Don’t Divorce Your Baby

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I are going through a rough patch in our marriage. We’ve been talking about getting a divorce but are concerned about how it could impact our six-month-old son. Will it?

A: Since children are all different and respond differently to the stresses in their lives, it’s impossible to predict what the effects on any one child will be. That said, most children—infants included—are deeply affected by their parents’ divorce (or breakup if they were never married).

Although infants as young as yours can’t possibly understand what divorce is, they have an amazing capacity to pick up on the emotions of the people around them—especially their parents. What that means is that it’s not the divorce itself that affects babies; it’s the behavior that goes with it. For example, in high-conflict homes where there’s a lot of yelling and tension, babies are fussier and cry more. In these cases, the divorce can actually have a positive impact: separating two warring parties and cutting back on the hostility in the home could reduce some of the negative fallout.

After the divorce is over, the baby will continue to pick up on—and imitate—the parents’ emotions. Babies with a depressed mom or dad or a parent who is too distracted to pay attention to his needs often seem depressed themselves, exhibiting sluggish behavior, a lack of interest in playing, and decreased appetite. These babies may also lose weight, have trouble sleeping, be clingier, show no interest in people at all, be slower to achieve developmental milestones, and may even regress (meaning they lose skills they had previously mastered).

So what can you do?

Well, you’ve already taken the first step: you and your wife are obviously putting your baby’s needs first and are already communicating with each other in a positive way. The fact that you’re acting like grownups and are behaving civilly is huge and will make the next steps a lot easier.

  • It’s critical that you and your wife talk about a schedule that gives each of you daily time with your baby. Because babies don’t have much in the way of long-term memory, going much longer than a day between visits increases the risk that he may not recognize you, and that will interfere with your ability to bond with each other.
  • Understand that infants crave and need routines. Some they’ll set on their own, such as sleep, feeding, and crying. Others come from you, such as nighttime rituals and sleeping arrangements. There’s some controversy about whether it’s better for babies to sleep at one parent’s house and have the other parent visit only during the day. One thing is for sure, though, and that’s that babies are pretty resilient creatures and tend to adapt to their surroundings—as long as they’re getting their needs met in both places. If mom is breastfeeding, she’ll need to have the baby every day. But there’s no reason why she can’t pump a few bottles that you can give the baby when he’s at your house. If you do opt for the two house solution, make sure that the baby’s comfort items (stuffies, blankies, and so on) make the trip with him.
  • Make sure when you’re with your baby, you’re really with him: cuddle, read, play, sing, and whatever else you usually do. Learn to recognize his needs and cues. But don’t try to keep him entertained constantly—he needs down time too.
  • Take care of yourself. If you’re depressed, you can’t be an effective caregiver.

Breastfeeding Dad

Dear Mr. Dad: My baby’s mom and I are separated and I hardly ever get to see my 9-month old son because my ex is breastfeeding. Isn’t there some way I can spend more than just a few hours at a time with him?

A: Feeding your baby is a wonderful way for the two of you to bond with each other. And yes, there are some ways for you to increase your time with him. But before we get to that, it’s important to acknowledge that your ex is doing a fantastic thing for your son.

Current recommendations are that babies should have nothing but breast milk for the first six months of life, then, over the next six months, gradually phase out the milk and phase in solid food. As you may have heard, breastfed babies have stronger immune systems, are less likely to develop ear infections or pneumonia, and may even have higher IQs. Keep in mind, though, that it’s not the act of breastfeeding that gives babies all these advantages; it’s the actual breast milk itself.

Most mothers will express, or pump, their breast milk using a breast pump. The milk can stay in the refrigerator for up to a week or be frozen for several months. Later, when your baby is with you, you’ll give him that milk in a bottle. Using pumped breast milk will allow you to take your son overnight—but you and your ex will have to cooperate. Unfortunately, using a breast pump can make women feel like a cow. And pumps aren’t cheap (they can cost as much as $350). She can rent one, but long term, that will end up costing even more. If your ex won’t provide breast milk, you could give your baby formula—if your pediatrician agrees—until he hits 12 months, which is when he can start drinking cow’s milk. But your wife would still need to pump when the baby’s with you to keep up her milk supply.

If your son has never had a bottle, introducing one might be tricky. Here are some tips:

  • Practice. Don’t wait until you have your son for a full day before trying a bottle. Drinking from a bottle is different than breastfeeding so give your baby a chance to get the hang of it.
  • Offer a bottle a little earlier than his regular feeding time so he’s not starving.
  • Ask your ex to go somewhere else while you’re introducing the bottle. Babies can smell their mothers up to 20 feet away and he may not want to try something new if he can smell her breast
  • Don’t force it. If your son resists, try again a little later. You might also try putting some breast milk on the nipple of the bottle, experimenting with a different type of nipple, or changing positions.
  • If your son flat out refuses to take a bottle, try putting the milk in a sippy cup.

Most babies your son’s age have already started eating at least some solid foods (although “solid” is hardly the right word—“soupy” or “mushy” would be closer). In fact, it’s possible that several of his daytime snacks and feedings in a row consist entirely of baby food (the kind you can buy in the grocery store). This opens up the opportunity for you to take your son for a pretty good stretch. However, to quickly identify allergies, introduce new foods slowly—one at a time every few days. And make sure you and your ex are sharing this information with each other.