Nursing and Virginia Child Custody

Posted on Dec 23, 2020 by Katie Carter

Breastfeeding Moms

I’ve seen firsthand what a special bond nursing creates between a mother and a baby. As a currently nursing mother, it sometimes seems that my daughter thinks that literally no one else is acceptable at any time of day, regardless of whether she’s nursing.

I’m a nursing mom AND I represent women only in family law cases, so it’s pretty natural that I’d completely understand why a parenting plan that involves a nursing child would be pretty heavy on mom time versus dad time. But that doesn’t mean I can’t understand why dad would want the opportunity to have more time with the child, too.

There are all sorts of issues here, of course. And there’s arguments, good and bad, to be made on both sides. Ultimately, there are only two options here: you agree, or you go to court and let the judge decide. Either way, you may find that you have less control over the outcome than you’d wish, especially given that you’re providing all – or at least a substantial portion – of the child’s nutrition. Nursing isn’t an automatic win where custody and visitation is concerned and, at any rate, it’s a solution that is limited in terms of how long you can expect that to keep dad’s parenting time at bay.

In litigated cases, we often have to involve lactation consultants to help us make some of the more challenging arguments about the benefits of actual, skin to skin, nursing for mothers and babies. Obviously, as it relates to you, it’s nowhere near as important as it is to discuss the benefit of nursing – actual nursing, not feeding baby pumped bottles of breastmilk – to the baby.

Still, there are a lot of objections, and you’ll need to be prepared to address these arguments, and to make some of your own.

You don’t have to breastfeed. You can just pump, and feed the baby bottles – then even dad can do it!

You’ll be battling against this one, if not from your judge then from your husband’s attorney.

There are lots of people out there who think that pumping and feeding breastmilk is the same as actual nursing. As a mom who also had a baby for whom I exclusively pumped, I get it. At the time that I was doing it, I also told myself that it was just as good – because it was all that I could manage. Still, I think there are counterarguments you can make, too. (And, again, this would be a good space for a lactation consultant, pediatrician, or other expert to testify as an expert witness.)

One of the biggest problems with exclusive pumping – or even intermittent pumping, but doing a lot of it – is that it can impact your supply. A pump doesn’t drain the breast like a baby does, so you may find that if you pump too much, you aren’t able to meet your breastfeeding goals. It’s pretty clear – based on sound medical evidence – that breastfeeding is beneficial for mother and baby for as long as the two continue to nurse. So, you may find that, if you pump too much, your baby misses out on nursing as long as you might otherwise like.

She’s just going to keep nursing forever to keep the child away!

Obviously, it would not be helpful to say anything like this to your child’s father, or to suggest, in any way, that you will weaponize the nursing relationship.

But, in most cases (if not all of the ones I have seen!), the mothers I’ve spoken to have only expressed concern that, if they don’t breastfeed for a period of time, the child will suffer the consequences. There’s a lot of evidence out there regarding the benefits of breastfeeding, even for children who many of us deem “too old” to nurse, for as long as mom and baby want to keep nursing.
Some wean earlier than others, but there’s nothing wrong with nursing for an extended period of time, if that’s what works for you and your family. It wouldn’t help to suggest that this is in an effort to keep dad away, but an argument to combat this would, in my opinion, mostly include evidence related to the importance of breastfeeding, and extended breastfeeding.

A parenting plan that allows mom to keep nursing could allow dad to have frequent, shorter periods of visitation – even at mom’s house!

If you’re going to go head to head with dad, you’ll need to have a plan. Just going in saying, “I want to nurse” isn’t going to be enough.
Dad is still dad. And dads are good for babies. If he wants to be involved, and you offer no suggestion other than to turn down his requests, it won’t help.

Take some time thinking about possible solutions, and discuss them. Depending on your relationship with your child’s father, you may be able to come up with ideas for how to maintain the nursing relationship you want, and give him the parenting time he wants.
We often see agreements, with nursing infants, that allow a lot of contact – sometimes, every day – for a period of time. Sometimes, we even see mom go on visits – but stay in the background until its time to nurse.

Keep in mind, too, that nursing won’t extend forever. I don’t think I’ve heard of many – if any – kids nursing past Kindergarten, so, eventually, you’ll need to come up with a parenting plan that includes dad. It might be easier to do so gradually, over time, as the child changes and develops.

Nursing relationships change. Though my daughter – who is now 13 months old – still nurses, we do so now less frequently than before. And, when I’m gone, she doesn’t always need to nurse at all. I’ve been gone for an entire day at work – admittedly, since COVID-19, not all that often – and she doesn’t nurse. When I’m there, though, she’ll nurse on demand 4-5 times throughout the day. My experience may not be the same as anyone else’s, but I only offer it to say that things do ease up over time, and that there may be ways forward that you might not anticipate. Everyone’s journey looks a little different, but you can find a way forward that works for you.

You may find, as your child gets older, that she can nurse on demand with you, and be fine without you – and it won’t impact your supply like you’d think. Even aside from using the lactation consultant for your litigated case, if it comes to that, you may be able to consult with her about best practices, how to maintain your own supply, and how to foster a successful coparenting relationship while meeting your own nursing goals.

You’re doing great, important work. And I know that you’re asking about it because it is absolutely central to the type of mom you want to be – I get it! That’s me, too! The tears I cried when I struggled with my first… I can’t even express. But actually having successfully established the relationship with my second, my daughter; I know how special it is to me, and to you.

You should be prepared to discuss these points with your child’s father and his attorney, if he’s represented by counsel. If you have any questions, need any additional information, or would like any more information about nursing and child custody, visit our site or give our office a call at 757-425-5200.