 1d in which the no overnight and high groups showed more problems with wheezing and
irritability than the moderate group. There was one threshold pattern similar to Figure 1c for
“visual monitoring of the primary caregiver,” which the authors took to indicate anxiety about
the primary caregiver’s availability. However, this variable was composed of three selected items
(e.g., “Does this child try to get you to notice interesting objects – just to get you to look at the
objects, not to get you to do anything with them?”) from two subscales (Eye Gaze and
Communication) of the Communication and Symbolic Behavior Scales (Wetherby & Prizant,
2002). This instrument assesses infants’ readiness to learn to talk. Infants who exhibit more of
the behaviors measured in these two subscales are more ready to learn to talk. None of the items
in these two subscales, including the selected three, ask about anxiety about the availability of
the caregiver, or focus on situations likely to induce anxiety, such as an impending or potential
separation. Thus these three items lack even the most basic face validity (i.e., they do not ask
directly about the phenomenon under study). McIntosh, Smyth and Kelaher (2010; 2013; 2015)
assert face valid without warrant, and offer no evidence of the other more rigorous aspects of
validity required for scientific credibility. . The other three outcome variables for children under
2 showed no relation to overnights.
For 2- to 3-year-olds, the only linear pattern was that more overnights were associated
with more problems with persistence. There was one threshold pattern similar to Figure 1b for
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 10
problem behaviors, indicating that only high numbers of overnights were associated with
elevated problem behaviors. Conversely, overnights were associated with better health, in that
the high group showed less wheezing (inverse of Figure 1b) and both the moderate and high
groups were rated as having better global health (inverse of Figure 1c). The other three outcomes
for 2- to 3-year-olds showed no relation to overnights.
In sum, out of 13 analyses one showed a linear relation indicating that more overnights
were associated with 2- to 3-year-olds’ difficulty with persistence; one showed that only high
numbers of overnights were associated with more 2- to 3-year-old problem behaviors; two
showed non-linear patterns of benefits for 2- to 3-year-olds’ health (less wheezing and better
global health); two showed ambiguous (U-shaped) patterns for infant wheezing and irritability;
six showed no associations; and the only assessment relating to mother-child relationships was
not interpretable (“visual monitoring”). These are the findings that Nielsen (2014) argued have
been used by advocates opposed to overnights for young children.
The most recent study (Tornello et al., 2013) used data from the Fragile Families and
Child Well-Being Study, a large longitudinal data set begun in 1998 to 2000 to study the risks
associated with inner-city poverty, in which deliberate over-sampling produced a sample in
which most parents were unmarried, racial/ethnic minority, and low-income. The sample could
be considered ideal for detecting negative effects of overnights according to Solomon and
George’s (1999) hypothesis that overnights leave children more susceptible to other family
stressors, of which these fragile families had many.
Following McIntosh et al. (2010), the researchers categorized children at age 1 and again
at age 3 into ordinal groups (no overnights with some daytime-only visits, moderate, and high
numbers of overnights), and also neglected to compare the no overnight group to the moderate
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 11
groups. One outcome measure at age 3 was mothers’ ratings on the Toddler Attachment Q-sort
(TAQ), a shortened and modified version of the Attachment Q-set (AQS; Waters, 1995). This
measure is designed to be administered by trained observers, not by untrained parents. A
comprehensive and authoritative assessment of the validity of the AQS using data from 139
studies on 13, 835 children (Van IJzendoorn, Vereijken, Bakermans-Kranenburg, & Riksen-
Walraven, 2004) concluded that having mothers administer the AQS is unwarranted because that
method failed to meet acceptable standards of validity, making it unclear what was being
measured. Doubts about the validity of the mothers’ ratings in Tornello et al. (2013) are
reinforced because there was an uncharacteristically low overall rate (i.e., 25%) of “insecure”
ratings for a poverty sample. Mulligan and Flanagan (2006; Table 4) report that in a nationally
representative study within the United States the rate of insecure mother-child attachment for
families below the poverty threshold is almost twice that rate (i.e., 47%), and the rate at or above
the poverty level is also higher (i.e., 36%). Other outcome measures, assessed at ages 3 and 5,
were mothers’ reports of children’s adjustment using seven subscales of the CBCL at each age.
Control variables included mothers’ age, income, education, race, depression and relationships
with the fathers; fathers’ parenting quality; children’s age and sex; and number of adults in
Regarding mothers’ TAQ ratings at age 3, there was a U-shaped pattern with overnights
at age 1. The proportions of children rated as “insecure” in the no overnight group (M = .25) and
in the high group (.43) were not significantly different. The proportion in the moderate group
(.16) was inexplicably low, especially for this sample, and was significantly lower than the high
group. There was no association with overnights between the ages of 1 and 3.
Among Tornello et al.’s (2013) 14 analyses of children’s adjustment at age 3, and 14
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 12
analyses at age 5, there was one threshold pattern in which moderate and high levels of
overnights between the ages of 1 and 3.were associated with more positive behaviors at age 5
(inverse of Figure 1c). As with the previous studies, the findings could be best described as
contradictory (one non-linear beneficial association at age 5 and one U-shaped pattern at age 1)
and limited (28 remaining analyses showed null effects).
In sum, across the four studies there was one linear association, in which more overnights
at age 2 to 3 were associated with more difficulty with persistence, and one threshold pattern, in
which only high numbers of overnights at age 2 to 3 were associated with more problem
behaviors (McIntosh et al., 2010; 2013). However, the latter finding is contradicted by two other
findings: Children aged 2 and 3 years with any overnights showed fewer social problems (Pruett,
et al., 2004), and 3-year-olds with moderate and high levels of overnights showed more positive
behaviors at age 5 (Tornello et al., 2013). Similarly, the U-shaped patterns regarding overnights
at age 1 and wheezing and irritability are contradicted by the threshold benefits regarding
overnights at age 2 and wheezing and health (McIntosh, et al., 2010; 2013). None of these
findings involved mother-child relationships, the area in which overnight separations should
purportedly have had the most direct consequences. The only two indications of harm to the
mother-child relationship were non-linear associations obtained with measures that lack
demonstrated validity (i.e., the threshold pattern with “visual monitoring” in McIntosh et al.,
2010; 2013, and the U-shaped pattern with mother-ratings of attachment behaviors in Tornello et
al., 2013), and thus are not interpretable on two grounds. The only study that used the gold-
standard Strange Situation attachment assessment for young children (Solomon & George, 1999)
found no associations for either parent with eight measures of the length, frequency, and age of
initiation of overnights. At least 39 other tests in these studies found no associations with
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 13
overnights, even at the trend level (i.e., p = .10).
Thus, the evidence provided by the four studies is limited and contradictory, and
systematic comparison of the different findings is difficult. A number of other reviews of these
studies have appeared, citations to which are provided by Emery, Holtzworth-Munroe, Johnson,
Pedro-Carroll, Pruett, Saini, and Sandler (2016). It seems an understatement to say that this
empirical literature does not provide an adequate foundation for evidence-based policy, and
Emery et al. (2016) concur.
The current study was designed to contribute to this debate by focusing on three factors
not addressed by the previous studies. First, the previous studies examined only short-term
associations with overnights. That makes it difficult to distinguish temporary adjustment
problems from more enduring changes in child behavior and quality of parent-child
relationships. Second, apart from the first study (Solomon & George; 1999), the three subsequent
studies did not maintain a focus on the father-child relationship. Proponents of overnight
parenting time for infants and toddlers (e.g., Warshak, 2014) argue that it should increase father
commitment to child rearing and benefit the father-child relationship. Third, none of the previous
studies examined daytime-only parenting time, although proponents of postponing overnights
until the child is past toddlerhood (e.g., Sroufe & McIntosh, 2011), argue that brief daytime visits
should allow fathers adequate time to acquire parenting skills and lay the foundation for good
To assess the quality of long-term relationships with both mothers and fathers, we
recruited college students whose parents separated before they were 3 years old and asked them
to report on their current relationships with each of their parents. To assess daytime-only and
overnight parenting time at the father’s home, we also recruited their parents and asked them to
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 14
report the amount of both during each of the child’s first three years.
Concerns have been raised (e.g., Garfinkel, McLanahan, & Wallerstein, 2004) that
college students from divorced families might give an overly optimistic picture of divorce. One
can imagine that they and their parents might be predisposed to shared parenting, and that they
might be less affected by their parents’ divorces and consequently might have better parent-child
relationships than non-college divorce samples. However, while intuitively plausible, there is
little support for these two assumptions. First, college students from divorced families and the
general public both overwhelmingly endorse shared parenting, and there are few demographic
differences in endorsement within the general public (Braver, Ellman, Votruba, & Fabricius,
2011; Fabricius, et al. 2010; Fabricius & Hall, 2000). Second, the levels of lingering painful
feelings about their parents’ divorces, including feelings of loss and abandonment and parental
blame, are similar in elite college students and low-income community samples of adolescents
and young adults, many of whom had chaotic family backgrounds including abuse and extreme
poverty (Laumann-Billlings & Emery, 2000). Consequently, the associations between shared
parenting time and child adjustment outcomes are the same in convenience samples (including
college students) and samples obtained from court records and in-school students (Bauserman,
2002; Laumann-Billlings & Emery, 2000). But the most important reason why a college sample
is appropriate in the present case is that the hypothesis of harm is based on an argument about the
biology of the infant and the supposed need for one consistently available primary caregiver, and
none of the attachment theorists (George, Solomon & McIntosh., 2011; Main, Hesse & Hesse,
2011; Sroufe & McIntosh, 2011) suggested that this hypothesis should not apply equally to
infants who will and will not eventually attend college. Thus, we judged that the benefit of using
college students and their parents in this study (i.e., the ability to study long-term associations
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 15
with early overnights without having to wait 20 years for longitudinal data) outweighed any
concerns about the representativeness of the sample.
Associations between overnights and parent-child relationships could be biased by parent
conflict and parent education. Parents with less conflict or more education might provide more
overnights, and their relationships with their children might be enhanced by those factors rather
than the higher levels of overnight parenting time. In order to control for these factors, parents
also reported the frequency of parent conflict before and up to five years after the separation, and
their level of education.
In order to detect effects of parenting time during the child’s first three years, it is
necessary to control for effects of later parenting time. Thus, parents also reported parenting time
with the father when the child was 5 to 10, and 10 to 15 years old. We also controlled for age of
initiation of overnights by asking parents to report whether they were separated during one, two,
or all three of children’s first three years.
Furthermore, we tested for differential effects of overnights when children were under 1
year old and when they were 2 years old. This allowed us to evaluate the argument (e.g., Sroufe
& McIntosh, 2011) that overnights during infancy, when children lack the language and
cognitive skills to understand time, recall the past, and anticipate future events, should make
them most vulnerable to the stress of overnight separations, and lead to the most enduring
disruptions in their relationships with their mothers.
Finally, we used an approach outlined by Fabricius, Braver, Diaz, and Velez (2010) that
can yield the information needed to inform decision makers about the wisdom of imposing
shared parenting time on families where only one parent wants it. This involves distinguishing
the families in which both parents initially agreed to shared parenting time and thus presumably
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 16
volunteered for it, from families in which the parents disagreed and shared parenting was in
some way imposed upon them. If imposed shared parenting is found to be associated with
benefits, it would justify a rebuttable presumption for shared parenting. Fabricius, Sokol, Diaz
and Braver (2012) used this approach on publically available data from the Stanford Child
Custody Study (Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992). They found that the great majority of parents with
shared parenting had to accept it after mediation, custody evaluation, trial, or judicial imposition.
Nevertheless, those with shared parenting time had the most well-adjusted children years later.
We employed this approach in the current study by asking parents to report whether they agreed
about overnight parenting time, or whether they disagreed (i.e., “never came to agreement, one
of us got what he or she wanted mostly because the other one gave in,” or “the final decision
came out of either mediation, custody evaluation, attorney-led bargaining, or court hearing”).
Students rated the current quality of their relationships with each of their parents on five
sets of indicators. We selected these indicators because they should collectively tap into feelings
of security about continued parental support during the challenges and uncertainties of emerging
adulthood (Arnett, 2004). We assessed young adults’ current attributions of parental blame for
family problems (Laumann-Billings & Emery, 2000), their representations of how warm and
responsive each parent had been (Parker, 1989), how much they had enjoyed spending time
together, the overall closeness of their relationship, and how much they felt they mattered to each
parent (Marshall, 2001; Marshall, 2004; Rosenberg & McCullough, 1981). The perception of
how much one matters to one’s parent is closely related to how much trust one has that the parent
will be there when needed and hence how emotionally secure a child feels in the relationship.
Greater perceived mattering to parents, especially to fathers, has been found to predict fewer
internalizing and externalizing problems during adolescence (Schenck, et al., 2009; Suh, et al.,
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 17
The study was one of several projects offered at a large Southwestern university between
2012 and 2016 to fulfill the research participation requirement for Introductory Psychology.
Students who appeared eligible based on screening questions about when their parents separated
were emailed an invitation to participate in a study about “the living arrangements that parents
who are divorced or separated make for their children.” The invitation explained they would take
an on-line survey and at least one of their parents would also have to respond to a different
survey. Students were encouraged to ask both of their parents to respond.
Two hundred thirty students completed the survey with at least one parent reporting.
There were 167 cases in which only the mother responded; 37 in which both parents responded;
and 26 in which only the father responded. We selected the cases for substantive analyses (N =
116) which met all three of the following criteria: (a) parents reported that they permanently
separated before the child was 3 years old rather than after; (b) parents reported that the child had
not ever had more than 50% parenting time with the father; and (c) either the parents reported
that the child had some parenting time with the father before the child was 15 years old (N =
124), or the parents reported that the father had lived with the mother during the child’s first two
years (N = 5), or the father had submitted a survey (N = 2). Criterion (b) eliminated concerns
about the a-typicality of families in which the child’s primary residence was at the father’s home.
Criterion (c) filtered cases that we deemed father absence, as did Tornello et al. (2013), because
these situations confound the absence of overnights with the absence of fathers. When both
parents responded, we used the mothers’ responses to select the cases for the substantive
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 18
The mean age of the students was 19 years. According to each parent’s self-report among
the cases selected for substantive analyses, 47% of mothers and 43% of fathers ranged from less
than a high school education to a technical, vocational, or Associate’s degree; 28% of mothers
and 32% of fathers had an undergraduate degree; and 21% of mothers and 21% of fathers had a
Master’s degree or higher. Mean level of education for both parents was at the Associate’s degree
Students completed an on-line survey and emailed their parent(s) a cover letter and copy
of the parent survey. Parents returned completed surveys directly to the researchers.
Parenting time in infancy and toddlerhood. For each of the child’s first three years (under
1 year, 1 to 2 years old, and 2 to 3 years old), if parents responded that they were separated
during all or part of that year they were asked (a) “How many different days the child spent any
time at all (including overnights) at dad’s home in an average 2-week period” and (b) “How
many overnights the child spend at dad’s home in an average 2-week period.” The number of
overnights (b) was subtracted from the number of days (a) to obtain the number of daytime
visits. In calculating the yearly percent of parenting time in each year, an overnight was counted
as a full day, and a daytime visit as a half-day (as is typically done by state family courts in
determining child support). The number of daytime visits per week (D) = (a – b) / 2 because
parents reported for an average two-week period; the number of overnights per week (O) = b / 2;
and yearly percent of time with father = (D * .5 * 52) + (O * 52) / 365.
Parenting time in childhood and early adolescence. Parents and students responded to
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 19
these items. For each of two age periods (5 to 10 years old, and 10 to 15 years old) participants
were told to consider the most typical living arrangement that the child had during that time, and
were asked the same above questions about (a) days and (b) overnights. They were also asked (c)
“Considering the 15 weeks of school vacation (Christmas, 2 weeks; Spring, 1 week; Summer, 12
weeks), how many weeks was the child’s time with dad different from what it was during the
normal school year?” and (d) “What percentage of time the child spent with dad during those
vacation weeks that were different from the regular schedule?” An overnight was counted as a
full day, a daytime visit as a half-day, and a vacation day as a full day. During the school year the
number of daytime visits per week (D) = (a – b) / 2 and overnights (O) = b / 2. The number of
full days per week during “different vacation” weeks (V) = d * 7. Yearly percent of time with
father = (D * .5 * (52 - c)) + (O * (52 – c)) + (V * c) / 365.
Parent conflict. Parents reported frequency of conflict at four time periods: (1) “Before
the final separation,” (2) “During the final separation,” (3) “The first two years after,” and (4)
“The next three years after” on a 7-point Likert-type scale ranging from (0) “no conflict,” to (3)
“occasionally conflict,” to (6) “almost always conflict,” with an option for “can’t remember
/does not apply.” Because a few parents responded “can’t remember /does not apply” to one or
more time periods, and because conflict decreased over time, the overall conflict score in
substantive analyses was the mean of the standardized scores on whichever of the four questions
Parental disagreement about overnights. Parents responded to one question about the
level of disagreement between them regarding the number of overnights during infancy: “Mark
the statement that best describes how you and your child’s other parent decided how many
overnights the child should spend at dad’s home during years 0 to 3?” (response options were 0 =
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 20
“mostly agreed,” 1 = “had disagreements, but arrived at mutually agreeable solution,” 2 = “never
came to agreement, one of us got what he or she wanted mostly because the other one gave in,” 3
= “final decision came out of either mediation, custody evaluation, attorney-led bargaining, or
court hearing.”). Because these four response options do not form an interval scale, they were
dichotomized into “agreed” (response options 0 and 1) and “disagreed” (response options 2 and
3) to form the disagreement score used in substantive analyses.
Parents were also asked one question about the nature of their disagreement: “If you
disagreed, even just initially, was it because (a) father wanted child to spend more overnights at
his home but mother wanted child to spend less overnights at his home, (b) father wanted child to
spend less overnights at his home but mother wanted child to spend more overnights at his
Parent Education. Parents reported their own education using a 13-item scale ranging
from (0) “never attended school,” to (5) “high school graduate,” to (8) “Associate degree” to (9)
“college degree (BS/BA),” to (13) “MD, JD, DO, DDS, or Ph.D.” Education was dichotomized
into parents without a Bachelor’s degree and those with a Bachelor’s degree.
Students responded to all of the following measures.
Parental Caring. The 12-item Care subscale of The Parental Bonding Instrument (PBI)
provided a measure of the quality of the parent-child relationship. The PBI is a self-report
instrument with well-documented reliability and validity (Parker, 1989). Students rated how well
each statement (e.g., “Spoke to me in a warm and friendly voice. “Did not help me as much as
needed.”) described their mother and father “as you remember your [mother / father] in your first
16 years.” Response options are “very unlike” (0), “moderately unlike” (1), “moderately like”
(2), and “very like” (3). Negative items were reverse scored so that higher scores reflect higher
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 21
parental caring. Reliabilities for mother (α = .94) and father (α = .95) were excellent.
Parent-Child Interaction. This scale was developed for the current study and included
three items assessing mutual desire and enjoyment in spending time together. Students rated how
well each statement described their mother and father “as you remember your [mother / father] in
your first 16 years.” Items were “Did a lot of things with me, like working together on projects,
going on trips, playing games or sports.” “Really enjoyed spending time with me.” “It was a lot
of fun spending time with my [mom / dad].” Response options are “very unlike” (0),
“moderately unlike” (1), “moderately like” (2), and “very like” (3). Reliabilities for mother (α = .
86) and father (α = .88) were excellent.
Mattering. This 7-item scale assesses how much children feel they matter to each of their
parents (Marshall, 2001; Marshall, 2004; Rosenberg & McCullough, 1981). The reliability and
validity of the scale was demonstrated by Schenck, Braver, Wolchik, Saenz, Cookston, and
Fabricius (2009) and Suh, Fabricius, Stevenson, Parke, Cookston, Braver, and Saenz (2016), who
found that adolescents’ perceived mattering to parents was negatively associated with
internalizing and externalizing symptoms. Items are rated on a 5-point scale, “0”= “strongly
agree,” “4” = “strongly disagree.” Sample items included: “My (dad/mom) really cares about
me.” “I’m not that important to my (dad/mom). “Negative items were reverse scored so that
higher scores reflect higher perceived mattering. Reliabilities for mothers (α = .90) and for
fathers (α = .96) were excellent.
Parental Blame. We used the 6-item Maternal Blame and Paternal Blame scales from the
Painful Feelings About Divorce Scale, a self-report instrument with well-documented reliability
and validity (Laumann-Billings & Emery, 2000). Sample items include “Sometimes I feel angry
at my [mother/father] for my parents’ divorce.” “I still have not forgiven my [mother/father] for
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 22
the pain s/he caused my family.’ Response options are “strongly disagree” (0), “disagree” (1),
“neutral” (2), “agree” (3), and “strongly agree” (4), with the additional response option “does not
apply.” Following Laumann-Billings and Emery (2000), “does not apply” was treated as missing
data, and the scale mean was calculated on the remaining items. Reliabilities for mothers (α = .
90) and for fathers (α = .91) were excellent.
Overall Relationship. This scale included two items: “How well do you get along with
your [mom/dad]?” (response options “extremely well” (0), to “just okay” (2), to “not well at all”
(4), with an additional response option “not applicable/no contact”), and “What kind of
relationship do you have with your [mom/dad]?” (response options “the worst” (0), to “just
okay” (3), to “the best” (6), with an additional response option “not applicable/no contact”). The
first item was reversed scored and the scores were re-calibrated to fit the response scale of the
second item. Fourteen students chose the option “not applicable/no contact” for one or both
items referring to their relationship with their fathers. Because these responses indicated that the
student had no relationship with their fathers they were re-coded as 0. Reliabilities for mothers (α
= .93) and for fathers (α = .97) were excellent.
Reliability of parent reports
All cases in which both parents reported were used to determine how well parents
agreed. Correlations between parents’ reports on all variables were sufficiently substantial to
justify using mothers’ reports for the substantive analyses; when the father was the only parent
reporting we used his report. Correlations between parents’ reports of overnights at each of the
first three ages were rs > .84 (Ns = 15, 17, 33, ps < .001), and correlations for daytime visits
were rs = .46 to .90, ps < .01. The correlation between parents’ reports of yearly parenting time at
ages 5 to 10 was .72, and at ages 10 to 15 was .86 (Ns = 37), ps< .001. Mothers’ reports of
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 23
parenting time at ages 5 to 10, and 10 to 15 also agreed with students’ reports (rs > .81, N = 159,
ps < .001), as did fathers’ reports (rs > .83, N = 46, ps < .001), replicating Fabricius and Luecken
(2007). Correlations between parents’ reports of the frequency of parent conflict at each of the
four time periods were rs = .40, .46, .49, .69 (Ns = 35 to 36), ps < .05.
Regarding disagreements about overnights during the first three years, 73% of all parents
reported the same response category out of the four categories of levels of disagreement, and
87% reported the same category when the categories were dichotomized into “agreed”
(categories 0 and 1) and “disagreed” (categories 2 and 3). Among the families selected for
substantive analyses, as reported by mothers when both parents reported, 64% mostly agreed on
overnights, 11% had disagreements but arrived at a mutually agreeable solution, 6% never came
to agreement and one parent got what he or she wanted mostly because the other one gave in,
and 19% arrived at a final decision by either mediation, custody evaluation, attorney-led
bargaining, or court hearing. Among the families selected for substantive analyses, 75% of
mothers and 100% of fathers reported that the father had wanted more overnights.
The mean levels of parenting time tended to differ between mother- and father-reports, as
is commonly found (e.g., Braver & O’Connell, 1998). At the first three ages, fathers tended to
report more overnights in a typical 2-week period (Ms = 3.1, 3.4, 3.9, respectively) than mothers
(2.1, 2.6, 2.5; ts(14 to 32) = 1.87 to 3.97, ps =.080 to .000). However, reports of daytime visits
did not differ, ts < 1.35. Fathers reported more yearly parenting time than mothers at ages 5 to 10
(Ms = .29, .22, respectively) and 10 to 15 (.28 and .22; ts(36) = 2.44 and 2.51, ps < .05).
Students’ reports were in-between their parents’ reports at ages 5 to 10 (.26) but were identical to
fathers’ reports at ages 10 to 15 (.28).
The mean levels of conflict did not differ significantly between mothers’ and fathers’
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 24
reports. A 2 (Parent) X 4 (Time period) repeated measures ANOVA on frequency of parent
conflict revealed only an effect of Time period, F(3,96) = 18.81, p < .001), and no effect of
Parent or interaction between Parent and Time period (Fs < 1). Conflict decreased over the four
time periods, Ms = 3.49, 3.96, 3.15, 2.65 respectively. The reported decrease in the above
analysis came only from cases in which both parents reported, but it was similar to the decrease
reported by all parents who were selected for substantive analyses (in which we used mothers’
reports when both parents reported), Ms = 3.81, 3.94, 3.02, 2.53 respectively; F(3,321) =41.427,
p < .001). The means indicate three to five years after the separation, parents reported that the
frequency of their conflict was midway between “rarely” and “occasionally.”
Cases for substantive analyses were those in which the parents permanently separated
before the child was 3 years old; and the child had at most equal parenting time with the father
then and thereafter (unless specified otherwise); and there was evidence that the father had not
been absent from the child’s life. When only the mother or both parents responded we used the
mother’s reports, and when only the father responded we used his reports.
Rates of parenting time. Any day that the child had parenting time at the father’s home
could include spending the night (i.e., “overnight”) or not (i.e., “daytime”). (Fathers with neither
overnights nor daytimes could still have had parenting time elsewhere, such as at the mother’s
home.) Figure 2 shows the proportion of children at each of the first three age periods in each
combination of simple presence or absence of daytime and overnight parenting time at the
father’s home in a typical 2-week period. The Ns increase with age because 52 parents reported
they were separated when children were under 1 year, an additional 29 reported they were
separated when children were 1 year old (raising the N to 81), and an additional 35 reported they
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 25
were separated when children were 2 years old (raising the N to 116). As children got older,
proportionally fewer of them at each age were in the first two combinations (i.e., those with no
overnight parenting time) and more were in the latter two combinations (i.e., those with
overnights). By age 2, almost two-thirds of children had some overnight parenting time.
Not only did the proportion of children with any overnights increase from year to year as
shown above, but also the number of overnights per child increased. Figure 3 shows the
proportion of children at each age with different numbers of overnights at the father’s home in a
typical 2-week period. The increase with age was due to parents who separated when the child
was under 1 year of age. They increased the number of overnights during the next two years (Ms
= 1.06, 1.39, and 1.73, respectively; F(2,102) = 8.723, p < .001). Parents who separated when the
child was 1 year old did not increase the number of overnights during the next year (Ms = 1.93
and 2.10, respectively; t(28) = .895, p = .378). Parents who separated when the child was 2 years
old provided a mean of 2.17 overnights. By the time children were 2 years of age, the number of
overnights they had did not depend on how long their parents had been separated. A 3 (Age at
separation: under 1 year, 1 year old, 2 years old) one-way ANOVA on number of overnights at
age 2 showed no significant differences, F(2, 115) = .512, p = .600.
Finally, the proportion of yearly parenting time in toddlerhood (age 2) set the upper limit
on parenting time in childhood (ages 5 to 10), and early adolescence (ages 10 to 15; Ms = .20, .
21, .21, respectively; F(2, 174) = .49, p = .615). This analysis was not restricted to children who
had at most equal parenting time with the father, in order to include those who switched in or out
of father-custody at some point.
Measures of Parent-Child Relationships. Table 1 shows the scale means and standard
deviations for the five young adult self-assessments of their relationships with each of their
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 26
parents. The means were all in the direction of better relationships with mothers than fathers, and
the variability of scores was greater for fathers on all scales.
Also shown in Table 1 are the correlations of each scale with the number of overnights at
the two endpoints of children’s first three years; i.e., when they were infants (under 1 year of
age) and when they were toddlers (2 years of age). Correlations with daytime parenting time are
not shown because none were significant. These correlations show that overnights during infancy
and toddlerhood have similar associations with these aspects of long-term parent-child
relationships. Regarding the father-child relationship, more overnights during infancy, as well as
during toddlerhood, were associated with better father-child relationships in young adulthood on
all scales, with one exception; i.e., overnights during infancy were positively but not
significantly (r = .233) associated with ratings on the overall relationship scale.
Regarding the mother-child relationship, overnights during infancy were positively but
not significantly associated with better mother-child relationships, with two exceptions; i.e., the
association with mother-child interaction was significant (r = 284), and the association with
maternal blame was in the direction of more blame (r = .060). Overnights during toddlerhood
were significantly associated with better mother-child relationships on all scales, with one
exception; i.e., the association with maternal blame was non-significant and in the direction of
more blame (r = .126). The highest level of maternal blame, at 6 to 7 overnights during
toddlerhood (M = 1.11), indicates that on average students did not blame mothers for problems in
the family because the response option “1” meant “disagree” with the scale item assigning
blame. The highest maternal blame rating by any individual student who had 6 to 7 overnights
during toddlerhood was “2,” which meant “neutral.”
In order to provide assurance that these five scales tapped into the same common factor
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 27
of security in father-child relationships and mother-child relationships, as well as to simplify
substantive analyses, a principal-axis factor analysis with a promax rotation was conducted on
the parent-child relationship measures. A two-factor solution (Table 2) accounted for over 67.9%
of the variance with eigenvalues of 4.21 and 3.16, and the factors clearly represented the
relationship with father and the relationship with mother. Students’ scores on each factor
(regression method) were saved, and these factor scores were used in the substantive analyses.
Factor scores are calculated by standardizing each input scale, which sets the means for both the
mother and father factors at 0 and the standard deviations at 1.
Parenting time and parent-child relationships. Table 3 shows the correlations, means, and
standard deviations of the measures used in substantive analyses. (Questions about parent
education and disagreements about overnights were inadvertently omitted from approximately 30
surveys.) Parents with less conflict, more education, or more agreement about overnights did not
provide more overnights either when children were toddlers (2 years old) or when they were
infants (under 1 year old). More overnights at the father’s home in infancy and toddlerhood, and
more parenting time with fathers in childhood and adolescence were all related to better father-
child relationship factor scores in young adulthood. More overnights in toddlerhood were related
to better mother-child relationships in young adulthood. Students who had more overnights when
they were infants also tended to have more overnights when they were toddlers (r = .77).
Overnights at both ages correlated highly (rs > .66) with the proportion of yearly parenting time
in childhood and adolescence. Daytime parenting time during toddlerhood was unrelated to
overnights during infancy or toddlerhood, but was positively correlated (rs > .25) with the
proportion of yearly parenting time in childhood and adolescence. Females reported poorer
relationships with fathers. More parent disagreement about overnights was associated with more
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 28
parent conflict and with younger ages at separation.
We used a multiple regression to test whether overnight parenting time when children
were 2 years old predicted later relationships with fathers during young adulthood while
controlling for children’s sex, daytime parenting time with fathers at age 2, and yearly percentage
of parenting time with fathers during childhood and adolescence. The dependent variable was the
father-child relationship factor scores. We also controlled for parent education, parent conflict,
disagreement about overnights, and age at separation, because Table those correlations with
father-child relationship scores, while non-significant, were at the level of approximately r = .15.
Table 4 shows that more overnights at age 2 as well as more yearly parenting time at ages 10 to
15 each made independent contributions to better father-child relationships in young adulthood,
beyond what is explained by the other control variables.
Table 5 shows the results for mother-child relationships. We also controlled for children’s
sex, daytime parenting time with fathers at age 2, and yearly percentage of parenting time with
fathers during childhood and adolescence. We did not control for parent education, parent
conflict, disagreement about overnights, and age at separation because those correlations with
mother-child relationship scores were only r = .10 or lower. Results showed that more overnights
at age 2 as well as more daytime parenting time with fathers at age 2 each made independent
contributions (although the effect for daytimes was marginally significant, p=.074) to better
mother-child relationships, beyond what is explained by children’s sex and yearly parenting time
during childhood and adolescence.
Figure 4 shows the significant relations revealed in the above analyses between
overnights with father at age 2 and the quality of each parent-child relationship in young
adulthood. There is a linear, “dose-response” relation between more overnights and higher
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 29
quality father-child relationships; i.e., each additional overnight is matched by an increase in
father-child relationship quality. The relation for mothers is a “threshold” pattern, in which
absence of overnights is associated with worsened mother-child relationships, and presence of
any overnights, regardless of the number, is associated with better mother-child relationships.
The threshold pattern for mothers is likely due to ceiling effects in the raw scores on the five
mother-child relationship scales (Table 1). Figure 4 should not be misread as indicating that
relationships with fathers surpassed mothers at two overnights. The mean of the factor scores on
each relationship factor is set to zero. Figure 4 reveals that the highest-level father-child
relationships were achieved at equal overnights (6 to 7 overnights in a 2-week period), at which
point mother-child relationships remained at their highest level. The overall raw means
(converted to percentages) across the five parent-child relationship scales at 6 to 7 overnights are
87% for mother-child relationships, and 83% for father-child relationships. Thus, only in the case
of essentially equal overnights at age 2 did children grow up to have essentially equally strong,
and optimal, relationships with both of their parents.
We next tested whether the positive associations between overnights at age 2 and parent-
child relationships differed depending on whether parents (a) were in high conflict, (b) had
substantial disagreements about overnights, (c) were more educated, or (d) separated when
children were under 1 year old, 1 year old, or 2 years old. We tested for moderation by each of
these four variables separately, by adding the interaction between that variable and overnights at
age 2 to the father-child relationship and mother-child relationship regressions reported above.
We created the interaction terms after centering the variables to reduce multicollinearity (Aiken
& West, 1991). None of the interaction terms approached significance for father-child
relationship or mother-child relationships (05 < ts < 1.04; .958 > ps > .300). Figures 5 and 6
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 30
illustrate the absence of moderation by conflict and disagreement. (Figures for education and age
at separation are similar and available upon request.) Figure 5A shows that the positive linear
relation between number of overnights at age 2 and father-child relationships is clearly preserved
for parents with low as well as for those with high levels of parent conflict, and Figure 6A shows
that it is also preserved for parents who agreed as well as for those who disagreed about
overnights. It is evident that when there was high conflict or disagreement, more overnights were
required for father-child relationships to attain the same level as when there was low conflict or
agreement. (The same applies for education and age at separation: Less education and earlier
separation required more overnights at age 2 to attain the same level of father-child relationships
as when there was more education and later separation.) The threshold pattern for mother-child
relationships is likewise clearly preserved for parents with low as well as for those with high
levels of parent conflict (Figure 5B), and for parents who agreed as well as for those who
disagreed about overnights (Figure 6B).
Finally, we tested whether overnights during infancy (under 1 year old) showed the same
relation to parent-child relationships as overnights during toddlerhood (2 years old). We divided
children into two groups based on their age at parents’ separation; i.e., those whose parents were
separated during infancy, and those whose parents separated when they were either 1 or 2 years
old. For the infancy group we used the number of overnights they had during infancy. For the 1-
and 2-year-old group, we used the number of overnights they had at age 2. We tested whether
overnights during infancy showed the same relation to parent-child relationships as overnights
during toddlerhood by adding the main effect of this new age at separation variable and the
interaction between that variable and the number of overnights at each age to the father-child
relationship and mother-child relationship regressions reported above. The interaction was not
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 31
significant for father-child relationships (t = .60, p = .549), or for mother-child relationships (t = .
31, p = .756). Figure 7 illustrates the absence of moderation by infant- versus toddler-
overnights. (The “3 to 5” and “6 to 7” categories of overnights are collapsed in Figure 7 because
of the smaller Ns for parents who separated when children were under 1 year old.) Figure 7A
shows that the positive linear relation between overnights and father-child relationships is clearly
preserved for infant- and toddler-overnights, and Figure 7B shows that the threshold pattern for
mother-child relationships is likewise clearly preserved for infant- and toddler-overnights.
The current study showed that more overnight parenting time with fathers, up to and
including equal numbers of overnights with both parents, when children were toddlers (2 years
of age), as well as when they were infants (under 1 year of age), were associated with more
secure relationships with each of their parents during the challenges and uncertainties of
emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2004). Those young adults who had more overnights felt closer to
their parents; were more likely to remember their parents as having been warm and responsive
during their childhood and as having enjoyed spending time together; blamed their parents less
for family problems; and now were more certain that they were important and mattered to their
Overnights at age 2 made an independent contribution to better parent-child relationships
over and above the subsequent parenting time in childhood and adolescence. This means that
“lost” overnight parenting time at age 2 was not made up by parenting time later. Overnights at
age 2 also made an independent contribution to better parent-child relationships over and above
any other benefits conferred by more parent education, less parent conflict up to five years post-
separation, more parent agreement about overnights, later parent separations (in the child’s third
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 32
rather than first or second year), or child sex. Importantly, the same strength and patterns of
associations between overnights at age 2 and parent-child relationships occurred regardless of
conflict, disagreement about overnights, college education, and age at separation. This means
that it is not true that overnights “worked” only for parents who had less conflict, or more
agreement about overnights, or were more educated. There were no benefits to the father-child
relationship associated with daytime visits. This means that more daytime visits did not make up
for fewer overnights. Finally there was a marginally significant association between more
daytime visits when children were toddlers and better mother-child relationships.
The question arises why the current study showed benefits of overnights for mothers and
fathers during infancy and toddlerhood while each of the previous studies included mostly
ambiguous, null, or contradictory findings. The only two indications of harm to the mother-child
relationship were ambiguous because they were obtained with measures that lack demonstrated
validity (i.e., “visual monitoring” in McIntosh et al., 2010; 2013, and mother-ratings of
attachment behaviors in Tornello et al., 2013). In the current study, three of the five parent-child
relationship measures have previously demonstrated validity (Laumann-Billings & Emery, 2000;
Parker, 1989; Schenck et al., 2009; Suh et al., 2016); the validity of the other two for both
parents is established by their correlations with the first three, as revealed by the factor analysis
An explanation for some of the null and contradictory findings appears to be that the
previous studies assessed short-term rather than long-term associations with overnights. Solomon
and George (1999) found no association between attachment and overnights but they assessed
both contemporaneously, which might not allow time for overnight parenting time to contribute
to a history of responsive parenting and more secure attachments. The assessments of child
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 33
behaviors (i.e., social problems, irritability, wheezing, persistence, problem behaviors, and
positive behaviors) produced mostly contradictory findings, suggesting that the short-term
assessments of those variables might have picked up temporary and inconsistent child behavioral
adjustment difficulties in response to overnights.
The findings disconfirm the hypothesis (George, et al.., 2011; Main, et al., 2011; Sroufe
& McIntosh, 2011) that more overnights away from mothers should harm the mother-child
relationship. The current findings provided a strong disconfirmation, not only because benefits
accrued to the mother-child relationship, but also because they were associated with overnights
specifically during infancy. Overnights during infancy should have been the most harmful
because infants lack the language and cognitive skills to understand time, recall the past, and
anticipate future events. The finding that overnights during infancy were also associated with the
quality of father-child relationships is contrary to the monotropy hypothesis for the following
reason: In our sample mothers were most often the primary caregivers, and according to
monotropy, infants should not have been developing simultaneous attachment relationships with
fathers; however, the associations of overnights during infancy with the quality of both parent-
child relationships suggests that infants were developing attachment relationships with both
parents This is consistent with other theoretical (e.g., Waters & McIntosh, 2011) and empirical
(e.g., Main & Weston, 1983; Kochcanska & Kim, 2013) evidence that infants form attachment
relationships with mothers and fathers simultaneously.
There are developmentally plausible processes by which overnights could lead to long-
term benefits. Overnights allow the father to learn about the child by assuming the role of
caregiver. In support of this, a review of 14 papers describing the effectiveness of 12
interventions for fathers of infants and toddlers (Magill-Evans, Harrison, Rempel, & Slater,
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 34
2006) revealed that active participation with or observation of his child enhanced the father’s
interactions with and positive perceptions of the child. Brazelton (e.g., Worobey & Brazelton,
1986) has long argued, consistent with modern transactional models of development (Sameroff,
2010), that how well parents learn about the child in the early years can alter the trajectory of
their future relationships because it provides the foundation for coping with changes in the years
to come. In support of this, Boyce et al. (2006) found that high father involvement during
infancy helped protect children from the development of mental health problems at age nine.
Regarding benefits to the mother-child relationship, overnights provide respite from caring for an
infant alone, which could help the mother maintain a higher level of responsive parenting.
Finally, the finding that the association between overnights and parent-child relationships
was the same for parents with low versus high conflict replicates Fabricius and Luecken’s (2007)
findings for father-child relationships when parents separated before children were 16 years old.
Both studies suggest that more parenting time is needed to overcome the harmful effects of
parent conflict on father-child relationships, as illustrated in Figure 5A (e.g., in low-conflict
families a father-child relationship score of .80 was achieved at “3 to 5” overnights, but in high
conflict families it took “6 to 7” overnights to achieve that score). The same principle applies to
parent disagreement about overnights (Figure 6A), as well as to parent education and age at
separation (Figures available upon request). We did not find statistically significant evidence of
stronger negative associations between parent conflict and father-child relationships (r = -.143, p
= .13) than mother-child relationships (r = .103, p = .28), and so did not replicate the so-called
“father vulnerability” effect (Cummings, Goeke-Morey, & Raymond, 2004). However, the
conflict measured here occurred many years before we assessed relationships, and had largely
dissipated by five years after the parents’ separation
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 35
Implications for policy and practice.
McIntosh, Smyth, and Kelaher (2015) rightly state, “The question at the heart of the
debate is whether adequate evidence of the reverse exists: that spending regular and frequent
overnights with both parents is beneficial to early development, and should occur at any age” (p.
111, emphasis in original). The current study provides that evidence by revealing long-term
benefits to both parent-child relationships.
We used the approach recommended by Fabricius et al. (2010) of distinguishing parents
who agreed about overnight parenting time and thus presumably volunteered for it, from parents
who disagreed and had an arrangement imposed unwillingly upon one of them. This approach is
not equivalent to a randomized experiment because courts would have presumably exercised
some discretion in deciding the number of overnights for different families. However, that
actually makes this approach more realistically informative because under any policy of
rebuttable presumption for frequent overnights courts would always retain discretion. Thus, this
approach can yield the information needed to inform decision makers about the wisdom of
imposing overnight parenting time when the parents disagree.
When parents disagreed, those who had more overnights imposed upon them, up to and
including equal overnights, had better parent-child relationships (Figure 6). Overall they had
slightly but non-significantly more overnights at age 2 than parents who agreed (Table 3), and in
both groups 14% of children had equal overnights with each parent at age 2. These findings
provide evidential support for policies to encourage frequent overnight parenting time for infants
and toddlers, even when one parent disagrees. Two other findings strengthen that support: First,
the overall “dose response” relation that we observed for father-child relationships (Figure 4) is
often indicative of causal processes. Second, the plausible explanatory mechanisms discussed
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 36
above can account for how overnight parenting time could work to improve both long-term
parent-child relationships. The consensus (Emery et al., 2016; Pruett & DiFonzo, 2014) that the
four previous studies fail to provide sufficient evidence of harm due to overnights further
strengthens the support for policies to encourage frequent overnights. The findings do not
support policies that would urge parents and courts to generally be cautious about frequent
overnights, or to begin with few overnights and gradually “step up” to frequent overnights, when
there are no extenuating circumstances such as parent mental illness, previous absence from the
child’s life, etc. The findings also indicate that normal parent conflict, disagreements about
overnights, and children under 1 year of age are not circumstances that should require caution;
on the contrary, more overnight parenting time appears to be needed in those cases.
The current findings provide guidance for professional practice even in the absence of
new policies to encourage frequent overnight parenting time for infants and toddlers. The
findings showed that the family characteristics that many divorce professionals and courts would
assume to contraindicate overnights (i.e., high conflict, disagreement about overnights, child
under 1 year old) were in fact not contraindicative (Figures 5, 6, and 7). Thus, even when parents
present with high conflict, intractable disagreement about overnights, and a child under 1 year
old, both parent-child relationships are likely to benefit in the long term from overnight parenting
time up to and including equally-shared overnights at both parents’ homes. Other factors, such as
parents’ mental health, could take precedence and override such orders or recommendations. If
not, then strategies are available for mitigating parent conflict and educating parents to help
ensure that they successfully adapt to overnight parenting time. To illustrate, one mother in our
sample spontaneously added a narrative to her survey in which she described the approach and
strategies used by the court and her divorce professional. Her survey indicated that she and the
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 37
child’s father had the highest level of conflict before and during the separation; that they had
disagreed because the father wanted more overnights; and that the court nevertheless had
imposed four overnights per 2-week period starting when the child was under 1 year old. She
“Parents never talked again after court decision. Judge made sure that father picked up
children from school and returned children to school. It worked and children grew up and
did well. Children developed good relationships with both parents. Mother's counselor
gave great advice: Stay out of children's relationship with father. They must figure it out.
Mother was told that if she did well, her children would do well. Children never knew
any different and dealt with difficult issues better than their peers” (Emphasis in original).
The current data are silent about what happened in the intervening years. Thus we do not
know whether more overnight separations from the mother produced any stress in the mother-
child relationship in the younger years, but if it did it did not carry over into the young adult
years. We also have no information about any processes by which overnight parenting time
might have led to more responsive paternal and maternal parenting, and to more secure
relationships, and thus we are unable to test hypotheses about those processes. Those tests await
The relationship variables were reported by students, and the parenting time and control
variables were reported by parents, which is a strength of the study design because the measures
are independent and thus the associations between parenting time and relationships cannot be
attributed to any implicit theory or bias on the part of the respondents.. However, the parents’
reports of parenting time, parent conflict, and disagreements about overnights were retrospective,
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 38
raising the possibility of biased recall. This appears to be of minimal concern because the
correlations between mothers’ and fathers’ independent reports were all significant, almost all are
considered large (r ≥ .50; Cohen, 1988), and many were quite substantial (r > .80). In addition,
the parents’ reports of parenting time in childhood and adolescence correlated highly with
students’ reports, replicating Fabricius and Luecken, (2007). Parenting time arrangements are
likely to be recalled well because they are salient features of parents’ daily lives, the
arrangements are ordered by the court, they are the basis for calculating child support awards,
and they typically cannot be altered without demonstrating material change in circumstances. In
sum, only the parents’, and not the students’, reports were retrospective, and there is evidence
that parents’ reports were not affected by self-serving or recall biases to any practical degree.
Concerns (e.g., Garfinkel, McLanahan, & Wallerstein, 2004) that college students might
give an overly optimistic picture of divorce are generally mitigated by the fact that the
associations between parenting time and child adjustment outcomes do not differ for college and
community samples (Bauserman, 2002; Laumann-Billinga & Emery, 2000). Furthermore, the
ability of the current study to test the hypothesis of harm stemming from frequent overnight
separations is substantially immune to threats to sample representativeness because that
hypothesis is based on the biology of the infant’s response to separation stress.
Developmental science and family policy
Translating developmental findings and theory into family policy is a serious endeavor
that requires careful consideration not only of data, but also of theoretical assumptions and
social, legal, and historical contexts. We briefly comment below on how the policy
recommendations by some attachment researchers in the 2011 special issue on attachment and
overnights in Family Court Review (George, et al.., 2011; Main, et al., 2011; Sroufe & McIntosh,
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 39
2011) fare in each of these respects.
Theoretical assumptions. While the basic tenets of modern attachment theory are well-
supported, the specific assumption of monotropy -- that the young child has only one primary
attachment figure -- is unwarranted. It persists in some quarters because of the absence of a good
understanding of the simultaneous development of multiple attachments. The reason we lack
such understanding is that we have few studies of children’s attachment to fathers. Main et al.
(2011, p. 457) rightly advise that “attachment researchers...should increase their understanding of
the father’s role in child development and security.”
Social context. Policy recommendations apply to specific social contexts. That requires
considering factors that might alter developmental processes and lead to unintended
consequences. In the present case, a critical factor is that the parents live in different households.
In intact households a “primary” parent might do most of the childcare but the “secondary”
parent remains available for an attachment relation to develop. In two households, primary
caretaking by one parent necessitates proportionate absence of the other. The attachment
researchers did not consider how attempting to maintain “primary” and “secondary” roles in the
context of separated parents by allotting only a few brief daytime visits per week with fathers
might alter attachment processes.
Legal context. Policy is implemented by existing legal institutions. Recommendations
based on a naïve understanding of those realities can also have unintended consequences. The
attachment researchers recommend that overnights with the father be gradually extended on a
schedule that is responsive to each individual child’s developing needs and competencies, and
monitored by valid, on-going, assessments of parent-child attachment relationships. These
envisioned services by courts and mental health professionals to craft, re-evaluate, and enforce
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 40
evolving parenting plans are far-removed from reality. Perhaps only 5% of parents have their
parenting plans decided by a judge (Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992). Even so, family courts are
overburdened and unequipped to routinely re-visit parenting plans. Mental health professionals
are unequipped to offer state-of-the-art attachment assessments (Braver, 2014; George, Isaacs, &
Marvin, 2011) even if most parents could afford them. In the current study, there was no overall
increase in parenting time with fathers after age 3 despite the fact that many fathers initially
wanted more parenting time. Thus, a policy of infrequent overnights for infants and toddlers is
unlikely to be accompanied by widespread evolving “craft” parenting plans, and consequently is
likely to set in stone less parenting time with fathers for those children than their peers whose
parents divorce later.
Historical context. Recommendations for family policy must consider historically-
evolving social norms of parenting, because the legitimacy and effectiveness of custody policy
derive from congruence with social norms of parenting (Fabricius et al., 2010; Maldonado,
2005). A policy of postponing overnights would conflict with historically developing social
norms. In the 1980s one third of children under 2 spent overnights with their separated and
divorced fathers (Maccoby, Depner, & Mnookin, 1988; Seltzer, 1991). The current data reveal
that in the mid-1990s over half of parents of future college students provided overnights when
the child was 1, almost two-thirds did so when the child was 2, and they increased rather than
decreased overnights during the child’s first three years suggesting that they found them
workable. This historical trend toward overnight parenting time for infants and toddlers is
reflected in the consensus of 110 child and family researchers, practitioners, and legal scholars
(Warshak, 2014), and is part of a larger evolving social norm toward shared parenting time,
which is documented in public opinion research (Braver et al., 2011; Fabricius et al., 2012;
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 41
Vortuba, Ellman, Braver, & Fabricius, 2014). Custody policy that conflicts with social norms of
parenting will not have public support, and if imposed on unwilling parents will likely have
unintended negative consequences. An argument could be made for a contrary policy if it was
backed by compelling evidence, but that is not the case here.
A systems perspective needs to be applied to translating developmental findings and
theory into family policy. This has not happened in the current policy debate about overnight
parenting time for infants and toddlers. Recommendations by developmental scientists that are
based on unwarranted theoretical assumptions, that overlook effects of social context in which
policy is implemented, that make naïve assumptions about legal realities, and that ignore
historically-evolving social norms of parenting are not only unwise, but irresponsible.
The practitioners (McIntosh, Pruett & Kelly, 2014) who initially drew the policy
implications from the AFCC think tank on shared parenting stated, “We resist the urge to
prescribe fixed formulas about numbers of overnights or age of commencement” (p. 256). Since
then, however, policies that are being drafted in some state courts appear to be drifting instead
towards Sroufe’s (Sroufe & McIntosh, 2011) formula that “prior to age 18 months, overnights
away from the primary carer (sic) should be quite rare” (p. 472). For example, McIntosh, Pruett,
and Kelly (2015) write, in a document entitled “Charting Overnight Decisions for Infants and
Toddlers (CODIT)” on the Oregon state court webpage, “Even when all parenting conditions are
met, high numbers of overnights (more than weekly) are not generally indicated for young
infants 0-18 months subject to family law disputes.” Some of the drift is due to overstatement of
the previous findings. For example, Adam, Gray, Lysne, & Stahl (2016) misrepresent the
Australian findings on the AFCC webpage when they state that “multiple overnights with a non-
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 42
primary parent are disruptive to the long-term development of very young children” (p. 15). In
addition, it is difficult to discount the role that Sroufe and the other attachment researchers’
reputations likely play in this drift toward a fixed formula eschewing frequent overnight
parenting time for infants and toddlers. A prescription against frequent overnights for children
under 18 months of age is of course contradicted by the current findings, and policy makers
should note that Sroufe has recently acknowledged this fact: “Your results would of course lead
me to temper my conclusions” (personal communication, September 21, 2016).
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 43
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Means and Standard Deviations for Parent-Child Relationship Scales
and Correlations with the Number of Overnights at the Father’s Home
Correlations with Overnights
Scales Range Mean SD
Under 1 Year
(N = 52)
2 Years Old
(N = 116)
Father Caring 0 – 3 1.59 .87 .295* .457***
Mother Caring 2.43 .58 .186 .202*
Father – Child Interaction 0 – 3 1.73 .97 .344* .440**
Mother – Child Interaction 2.37 .66 .284* .208*
Mattering to Father 0 – 4 2.63 1.31 .419** .476***
Mattering to Mother 3.74 .47 .192 .176†
Paternal Blame 0 – 4 1.84 1.07 -.389** -.357***
Maternal Blame .64 .76 .060 .126
Overall Relationship with Father 0 – 6 3.33 1.94 .233 .446***
Overall Relationship with Mother 5.01 1.03 .088 .207*
† p = .058 * p < .05 ** p < .01 *** p < .001
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 53
Factor Loadings of the Parent-Child Relationship Scales on the Two Factors
Scales Relationship with Father Relationship with Mother
Father Caring .894 .215
Mother Caring .111 .926
Father – Child Interaction .906 .126
Mother – child Interaction .168 .841
Mattering to Father .912 .208
Mattering to Mother .130 .670
Paternal Blame -.656 .006
Maternal Blame .025 -.625
Overall Relationship with Father .891 .079
Overall Relationship with Mother .168 .815
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 54
Correlations among Measures, Means, and Standard Deviations
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OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 55
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 56
Regression of Overnights When Children Were 2 Years Old and Control Variables
on Father-Child Relationships
Daytimes when 2 years old .13 1.16 .250
PT 5 to 10 years -.37 -1.33 .188
PT 10 to 15 years .55 2.67 .010
Sex -.15 -1.42 .162
Parent Education .18 1.81 .076
Parent Conflict -.06 -.55 .581
Parent Disagreement -.17 -1.51 .136
Age at Separation -.09 -.92 .359
Overnights at Age 2 .38 2.05 .045
Dependent variable is father-child relationship factor scores. Standardized reported.
Sex 1 = male, 2 = female; PT 5-10 years = yearly proportion of parenting time at father’s home
from age 5 to 10; PT 10-15 years = yearly proportion of parenting time from age 10 to 15; Parent
disagreement = parental disagreement on the number of overnights at father’s home 0 = agree, 1
= disagree; Parent education 0 = without Bachelor’s degree, 1 = with Bachelor’s degree; Age at
separation 0 = under 1 year;1 = 1 year old; 2 = 2 years old.
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 57
Regression of Overnights When Children Were 2 Years Old and Control Variables on Mother-
Daytimes when 2 years old .18 1.81 .074
PT 5 to 10 years -.21 -.91 .365
PT 10 to 15 years -.08 -.43 .667
Sex -.16 -1.65 .102
Overnights at Age 2 .42 2.73 .007
Dependent variable is mother-child relationship factor scores. Standardized reported.
PT 5-10 years = yearly proportion of parenting time at father’s home from age 5 to 10; PT 10-15
years = yearly proportion of parenting time from age 10 to 15.
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 58
Four Potential Patterns of Association between Three Levels of Overnights (None, Moderate,
High) and Harm to Child
; , <
1a. Linear Eects Hypothesis: The more overnights the more harm
; , <
1b. Threshold at High: More harm at high level
; , <
1c. Threshold at Moderate: More harm at moderate and high levels
; , <
1d. U-Shaped: No clear interpretation
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 59
Proportion of Children at Each Age in Each Combination
of Daytime and Overnight Parenting Time at the Father’s Home in a Typical 2-week Period
Proportion of Children
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 60
Proportion of Children
Children at Each Age with Different Numbers of Overnights
at the Father’s Home in a Typical 2-Week Period
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 61
The Relation between Overnights at the Father’s Home when Children Were 2 Years Old and the
Quality of Parent-Child Relationships when Children Were Young Adults
Relationship Factor Scores
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 62
The Relation between Overnights at the Father’s Home when Children Were 2 Years Old
and the Quality of Parent-Child Relationships when Children Were Young Adults
for Parents with Low or High Parent Conflict
Relationship Factor Scores
Relationship Factor Scores
OVERNIGHT PARENTING TIME FOR INFANTS 63
The Relation between Overnights at the Father’s Home when Children Were 2 Years Old
and the Quality of Parent-Child Relationships when Children Were Young Adults
for Parents Who Agreed or Disagreed about the Number of Overnights
Relationship Factor Scores
Relationship Factor Scores
The Relation between Overnights at the Father’s Home and the Quality of Parent-Child Relationships when Children Were Young
Adults for Children for Whom the Overnights Occurred during Infancy or during Toddlerhood
Relationship Factor Scores
Relationship Factor Scores