It may seem like infants would be completely oblivious to a parental divorce, but that’s not at all the case. Though they are pre-verbal, they are also very deeply attuned to the moods, emotions, and availability of their caretakers. Divorce does result in profoundly observable changes to both their caretaker’s moods as well as the overall environment, and so even babies, as young as they are, can be affected by their parents’ divorce.
Babies may seem rather unsophisticated, but they aren’t as clueless as they might appear. Studies show that infants as young as 6 months old are able to discern “naughty” puppets from nice ones when watching the plot of a puppet show (Boren Stein, 2007), and they routinely look to their caregivers for support and guidance.
For example, in what are known as “still face” experiments, babies become distressed when their caretaker suddenly becomes non-responsive or puts on a “still face.” When they encounter something unexpected, like a “visual cliff” where a clear glass surface is the only barrier over a 6-foot drop, they’ll look to their caregivers for support. If Mom looks reassuring, they’ll continue crawling across this surface towards her. If she looks worried, they’ll stop in their tracks and start to cry. (Gibson & Walk, 1960) And even though babies may not understand everything their parents say, they are masters at inferring from tones of voice and facial expressions.
Thus even babies are affected by arguing among their parents, and can be impacted by many of the other elements within divorce, such as instability in their caretakers, the depressed mood of parents, and changes in their environment.
How infants react to divorce
Infants may show reactions to a parental divorce in the following ways:
- Becoming more fussy or easily disturbed
- Showing change or disruptions to their eating and/or sleeping patterns
- Increased clinginess or separation anxiety
- They may become more fearful or startle easily
- They may exhibit psychosomatic symptoms (physical illnesses caused by psychological stress) such as diarrhea, constipation, or spitting up more frequently. They also may get sick more often or seem to have a harder time fighting off infections.
Helping babies cope with divorce
- Keep your infant’s schedules as consistent and routine as possible. This will mean coordinating to try and keep feeding times and nap schedules similar between the different houses. The more inconsistency and change you throw into your infant’s schedule, the fussier your baby will be, and the more stress it places on their developing brain.
- Monitor your moods. It’s to be expected that you might be upset or depressed. But make a constant effort to be aware of your emotions and to shove all the outside stressors away from your mind when interacting with your baby. The good news is that infants aren’t yet as emotionally sophisticated as older children. So it’s easier to hide your anguish and adult problems from them, IF you do a good job of putting on a happy face whenever they’re around. They DO pay attention to things like eye contact, mood fluctuations in voice, the level of attentive care they receive, and happy versus sad or angry sounds in the environment. So they will notice when you were staring off into your own world with a worried look on your face for several minutes while giving them a bottle, and other things like that. Make a conscientious effort to engage in lots of eye contact and make many happy noises with your voice.
- Work with your ex to allow informal visits as much as possible. It can be very difficult for a baby to go without seeing one of their primary caretakers for days at a time. It also isn’t the best way to promote healthy parent-child bonding that will lead to the development of secure attachments in infants. Allowing the other parent to stop over during non-custody days can alleviate some of this burden. When it comes to babies, it’s usually possible to arrange this so that they drop by, spend half an hour or an hour interacting with the infant, then sneak back out after putting them to sleep with a bottle so as not to create a big hassle.
- Try to utilize the same child care provider (assuming you’ll be using one) to avoid throwing even more transitions into your baby’s life.
- Consider touch therapy with your infant to counteract some of the stresses they might be experiencing. It’s an easy thing that parents can do from home. Just buy yourself a book on baby massage, and start trying some of the techniques. This type of more intimate, skin on skin contact has been shown to produce pretty strong, extremely positive physiological effects. It reduces stress hormones while promoting the release of oxytocin, endorphins, dopamine, and other mood-boosting chemicals.