Tom Lemons, Legal Correspondent
FLORIDA – When “Bill and Sue” found out unexpectedly they would-be parents in nine months, an all-consuming whirlwind of emotions and what-ifs’ suddenly sent both spiraling into internal chaos. “How can we afford a child? What if I’m not in love? My life is over…” This melodrama plays out every day in real life, and the finale isn’t always as rockwellesque as some couples had hoped.
Fast-forward nine months; Bill and Sue decide to go their separate ways, but both parents agree to co-parent and equally divide time-sharing with their child. But there’s a problem; Sue wants to nurse the infant for up to a year, which would limit how much time Bill can spend creating a bond with the child. And so goes the proverbial saying, “Houston, we have a problem.”
Florida, like every state, has statutory guidelines for almost every situation that could arise with custody disputes, but processes and decisions can vary from court to court and Judge to Judge. Since most of these cases are time-sensitive, meaning the issue is only relevant for 6 to 18 months, on average, fathers often find it difficult to get a ruling on the issue before it becomes a moot point. Most Judges frown on receiving emergency motions to argue over time-sharing, so many times the issues aren’t resolved until after the child is no longer breastfeeding.
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I polled our social media audience to find out what they thought of the dilemma and the responses were passionate and widely diverse. I asked our readers the following questions:
- In cases where a custody dispute exists between parents of an infant that is breastfeeding, should fathers still have the right to equal time-sharing?
- Should a mother agree to provide breast milk for the child when the infant is with the father?
- Should a father sacrifice critical bonding time for mothers who prefer to only breastfeed?
Megan Shipp replied, “As a breastfeeding mother I have strong views on this.
1- child’s needs come before either parent’s needs. This includes their need to have mothers’ milk at minimum until 1yo.
2- fathers and mothers who are split within the first year should understand that infants nurse at night for more than just nutrition and it would be incredibly insensitive to separate baby from the boob overnight until after a year to 15 months.
3- if possible, it would be ideal for dad to pick up additional parenting time that doesn’t include overnight hours until baby is night weaned.” She goes on to say, “Premature night weaning, even if providing expressed milk via a bottle, often puts infants in a stressed state and a good parent won’t allow that.”
Kayla Phillips agreed with Shipp stating, “I would never want to deprive a father time with his child, but breastfeeding is so much more than just nutrition! My daughter is 10 months old and still nurses constantly at night. She also will not drink from a bottle or any type of cup. If both parents really want to make enough time, they can do that during the day.”
Many of the women who commented say infants can be traumatized by visiting the father during the early months, especially if the child is still nursing. Cassi Henman says, “…my baby girl is 1 and is going to start going to her dad even though I do not agree with it, only because she is still nursing and I am going to have to wean so that she can go because he wants time with her…” Henman continues, “…technically it should be ok for her to go without milk but on the other hand I know she is seriously traumatized when she comes back from a few days with him because she doesn’t comprehend or understand who he is or anyone she is around…” Henman even claims her child has trouble readapting to nursing after visitation with the father. She says, “All she knows is I am her comfort zone, she is still technically attached to me, she even gets my hormones through her milk. When I’m not there she has to comprehend that her comfort zone isn’t [sic] anymore and it take a few days for her to readjust when she comes back to me. She rejects my milk for the most part when she’s with him, so she comes back a few pounds lighter as well.”
Others vehemently disagree with the assertion that infants only thrive when with the mother and had some harsh words for women who use breastfeeding as an excuse to keep a child from their father. Mary Gray Whitcomb stated, “I see no reason why a mother would not be able to pump and prepare for the visit…other than to control non visitation… If her nipples were RAW from nursing, trust me, [sic] baby would figure out the bottle quite quickly.” Whitcomb goes on to say, “I consider my grown children fortunate to have a dad who supports them 100% and is in their lives. Women who keep their children from LOVING fathers…are wrong, foolish, and cruel. Yes, keep them from abuse but do not keep them from a loving dad, just because you have moved on. Grow up!”
Michael Lambert echoed Whitcomb’s message and says, “Hopefully, the parents can be civil enough to breastfeed and supply breast milk for the father if they decide to split. By making it a simple “yes or no” scenario, that opens up a floodgate of mothers that are using the excuse of breastfeeding as a means to keep the father out of the picture.
Although there are no statutory guidelines specifically related to breastfeeding and time-sharing, according to Ayo & Iken Attorney Howard Ellzey, the courts often allow more discretion for the mother during the first year. After that, Ellzey says, “Mothers can no longer use breastfeeding as an excuse to deny equal time-sharing to a father.” Ellzey goes on to say, “Breast pumps and baby formula are too readily available to deny willing fathers the opportunity to share in the feeding of their child. Fostering an emotional bond between father and infant is equally as important as it is with the mother.”
Some Judicial Circuits provide specific guidelines for attorneys and Judges to follow, as it pertains to breastfeeding and time-sharing, but they are only recommendations and are subject to numerous factors, like violence in the home, chemical dependency, among others. For example, the Thirteenth and Eighteenth Circuits provides the following guidelines for newborn infants to six months of age:
The parties shall confer and agree upon a schedule consisting of three (3) three (3) hour time periods per week with no more than two (2) days between visits. If the parents cannot agree, visitation shall be on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. In addition, the secondary residential parent shall have the right to have AT LEAST one overnight visitation per month, from 6:00 p.m. on Friday to 1:00 p.m. on Saturday. If the parents cannot agree, it shall be the second Friday of the month from 6:00 p.m. on Friday to 1:00 p.m. on Saturday. If the children are being breast-fed, the parents shall cooperate so that the children are with the mother at feeding time if possible. Alternatively, breast milk may be harvested by the mother to provide for the children when they are with the father at feeding time or other feeding arrangements shall be made. Visitation should be exercised regularly and preferably at the secondary residential parent’s residence to enable infants to become familiar with those surroundings. Both parents should promote consistency in the children’s nutrition and the environment. The primary residential parent shall supply items such as breast milk or formula, clothing, blankets, pacifiers, wipes, toys, and infant car seats to the secondary residential parent as may be needed, all unconsumed items of which shall be returned with the children.
There is seemingly no end in sight to the rise of high-conflict divorces and custody disputes, but the courts do offer valuable advice to parents who have ended their romantic relationship but are unconditionally dedicated to co-parenting their offspring. Here’s what the Eighteenth Circuit recommends:
MINIMIZE LOSS – Children experience divorce or separation as a series of significant losses. To children, divorce or separation means losing a home, family life, loving parents who care about each other, pets, financial security, relationships with extended family, familiar schools, sports activities, and a daily schedule. Children often feel abandoned and uprooted. The disruptive effects of divorce or separation on their lives can have profound consequences for children in later years. Respect your children’s plight by eliminating as much pain and trauma and as many changes and losses as possible.
MAXIMIZE RELATIONSHIPS – Encourage all relationships which existed between your children and others before the divorce or separation (both parent, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, close adult friends, etc.), as well as future relationships. Your children will most likely keep the feeling of family when they continue to have pleasant, free access to both parents and their extended families. This requires that your children spend time with both sides of their family.
Encourage and support the other parent in accepting an active parenting role. Share the burden of responsibilities (laundry, transportation, doctor visits, teach conferences, etc.) as well as the joyous occasions (holidays, birthday parties, movies, sports outings, trips, etc.) When parents are able to remain in the same geographical area, relationships are more likely to be maximized.
Never make your children feel guilty about enjoying their time with the other parent. Enjoyment of that time is a tribute to the security that both you and the other parent have instilled in your children and suggests that your children are learning to trust and explore a wide range of healthy relationships.
Reassure your children that they are not to blame for the separation or divorce and that BOTH parents still love them. Try to avoid blaming the other parent. It is destructive to children’s security and self-concepts when they are compelled to take sides after a separation or divorce. You should also AVOID disclosing details of your adult relationship’s problems with your children. Although you may initially want the details and may want to alleviate your pain and anger by taking sides with you, they ultimately may resent you for confusing them and increasing their anxieties about their freedom to love and relate comfortably to both of their parents.