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The Breastfeeding Relationship and Visitation Plans

By Elizabeth N. Baldwin, JD and Kenneth A. Friedman, JD
Miami, Florida, USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 13 No. 1, January-February 1996, pp. 4-7

Breastfeeding is an important parenting and health choice for mothers and babies. But when parents separate or divorce, conflicts may arise between the mother's desire to continue breastfeeding and the father's plans for visitation. However, breastfeeding can be protected in family law cases without sacrificing the father's bond with his children. Babies need the love of both their parents, and it should be unnecessary for the courts to pick one relationship over the other, when both are so important.

Why Breastfeeding Should Be Encouraged in Family Law Cases

Many people may wonder why encouraging breastfeeding in family law cases is so important. To answer this question, one must first ask why breastfeeding is important at all. Currently, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, and UNICEF recommend that babies be breastfed for at least one year, and preferably until age two or beyond. As James T. Grant, the former Executive Director of UNICEF, wrote in the July/August 1994 issue of the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative Newsletter:

"Study after study now shows, for example, that babies who are not breastfed have higher rates of death, meningitis, childhood leukemia and other cancers, diabetes, respiratory illnesses, bacterial and viral infections, diarrhoeal diseases, otitis media, allergies, obesity, and developmental delays. Women who do not breastfeed demonstrate a higher risk for breast and ovarian cancers."

Breastfeeding is no longer considered to be just a lifestyle choice, but a health choice for mother and baby. More and more health benefits to the mother and baby are being discovered every day. For instance, a recent study indicates that if all mothers breastfed their children for two years, breast cancer could decline in the US by 25%!

Breastfed children are half as likely to have any illness during the first year of life. At one time it was believed that artificial baby milk products (formula) were basically equivalent to human milk. The research now clearly indicates otherwise. Human milk is a living substance that contains antibodies and immunities along with perfect nutrition. And the longer a mother breastfeeds, the more protection she provides for herself and her baby.

The breastfeeding relationship is not only the healthy choice for mother and baby, it also promotes a close, loving attachment between the mother and baby. The mother's bond is born of biology. After spending nine months inside the mother's body, the baby continues to depend on mother for nourishment and protection after birth. It is not until the second six months of life that the baby even recognizes that he is a separate person from the mother. The more responsive a mother is, the more secure the attachment. Many experts have said that having a close relationship with a primary attachment figure is critical to a baby's health and well-being. Although there are some experts who argue that attachment needs are not all that crucial and that children are resilient and can bounce back from having no attachment figure or having a close bond disrupted, they all agree that ideally, every child should have this close primary attachment. Other experts believe that when this bond is disturbed or not allowed to form, serious psychological disturbances in a child's development may result. In addition, the research indicates that the children who do better later on in life are the ones who had secure attachments in the early years, and a significant factor in developing secure attachments is responsive parenting. Preserving loving attachments is always best.

Breastfeeding promotes responsive parenting, thus encouraging secure attachments. In order to be successful, breastfeeding requires the mother to be responsive to the baby's hunger, sleeping, and crying signals. Babies self-regulate their feeding at the breast and breast milk is very different from formula. Mothers must be careful not to overfeed a baby formula; this is rarely a problem with breastfed babies. Most breastfeeding problems result from the mother following the clock or the book rather than the baby. When a child is lucky enough to be breastfed, the courts should take steps to protect that relationship, and encourage it. Breastfeeding is good for the baby, and it helps the mother know and respond to her baby.

Lengthy separations from the mother can seriously jeopardize the breastfeeding relationship when the baby is young. Given the potential health benefits to both mother and baby, continuance of this relationship should be a priority in family law cases. Once past infancy, many children continue to nurse, and the health benefits to the child and the mother are still significant. Studies show that the immunities and antibodies in breast milk are more concentrated as the child grows, providing the same protection as in infancy even though the child nurses less. As the child grows, the breastfeeding relationship can continue while the child spends longer times away from the mother. However, this does not mean that lengthy separations are not potentially damaging to the child. The securely attached child, breastfed or not, needs to work up to longer separations gradually. The court, as well as the parents, must look at the child's developmental needs, and what separations the child is accustomed to.

How a Bond with the Father Can be Encouraged without Interfering with the Breastfeeding Relationship

Some people assume that if the breastfeeding relationship needs to be protected, and the primary bond with the mother is not to be disrupted, then the father's attachment must be of secondary importance. This is not true. Every child has a right to a loving, responsive bond with both parents. The father's bond with the child is just as important as the mother's. However, it should rarely, if ever, be necessary to interfere with the child's attachment to the mother in order for the father's relationship to be promoted and encouraged. In the ideal relationship, the bond with the father and siblings flows out of the strong bond with the mother. But in any case, the child should not be torn from one parent, or forced to choose. The child should feel that both parents will protect and encourage the other parent's relationship with the child, and both will help the child to feel safe.

There are many advantages to the parents, and their child, if they encourage their child to have a strong, healthy relationship with both of them. No father wants to come for his child and have him clutching his mother's legs screaming not to make him go! Both mother and father will benefit if their child gleefully leaps into his arms, so excited to see him and go off with him! But how can this be accomplished?

It makes it much easier if the parents can avoid or end the war between them. Parents must realize that although they cannot or will not live together, they have brought a precious human being into this world who has rights and needs. A child needs to have a mother and a father, not one or the other. These two parents will be raising this child together not just until age 18, but for the rest of their lives. Do they really want legal battles where total strangers (lawyers, judges, guardians, etc.) make decisions about when and where they will raise their child? There are alternatives.

There is a trend in the United States and Canada today toward settlement of cases out of court. Courts are trying to get out of the custody business, and to encourage parents to work these matters out themselves. There are many ways to settle a case, rather than have a judge decide all the issues. The parents can talk together. Or meet with their lawyers. Mediation is another popular method of settlement. This is especially beneficial to the children involved, as it is not divorce or separation per se that negatively affects a child, but the anger between the parents. Some judges have awarded custody to fathers because of the mothers' anger. One Florida decision rotated custody of a one-year-old baby every two weeks. The reason was that the mother's anger was so great it was believed that this was the only way that the father could have a relationship with the baby.

If the parents can talk each week and work out visits that will be best for their child at that point, exercising flexibility will benefit their child. Young children need frequent and continuing contact with both parents, and a close bond with the father is promoted by frequent contact, seeing him every day if possible, rather than less frequent visits that involve lengthy separations from the mother. Arrangements should be flexible enough to take into account the child's needs. The father should always bring the baby back to the mother if he is crying for her. This will build trust and eventually allow the child to enjoy longer and more frequent visits with his father. If the child is brought back, the visitation time should be made up as soon as possible. The child should not be made to feel as if the father is pulling him from his mother, or vice versa. Help him feel that both parents respect his needs and care about how he feels.

Visitation Plans

Ideally, visitation plans are flexible. Parents talk to each other regularly, looking at their schedules and working together to help their child have frequent contact with both of them. Both parents would support the other's relationship with the child, and make the child feel safe and secure. The child would know that if he wanted to be with the other parent for any reason, then the parent he was with would help meet this need. Mother and father would help their child to look forward to overnight visitation, and try to follow their child's lead in that area. Many two-year-old children will ask to spend the night with Daddy, if the parents get along well and present the idea as something fun rather than a dreaded event.

But many parents are unable to work together in a fashion that avoids the need for fixed visitation plans. If the parents can't get along, they need a specific visitation plan that involves frequent, daily if possible, visits with the father, regardless of the age of the child. The initial visitations should be as long as the length of the separations the child is already accustomed to, and gradually work up to longer visits, changing every few months. An overnight visit would not be appropriate until the child is comfortable with two full days of visitation. Certainly, full weekend visitations should not begin until the child is accustomed to one overnight. Week-long visits should not occur until the child has mastered weekends, or even four-day visits. Mothers who do not want the father in the child's life at all have a very difficult and explosive situation to deal with and need excellent representation and evidence to support this request.

In forming visitation plans, there are several factors that should be looked at:

1. What separations has the child had from the mother? Look at how long the separations are, who the child is left with, and how often they take place. These make good guidelines for how long the father should have for visitation without disruption. For example, a six-month-old baby who has been separated from the mother for two hours at a time on several occasions but otherwise is glued to her could probably handle a two hour visit with his father several times a week. If a mother of a four-month-old leaves the baby on weekends with her mother, then there is no reason why the baby could not be with the father for weekends.

2. What style of parenting has the mother engaged in since birth? If the mother engages in an attachment style of parenting (nursing on demand, shared sleeping, etc.) then this relationship should be protected and encouraged. (If the mother keeps the baby in the crib at night in a separate room, and Grandmother takes care of the baby, giving a bottle during the night, the father can do this just as well.)

3. What involvement has the father had since birth? Look at the time the father spent with the children before separation, and since. The father needs to learn how to cope with this particular child, responding to needs and patterns that exist, i.e., naps, foods his child eats or is allergic to, bedtime routines. Working out these matters can be difficult for people who have decided that they cannot live together, but must work together now, maybe more closely than ever before, in order to do what is best for their child.

4. What visitation does the father want? Visitation plans usually can work up to what the father wants, if that is reasonable. If the father wants weekend visitation and is seeing his child for four hours on Saturdays, some time is going to be needed to work up to full weekends. A good place to start is with the visitation the father has now, or the length of separations the child has already experienced from the mother. Then one can look at what age the father's requested visitation would be acceptable. Many parents are surprised to learn that, in some jurisdictions that address visitation for preschool age children, the best they can hope for is overnight visits that begin at age two, weekends at age three, and week-long visits for the summer at age five or six. Once the starting and ending points are determined, visitation can be gradually increased every month or two, until the goal is reached. The more frequently the father can visit, the easier it will be to work up to lengthier visitations.

5. What visitation is feasible given the parties' individual situation? What work schedules must be worked around? How far apart do they live? If the parents live near to one another, there is no reason why visitation cannot occur frequently, if not every day. If they live far apart, or if they cannot get along well enough to have frequent contact, it will take much more work to determine what visitation is feasible.

It is important when devising a visitation plan, that the convenience to the parents does not take priority over what is best for the child. Too often the father is not willing to visit frequently, or the mother does not want to see the father that often. If the child's needs are to be a first priority, this attitude must be changed. And if someone other than the parents needs to fashion a visitation plan, that person should look realistically at what can be accomplished rather than what the parents may want to see happen. For instance, if the father works a few minutes away, could he see the child each day on his lunch break? For an hour or two after work?

Dependency needs do not last forever. In a few years children will be able to handle the "requested" visitation without disrupting their bond with either parent. Often there is intense pressure to speed things along for the convenience of the parents, rather than because that is what is best for the child. If the parents are not able to resolve these issues themselves, then someone must do it for them. It is important that the child's needs will be protected by everyone involved.


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

COPYRIGHT 1996, all rights reserved. This article may be printed out for personal use but may not be reproduced in any other manner nor for any other purpose without permission.

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