Co-Parenting Infants & Very Young Children
This article was written by Teresa Virani, Co-Founder of coparently – a scheduling and communication tool for divorced and separated parents to organize & manage shared parenting.
Divorce is hard on everyone, and even though infants and young children aren’t able to fully grasp the changes that are happening around them, they still feel the impact. Infants and toddlers thrive when life is calm, stable and predictable but unfortunately divorce and separation are usually anything but this. Studies demonstrate that co-parenting has huge benefits to children as it shows them that both parents love them and are putting them first. This is particularly true for infants and very young children. It truly is an alternative dispute resolution.
Babies and toddlers are completely dependent on their parents and caregivers. They are not able to grasp complex events, comprehend their feelings or anticipate future conditions.
How you and your co-parent act with each other will directly affect how your child sees the world. Young children are frightened by ongoing conflict and arguing and it makes them feel unsafe and insecure. This has significant implications for your child’s psychological and emotional well-being. When parents are dealing with the stress of divorce, they are often so upset they aren’t able to tend to their child’s emotional needs.
When infants are distressed, they have problems with eating and sleeping and can become clingy, challenging and anxious. It might be harder to soothe your baby and they may show a lack of interest in the world around them.
Toddlers will also often feel unsafe as their family changes. You may notice them regressing, becoming afraid of the dark and of being on their own. It’s also common for toddlers to demonstrate aggressive behavior and to have temper tantrums. Why do infants and toddlers react in this way? Children of divorce often suffer from separation anxiety. Infants and young children can be scared that as one parent left, the other can leave too.
There are ways that you can help your young child cope with the transition and make them feel more secure and safe.
Here are some suggested strategies that you can use to help your child make sense of their new world:
- Set up a consistent routine
A reliable and predictable routine is very reassuring for infants and young children and gives them a sense of stability. As much as you can, maintain a stable routine for young children. Work with your co-parent to establish and maintain agreed mealtimes, naptimes, bedtime and rituals (such as bedtime stories and snuggles, massage after bath time, etc.). This will really help your young children feel safe and secure in both houses and with both parents. Make sure that you’re not just going through the motions and that these experiences are nurturing and authentic.
- Communication is critical
Communication between divorced and separated parents can be very problematic with babies and toddlers. Parents will need to share a lot more detailed information for transitions than they do for older children. As infants and very young children are not yet able to speak for themselves, communication between parents is crucial. Here are some examples of the things you will need to communicate about during the early years:
- Sleep – when did they nap? How long did they sleep for? What time was bedtime the night before? What time did they wake? These minute details will not matter as your children grow but you will need to share this information on transition days while they are really young so they are able to maintain healthy sleep habits.
- Eating – what time were mealtimes? How well did they eat? When are you introducing new foods? Are there any food allergies that have developed? Again all very important information to share between parents.
- Medications – did you need to give your child any medicine? Have they had a fever? Are they teething or is it likely an illness? What time did you administer the medicine and will they need a repeat dose at the appropriate time?
- Developmental milestones – as parents you will need to agree when is the right age for your child to wean from breastfeeding, start eating solid foods, transition from the crib to a bed or when they should start potty training. These are all important decisions and you need to make them together.
It’s also important to give your co-parent a heads up when your child has had a tumble or has a bruise. These minor injuries are common when toddlers first start walking.
coparently’s communicator tool is a great place to share this information and helps parents keep track of the daily routines of young children transitioning between two households. You can also use the shared directory for all the important contact information you both need (pediatrician, daycare, work numbers, cell numbers, extended family).
- Give children simple, honest and age-appropriate explanations
When you’re telling young children about your divorce they will need simple, concrete explanations. It’s better if you can tell them together and make sure they know that you both still love them very much. Give them basic information – which parent will be moving out, where the child will live, and how often they will be seeing the other parent. Answer any questions honestly but make sure you keep it age-appropriate. Give short answers and then see if this leads to more questions. Don’t overcomplicate things and don’t play the blame game. You will probably have to have a number of conversations over a period of time as your child starts to process this information.
- Encourage your child’s relationship with the other parent
Children thrive when they have an ongoing close and stable relationship with two loving parents in their life. However you feel about the other parent, you need to move past your own emotions and put your children first. It’s not about the two of you anymore; it’s about making choices that are in the best interests of your child.
For infants and young children to maintain a strong bond with both parents, they will need to spend time with both of you regularly. Make sure you encourage open access to the other parent. Also, little kids like to share their adventures with you so remember to show an interest in the time they spent with the other parent. Ask questions about what fun things they did while they were away. But be careful not to use it as an opportunity to interrogate the child or as a way to check up on the other parent’s way of doing things.
- Don’t fight in front of your children
This is really important for kids of all ages. And although really young children don’t understand much of what’s going on, they will feel anxious or even to blame if you argue in front of them. Make an agreement with your co-parent to speak in a normal tone-of-voice when you are disagreeing about something. If it’s something you are not able to keep your cool about or resolve calmly, then agree to discuss it when your child is not present or when they are asleep.
Moving between households is hard for very young children. Each transition is a major change for them. When your child is leaving to go to the other parent’s house, stay positive and make them feel secure– they will be watching you for your reaction. Make sure you pack important stuffies and belongings to avoid any unnecessary upset at bedtime. On transition day, drop your child off to the other parent so they feel like they are not being taken away from you.
When your child comes home, they will need some time to adjust. When they first arrive home, spend some time with them reading a book or doing a quiet activity. You can also set up a special routine for the day they come home so that it is something predictable they can look forward to and establishes a positive expectation for transition day.
Co-parenting can seem overwhelming at times, especially when you have to be apart from your baby or toddler. But keep in mind; you are giving your child the security of growing up knowing that they have two loving parents who want to protect their happiness above everything else.