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Custodial Conflict Around Breastfeeding

When it comes to deciding what to feed children in their first years of life, there is an old adage that “breast is best.” However, when Virginia courts are faced with determining visitation for a breastfeeding child, the “breast is best” ideology may not always align with what is in the child’s best interest.

One Virginia court recently made headlines for including a provision in a custody and visitation order that required a breastfeeding mother “to make every effort to place the child on a feeding schedule and use a bottle” in order to support the child’s regular visitation with the father.

When determining the appropriate custody and visitation arrangement for a child, Virginia courts are required by Virginia Code § 20-124.2(B) to “give primary consideration to the best interests of the child.” As discussed in Do Courts Favor Mothers in Custody Cases?, Virginia Code § 20-124.3 lays out factors that Virginia courts must consider when determining a child’s best interests in a custody or visitation matter.

It can be difficult to predict how a Virginia court will balance the benefits of breastfeeding with the benefits of having a frequent and consistent visitation schedule with the non-nursing parent. On one hand, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding of children for approximately six months, and numerous studies have shown an association between a child breastfeeding and lower rates of common ailments. On the other hand, Virginia courts are required by Virginia Code § 20-124.2(B) to “assure minor children of frequent and continuing contact with both parents, when appropriate, and encourage parents to share in the responsibilities of rearing their children.”

For parents of breastfeeding children, deciding on a visitation schedule can be complicated by the child’s need to feed. Whether parents are attempting to resolve visitation concerns by themselves or with the court’s involvement, below are some things to keep in mind during the process:

  • Weigh the Pros and Cons of Bottle Feeding. Some parents prefer their baby to nurse skin-to-skin exclusively, while others attempt to introduce bottle feeding as soon as practicable. While nursing directly from a parent does have its benefits, introducing bottles to breastfeeding kids gives the non-nursing parent the opportunity to share in the responsibility of feeding the child. If bottle feeding is an option, the non-nursing parent can increase their one-on-one visitation time with the child as well.
  • Consider a “Graduated” Visitation Schedule. Before any formal custody or visitation determination, both parents should consider what visitation schedule they would like to seek. One option is a visitation schedule that changes as the child ages and their need to nurse skin-to-skin decreases. As the child grows, the non-nursing parent can have more one-on-one visitation time and can begin overnight visits when appropriate. Setting a graduated schedule allows the child to become accustomed to spending time away from the nursing parent in a manner that is not detrimental.
  • Be Patient. It can be frustrating for a non-nursing parent to initially have less one-on-one time with their child, and it can be frustrating for the nursing parent to change their preferred methods of breastfeeding to accommodate visitation. Regardless of which parent you are, do not lose sight of the fact that while your child only breastfeeds for a limited period, your co-parenting relationship must last until your child is an adult.

Ultimately, determining whether to breastfeed, and the best method of doing so, is a deeply personal issue for many parents. On top of that, Virginia’s “best interests of the child” standard does not provide a black and white answer as to how breastfeeding will impact a court-ordered visitation schedule.

If you are part of a custody or visitation case that involves a breastfeeding child, you do not have to navigate the process alone. Be sure to consult with an experienced family law attorney in your jurisdiction. Livesay & Myers, P.C. has a team of experienced family lawyers across five office locations in Northern Virginia. Contact us to schedule a consultation today.