Brief critique by Linda Nielsen on Tornello & Emery article on overnight custody arrangements with infants and toddlers

Wake Forest University

To: General public
Subject:Overnight Custody Arrangements” (*) article by Tornello, Emery et al. (JMF, August 2013)
From: Dr. Linda Nielsen, Professor of Adolescent and Educational Psychology, Winston Salem, NC (Nielsen {at} )
Date: August 5, 2013
Downloadlink Word-version: 20130508 Nielsen critique Tornello

It would be inappropriate and ill advised to apply the data on mother-infant attachment from this study to the general population of separated parents. Moreover, the data did not demonstrate that overnight separation from mothers was significantly linked to weaker bonds with infants and toddlers. First and foremost, it is important to note that there were no differences on 13 of the 14 measures of well-being for children ages one, three and five between those who overnighted and those who did not. Moreover, the five year olds who had been overnighting as infants and toddlers had more positive behaviors than those who had not overnighted.

As for attachment, the vast majority had secure ratings regardless of whether they overnighted. The mothers’ ratings of the child’s insecureattachment, yearly overnights and sample size (N) are:

  • Age 1 none 25% (N=364) 1-51 nights 16%(N=219) 51-256 nights 43% (N=51)
  • Age 3 none 18% (N=58) 1-12 nights 33% (N=171) 13-127 nights 22%(n=106) 128-256 37% (n=60)

Infants (age 1): Yearly overnights, sample size N and mothers’ ratings of child’s ‘insecure’ attachment

No yearly overnights

1-51 nights

51-256 nights

Insecure attachment


Insecure attachment


Insecure attachment








Toddlers (age 3): Yearly overnights, sample size N and mothers’ ratings of child’s ‘insecure’ attachment

No yearly overnights

1-12 nights

13-127 nights

128-256 nights

Insecure attachment


Insecure attachment


Insecure attachment


Insecure attachment










(1)   – Infants with 1-51 overnights were less insecure (16%) than those with no overnights (25%).
– Toddlers with 13-127 nights were less insecure (22%) than those with only 1-12 nights (33%).

(2)   There was no “pattern” between insecurity & overnighting for 3 year olds. Overnighting as little as once a year was similar to overnighting up to 256 times a year (33% vs.37%) & never overnighting was similar to overnighting up to 127 nights (18% and 22%).

(3)   Only one group was noticeably different: the 51 infants who overnighted 51-256 times (43% insecure) But since some of these 51 infants were living with their dad 70% time & only overnighting 30% with mom, it is understandable that their mothers rated them as less securely attached. But in order to know whether frequent overnighting per se was related to their insecure attachments, we would also need to know: why were these infants living 70% with their fathers and spending so little overnight time with their mothers? It is not unreasonable to assume that these mothers were troubled or disadvantaged in ways that would contribute to insecure attachments even if their babies had never overnighted with dad.

(4)   The attachment data was only available for 60% of the three year olds, rendering these findings less reliable and less valid than the attachment data on the one year olds in the Fragile Families data base.

(5)   The procedure used to assess mother-child attachment “is not an objective assessment of parent child attachment” (p. 51) as the Fragile Family researchers clearly state in cautioning people not to misuse their data (Kapri,S. & Razza, R. (2013) “Attachment security among toddlers”. Fragile Families Research Institute, Working Paper 13-01-FF). The Toddler Assessment Q sort and the AQS were designed to be answered by trained observers who objectively rate the mother’s interactions with the child. The Fragile Families project could not afford to do this so they had the mothers do the rating – a substitute procedure which they openly acknowledge is not “objective” because mothers are not reliable raters and because mothers who do not read or follow directions well (poorly educated mothers) may find the procedure even more confusing. This is reiterated by Edward Waters who created the AQS attachment measure: “If you are interested in correlations, I would avoid mothers. Sometimes the solution is to do several small scale studies with trained observers rather than one large one with mothers. ” (Waters, E., 2013, Assessing secure base behavior and attachment security using the Q sort method. State University of New York, web site)

(6)   Finally, because the study was based exclusively on the Fragile Families data, the results should only be generalized to similar families: 85% never married with two or more children born out of wedlock, 60% living below poverty level, 100% living in inner cities, 75% African or Hispanic American, 40% high school dropouts, 45% high school education. As the Fragile Families Institute points out, their data is not even representative of poor, minority, unmarried parents throughout the U.S. because their sample is largely minority and all urban.

Explanatory notes:

  • Prof. Dr. Linda Nielsen gave her permission to publish the above first brief critique of the Tornello & Emery article.
  • In the mean time Paul Millar and Edward Kruk are co-writing a more comprehensive response and critique article which will be titled ‘Maternal Attachment, Paternal Overnight Contact, and Very Young Children’s Adjustment: Comment on Tornello et al. (2013)‘ and will be published in the February 2014 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family (Journal of Marriage and Family 76, February 2014).

(*) “Overnight Custody Arrangements, Attachment, and Adjustment Among Very Young Children”, by Samantha L. Tornello, Robert Emery, Jenna Rowen, Daniel Potter, Bailey Ocker, Yishan Xu, Journal of Marriage and Family, Volume 75, Issue 4, pages 871–885, August 2013;

Large numbers of infants and toddlers have parents who live apart due to separation, divorce, or nonmarital/noncohabiting childbearing, yet this important topic, especially the controversial issue of frequent overnights with nonresidential parents, is understudied. The authors analyzed data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a longitudinal investigation of children born to primarily low-income, racial/ethnic minority parents that is representative of 20 U.S. cities with populations over 200,000. Among young children whose parents lived apart, 6.9% of infants (birth to age 1) and 5.3% of toddlers (ages 1 to 3) spent an average of at least 1 overnight per week with their nonresident parent. An additional 6.8% of toddlers spent 35%–70% of overnights with nonresident parents. Frequent overnights were significantly associated with attachment insecurity among infants, but the relationship was less clear for toddlers. Attachment insecurity predicted adjustment problems at ages 3 and 5, but frequent overnights were not directly linked with adjustment problems at older ages.

Keywords: attachment; child custody; child outcomes; divorce; Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study; nonresidential parents

About Pieter Tromp MSc (PEF - president)

Pieter Tromp MSc is president of the European NGO 'Platform for European Fathers' (PEF) and chairman of the Dutch NGO Father Knowledge Centre (Vader Kennis Centrum) Email:
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