How Does Breastfeeding Factor Into Custody Decisions?

breastfeeding and custodyA judge in a Virginia custody dispute has ordered a mother to change her feeding style of her 6-month-old infant, siding with the father’s claim that breastfeeding “on demand” was disrupting his parenting time with the child. The mother is disputing the ruling, claiming that “breast is best” for infant nutrition.

Should nursing an infant be exception to parenting time enforcement rules?  In this heated custody battle, the father claimed the mother’s “on demand” style of feeding, which included nursing as much as every hour and not using pumped breast milk, made it impossible for him to exercise the custody agreement the two had reached which gave him four overnights with the child.

As the Daily Mail reports, “Ridgeway complained that his daughter’s feeding times were interfering with his visits, but Ramirez who has had trouble pumping milk in the past, believes, like some experts, that ‘breast is best.’”

The judge sided with the father, telling the mother to, essentially, stop exclusive on demand breastfeeding of the 6-month-old and instead, “…make every effort to place the child on a feeding schedule and use a bottle”

The mother plans to appeal the ruling. In the meantime, any nursing mother or the father of a breastfed baby might want to know how choice of infant feeding style could be a factor in their own custody agreements. Should mothers have the final say in whether to nurse exclusively, or is this part of the outdated “tender years” doctrine that once gave moms an edge over dads in custody decisions made by the courts?

Here are some points to consider as you make decisions about your infant’s feeding and parenting time schedules:

Bonding with both parents matters: In making custody decisions, the courts will always rule from the perspective of protecting the “best interests of the child.” The thinking of the courts in this case may have been: Is it in the best interests of an infant to spend significant quality time with each of their two loving parents to form strong bonds? Answer: Yes!

Balancing human needs: However, the courts may also ask the question: Is it in the best interests of the child to be fed and nourished to support optimal health? The answer to this question is also: YES! So next, the courts need to figure out how to balance these two primary needs of love and nourishment. The infant in this case is 6 months old. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant’s life, but “Beyond 6 months, breastfeeding should be maintained along with nutritious complementary foods.”

The mother was still practicing the form of exclusive breastfeeding known as “on demand nursing” in which the child is able to nurse at any time. It appears that it was this practice, and not breastfeeding itself, that was the disruptive issue.

Are there workarounds? Yes.

  • The mom can start a pumping schedule to build up a supply of breastmilk for the dad to offer during his time with the child. If the mom has difficulty pumping, she can work with a lactation consultation through her child’s pediatrician’s office or through her local La Leche League.
  • The dad can agree to always offer the breast milk first before any supplement (baby formula) is offered. The dad should keep the mom informed of how much breastmilk is being consumed.
  • The parents should try to amicably work out an overnight co-parenting schedule that is spaced out on an every-other-night basis to give the mom the best opportunity possible to keep up her milk supply. For infants under six months old, greater flexibility may be needed to help the mother establish milk supply.
  • To ensure her child’s ability to adjust between homes, the parents should come to an agreement on a workable feeding schedule and the introduction of solid foods when appropriate. This might be done in consultation with the child’s pediatrician or lactation consultant.
  • At well-child checkups, information on weight and height percentiles can provide important reassurance to parents that their plan is working and their child is healthy. Whenever possible, both parents may wish to attend these appointments.

Are there exceptions to the above in which breastfeeding on demand may be recommended by a child’s pediatrician to fulfill a special health need? Yes, and evidence of this could be a factor in specific custody arrangements.

Ultimately, this case raised headlines, but it also raised the important issue of breastfeeding in co-parenting relationships. Their child having access to healthy nutrition is what every parent wants. In a co-parenting relationship, it might take some extra time and attention to make breastfeeding happen, but with a little patience and cooperation – two key parts of successfully co-parenting through any situation – it can happen!

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