Looking after babies and toddlers is hard. Not only haven’t they learned to look after themselves the way other children and adults do, they are often unwilling or unable to do what they’re told. Taking care of them is hard work, as any mum or dad will tell you.

But what happens if their parents separate, and young children become part of a parenting order? Should babies, infants and toddlers stay regularly overnight with the non-primary carer (usually the father) who may not be accustomed to looking after them? Is “shared care” practical for dads when it comes to young children?

At present in Australia the Family Law courts put a great deal of emphasis on the “primary attachment” of young children to one parent, almost always the mother. In the past, experts have suggested that interfering with this primary attachment, by giving fathers regular overnight care, may have long-term negative effects on the development of children. Family Law courts have tended to agree with this approach. So the courts usually are reluctant to allow overnight care until the child is older, often not until the child is approaching school age. Regular contact is still strongly encouraged, but in the form of daytime care, not overnight care.

However this approach has been questioned earlier this year by a major overseas study from the American Psychological Association. It says that there’s no reason why babies and little children shouldn’t spend regular overnight time with their fathers. Children are regularly cared for long period by childcare centres and grandparents without question. Why shouldn’t fathers have at least the same rights? The study suggests that beginning overnight stays early on in the child’s life will enhance the father/child relationship. On the other hand, discouraging fathers from participating in child rearing because fathers are told they can only spend short, limited daytime periods with their young children is detrimental to the child’s development, say the study’s authors.

Will Family Law courts in Australia come around to his view? Only time will tell. But it is likely the pendulum may be swinging back again in favour of fathers having more substantial involvement of young children, including overnight care.

Each case is different and most separated parents do manage to work out sensible parenting arrangements themselves, with some assistance from family lawyers. Fathers do need to recognise that babies, toddlers and younger children do have special needs. They should recognise that usually the mother is the primary carer and acknowledge the importance of supporting the mother’s role. Mothers should make an effort to be supportive and encouraging of the father’s involvement with young children, including allowing regular overnight time from a young age. Mums do need to recognise that the father/child bond is also very important to their child’s healthy development.