It's a common misconception that babies are not affected by the divorce or separation of their parents. This is because it can be very difficult to spot the signs of distress and anxiety and, also, because they can't tell you how they're feeling. It's important to remember that experiences that happen in the very early days, weeks and months of a child's life will have a profound influence on the rest of their lives. Family separation can impact very badly on babies and pre-verbal children.
There are two main causes of distress in children of this age. Firstly, babies pick up on the emotional atmosphere around them. If their parents are angry or depressed then the world will feel like an uncertain place for them. Secondly, one of the ways that children learn to feel safe in the world is through experiencing the predictable reappearance of significant carers after short periods of absence. If a significant adult who was very present in their life is suddenly not around, this will cause them to feel anxious.
Babies will also be affected negatively by things like changes in routine, a change in carers and a change of surroundings. So, for example, moving from one house to another frequently will be difficult for them as the need for continuity and familiarity is strong. Frequent moves and moves that don't fit around your baby's immediate needs will also cause them problems. They need to be able to eat when they need to eat and sleep when they need to sleep. Sleep routines are also essential for babies and they require familiarity in order to be able to deal with developmental stages.
Signs of distress
Look out for things such as your baby not settling to sleep, disturbance in eating patterns, excessive crying and needing to use a dummy more often than usual. Also take notice of how your baby responds to the world around them – do they seem withdrawn? Are they interacting normally with adults or other children through smiling and eye contact. In older babies, look out for sign of regression such as going back to nappies when they have moved beyond them or increased clinginess.
Things that help
Wherever possible, try to make your baby's sleep routines as similar as possible. Using the same cot blanket, the same washing powder and the same comforters will all help your baby to feel safe. Try to stick to your baby's other daily routines such as nap times and meal times and think about things like giving your baby the same foods which ever parent she's with. To help your baby to stay emotionally and psychologically secure, it's important that you give plenty of cuddles, smiles and good eye contact. Try talking to your baby in a calm reassuring tone. You can even read her stories.
Things to avoid
Don't expect your baby to manage too many transitions each week. Don't put your baby into a new child care situation at the same time as expecting her to adjust to living in two homes and try not to have new people involved in taking care of her – you're trying to cause as little disruption as possible. The fewer the additional changes, the better.