Baby Care

Is your smartphone habit affecting your baby? 

PUT your smartphone in the nappy bag, and say ‘excuse me’ to your baby if you need to text a friend.

These were some of the takeaway tips from a recent webinar hosted by the Psychological Society of Ireland, which explored parental smartphone use in the presence of infants.

The online event was presented by researcher Miriam McCaleb, a New Zealander and PhD candidate at University of Canterbury, who is examining how to support women’s healthy smartphone habits during the transition to parenthood — with the aim of prioritising the parent-infant connection and optimising child development.

McCaleb, a mother of two, joins via Zoom and outlines how it has been for babies and mums since caveman days: Baby vocalises, Mum responds. “The infant needs this serve-and-return, this give-and-take. We evolved to make eye contact and to read micro-expressions. Babies need responsive caregiving. Attuned care is exactly what they need to form secure attachment.”

And secure attachment is vital because it springboards our ability to access the social determinants of health, McCaleb points out. “If a child is equipped to sustain friendships and relationships, they’re at a distinct advantage.”

McCaleb says technoference — technological interruptions and interference in everyday family life — “is rife in all familial relationships”. She sees it as a threat to the interaction between parents and babies. “Smartphones are great for communicating around the world, but not so much around the table. They undermine immediate interpersonal connection.”

She cites research involving pregnant women in their final trimester – and the same women six to eight weeks postpartum. When asked to record how much time per day they spent on their smartphone, the time increased by an average of 51 minutes in the postpartum phase.

“Feeding routines are a time when women are spending a lot of time on their smartphones,” says McCaleb. “This can interfere with maternal sensitivity, which is essential for creating secure attachment. As a mum, am I noticing my baby’s cues? [At the very least], am I missing their cues of satiation, which is putting them at risk of overfeeding?”

Referring to a “casual survey” she did before leaving New Zealand, she heard new mums saying ‘but if I’m not on my phone when I’m feeding her, what do I do?’

Another mum said: ‘It’s the strangest thing. Everybody talks about how connected you can feel to your baby when you’re breastfeeding. I never did. Now she has gone to the bottle, I can’t hold the phone anymore, and I look down and she’s smiling at me and we have these great chats’.

‘Still face’

Infants, says McCaleb, are sensitive to interruptions and unpredictable parental responses. She points to the work of Edward Tronick who, in 1975, presented the Still Face Experiment to colleagues at a meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development.

Tronick’s ‘still face’ phenomenon is when an infant — after three minutes of “interaction” with a non-responsive, expressionless mother — grows wary. “He makes repeated attempts to get the interaction into its usual reciprocal pattern. When these attempts fail, the infant withdraws [and] orients his face and body away from his mother”.

McCaleb says we inadvertently assume a still face when we’re on our smartphone. And she says research has found mums of six-week-old babies unlock their phones numerous times daily. “A low number would be 70. Many would be doing so 100 to 200 times. So babies are having this fragmented, unpredictable behaviour multiple times a day.”

Babies notice, she says — they’re paying attention. Mum is singing songs, doing exaggerated facial features, and then suddenly she’s on her phone. “And she’s just blank. Baby is vocalising and the parent’s unavailable. This is stressful for the baby. They turn away, arch their back — ‘where did you go, Mom? I thought we were hanging out’.”

The mobile phone revolution means most of us have instant access to the internet through our phones, impacting our attention. A 2020 study of 3,640 US parents found that almost 70% feel distracted by their phones when spending time with their children.

McCaleb says it’s unreasonable to design devices to be compulsive and then reprimand people for being preoccupied with these devices. Acknowledging that as a mother, she has wondered about her own smartphone use, she says: “We invite a beginner’s mind, to wonder, to become aware, to listen with open minds and hearts to this emerging issue of how best to support parents with healthy smartphone habits.”

One mum attending the webinar asks: “For us, who have been those mothers, do you have any thoughts on repair?”

McCaleb suggests that this mother counts the beautiful interactions she has had with her baby at other times of the day. The focus is very much on “what you can do more of” that is relationship- and interaction-building between you and your baby.

Another mum says she sometimes uses the phone when trying to stay awake at night to feed her baby. McCaleb advises: “Use your phone’s speaker functionality and listen to something, so you have your hand free for touch, and your eyes are on your baby.” This, she says, would be wise phone use because it reduces distraction.

Senior clinical paediatric psychologist Dr Claire Crowe says when we engage with technology we cannot engage with our children simultaneously — and it is the youngest, those under three years, who are most vulnerable to our emotional absence when we are on devices.

“Gaining knowledge that smartphone use has a problematic impact on children at a social, emotional and cognitive development level is important because with this knowledge we can begin thinking of ways we can change our phone usage so that we’re more present for our children.”

Crowe predicts there will be more awareness-building around the use of smartphones in future ante-natal clinics.

She says if mothers/caregivers could put away their smartphones while feeding baby, this would be a significant improvement. “This is the time the baby is closest to the caregiver. The baby is looking up in that moment. There’s a shared sense of ‘you’re nurturing me — I can see you’. If that was the one change we made, it would be really powerful for mothers and babies going forward.”

Senior clinical paediatric psychologist Dr Claire Crowe

Maintaining balance

Tips to maintain balance with your smartphone:

  • Say ‘excuse me’ to whoever is in the room when you need to use the phone — this includes babies. “It’s profoundly important that we get into the habit of excusing ourselves when we use the phone — e.g. ‘excuse me, I need to use the phone for a moment to see when the plumber’s coming’ — it creates a sense of purpose about what you’re doing, rather than mindlessly scrolling,” says McCaleb.
  • Set a time for your phone use — save it until baby is asleep.
  • Put away your smartphone so you’re not tempted, advises Crowe. “Put it in a ziplock bag if you need to have it with you. It’ll reduce the automatic impulse to just look and get lost in it. Or use a phone box which the phone gets popped into when you walk in the door and which isn’t opened until after play-time [with baby].
  • Feeding time doesn’t have to be phone time, says McCaleb. “If you’re going to use your phone, try a conversation with a friend [or] listen to a podcast, do a bit of life admin, then put it down.”
  • “During feeding time, chat to others in the room, describe to baby the things you can see out the window, soak in the details of this precious little person,” advises McCaleb.
  • Miriam McCaleb will present her findings at the Congress for the World Association for Infant Mental Health in Dublin — it runs from July 15 to 19. See:

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