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Infant Mental Health Awareness Week: Can you be connected to your infant while connected to your smartphone?

Infant Mental Health Awareness Week (IMHAW) provides an annual opportunity to discuss the importance of supporting babies’ mental health and wellbeing. This year, it takes place from 10th – 16th June 2024, and the theme is ‘Speak up for Babies’.

June 13, 2024

The Paediatric Clinical Psychology Team in Children’s Health Ireland are interested in the impact of devices on parents, infants and children. Humans are born ready for connection. But just like everyone else, the amount of time that parents spend on their mobile devices is increasing, with smartphones becoming an omnipresent part of family life.

““We have the flexibility to order shopping, arrange banking, pay subscriptions and bills, book camps, book gym sessions, email and text, all while sitting at home. But the flip side is the negative consequences on our infants’ emotions and behaviours. Emerging research and data* suggest that the extent of smartphone use around infants is impacting on their relationships, attachment, social and emotional development, and language learning. Physical safety for children is also an issue, with the number of accidents reported increasing since the introduction of the 4G network.”
Anne-Marie Casey, Senior Clinical Psychologist

Babies learn to regulate their emotions and to process their world through eye contact, using language to help the baby make sense of what is happening in the moment, and ongoing reciprocal play and connection with their caregiver. Because each experience is a new one, the baby looks to the caregiver to gauge whether to react with joy or fear or curiosity. The baby and caregiver’s serve and return is the start of emotional and psychological building blocks that follow the baby through life.

What happens for babies and children when their parent is preoccupied or distracted by their phone?

The ‘still face’ experiment by Dr Edward Tronick is a powerful study which shows our need for connection from very early in life. It is used to show how a parent’s responsiveness and attention to their child impacts on their emotional development, and importantly, gives us insight into what it is like when connection does not occur. The ‘still face’ metaphor can also be used with devices - when parents are on devices, and not attending to their child, it is like the parent has a ‘still face’, which has negative consequences for their infant’s emotions and behaviours.

The evidence is clear – when we engage with technology we cannot engage with our babies and children simultaneously, and it is the smallest, those under three, that are most vulnerable to our emotional absence when we are on devices.

With research suggesting that people interact with their phones for 3 -6 hours a day and check their phones between 50-80 times on average each day

““Gaining knowledge that smartphone use has a problematic impact on our children’s social emotional and cognitive development is important because with this knowledge we can begin thinking of ways that we can change our phone usage so that we are emotionally available to our children. It is essential that we show compassion to ourselves in this conversation. All of us are implicit in this, so it is important that we do not shame or blame parents. Smart phones are akin to an addiction and the first step in overcoming an addiction is simply noticing that there is a problem. So let us loosen the literal grip our phones have on us as parents. We can follow the models of breaking addictions that are well established.”
Dr Claire Crowe, Paediatric Clinical Psychologist advises.
  1. Firstly, be curious about your device use. Notice when and how you are using it including at times in the presence of your children. What are you scrolling? Is it advice on child rearing? Is it social media? Creating some understanding will help to fill those needs in other ways e.g. if it is a stress reduction tool, perhaps a walk could also serve that function.
  2. Is there protected time away from a phone where you can put it away and spend quality time without the device? Take a small step like not at the dinner table or only after the kids are in bed.
  3. Hide it from temptation. Put your phone in a zip lock bag if you need to have it with you. Then each time you go to scroll, you will have to go through the effort of taking it out. It will reduce the automatic impulse to just look and get lost in it. Use a “phone box”, which the phone is placed in when you walk in the door and not opened until after bedtime.
  4. Replace the habit with something new. Keep your hands busy or you will find yourself looking at your phone automatically and unconsciously e.g. at the playground push your kids on the swings or at home put a cup of coffee in your hands so you are preoccupied.
  5. Be kind to yourself. Making changes are hard. For most of us, our phone is like an extension of our limbs, so this is a mammoth task. Celebrate victories. If your screen time viewing reduces, congratulate yourself and tell others.
  6. When on the phone, can you put on your speaker so you can still attend to your child visually? Listening to the phone for messages or listening to podcasts instead of scrolling to keep yourself awake during night feeds will still allow for that import eye contact which helps your baby regulate their emotions.
  7. Have a phone pal. Give someone permission to remind you that you are on your phone again. Phone patrol can be a game that the kids play when they catch you on your phone. They will enjoy being in charge and getting you in trouble. Laugh about how you made a mistake, pick yourself up, and try again.

Listen to Dr Claire Crowe speak about the impact of phones on infants on Ireland AM.

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