Is Distracted Parenting a Problem?

by Donna Walls, RN, BSN, ICCE, IBCLC, ANLC

A relatively new phenomenon is occurring with some possibly serious implications for infants and children. Concerns are being expressed related to “distracted parenting”. These concerns center around parents whose attention toward their children is now directed to electronic devices, especially cell phones. In a study in the journal Pediatrics, the authors observed parents dining with their children (ages birth to 10 years) at fast food restaurants. The researchers noted about a third of parents spent the entire meal fully absorbed with their mobile devices, with no attention given to their children. The children who sought attention from their parents were often ignored by their parents who were engaged only with their devices. Dr. Jenny Radesky, MD, a pediatrician, the study’s lead author said: “One child tried to raise his caregiver’s face to look at him and not the screen, another said he wasn’t done with food that was thrown away, and each time the caregiver just went back to the screen.” Other child behavior experts cite concerns including research showing high tech using parents are less likely to share family meals and less likely to report satisfaction with their leisure family time when compared to lower technology using parents. Technology preoccupied parents may also lead children to “act out” as a means of getting their parent’s attention. NBC News’ Brian Alexander reported that distracted parenting can contribute to developmental delays in speech and cognition, and lead to behavioral issues, such as temper tantrums, anxiety and resistance to discipline. “In extreme cases of neglect, with very little interaction between parents or other caregivers, children can develop a variety of pathologies.” Children may be more likely to feel abandoned and unworthy and as they grow older and  may likely be at risk of becoming depressed and angry. In a new animal-based study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, scientists show that distracted parental attention may sometimes have detrimental effects on babies’ development, especially their ability to process pleasure. “The fact that the adolescent mice showed signs of compromised pleasure sensations suggests that just like with sensory systems such as sight and hearing, there may be a critical window in which newborns need to be exposed to certain behaviors from mom in order for their nervous system to develop properly. In this case, the lack of consistent, repetitive and reliable attention appeared to affect the animals’ ability to develop proper emotional connections to help them understand pleasure. “It makes perfect sense,” says Baram. “We do need rhythms and consistent exposure beyond the ears for them to be capable of discerning complex patterns in speech and music. We need patterns for the visual system to develop. I guess we need predictability and consistency for the emotional system to develop”. “What we are proposing is that there is a sensitive period in which maternal care needs to provide consistent patterns and sequences of behavior so the baby’s brain can perceive them to develop normally emotionally. The predictability of maternal care seems to engage the pleasure system, and the pleasure system needs to be engaged so the neurons involved will fire together and then will wire together,” she says. In the past five years, research studies of this phenomenon have multiplied. Linda Blake and Ben Worthen cite studies showing a correlation between increased incidents of child playground injuries and parents’ technology-induced inattention. Another study at Boston Medical Center, conducted by pediatrics specialist Jenny Radesky shows that parents and other caregivers using hand-held devices were more likely to punish children harshly for minor mischief. In recent news from Ohio, a 7 year old died in a car crash when the mother was preoccupied and talking on her cell phone. The mother survived the crash. Another concern is the possible negative health effects of radiation exposures. The International Agency For Research on Cancer, American Cancer Society and the National Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences all agree that studies have raised some concerns and further investigation and research should be conducted, according to the National Cancer Institute. In 2011, after reviewing evidence from a study conducted by 31 scientists around the globe, the World Health Organization categorized non-ionizing radiation as a “carcinogen hazard” next to lead, engine exhaust, and chloroform. What microwave radiation does in most simplistic terms is similar to what happens to food in microwaves, essentially cooking the brain,” Black said. “So in addition to leading to a development of cancer and tumors, there could be a whole host of other effects like cognitive memory function, since the memory temporal lobes are where we hold our cell phones.”  -Dr. Keith Black, chairman of neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. With growing bodies and developing brains, cell phone radiation could potentially have an even greater effect on babies and young children, so minimize their exposures by:

  • Moving phones several feet away from infants and children
  • Turn off when not in use and in close proximity to a child
  • Do not place your phone in the infant carrier or stroller
  • Put your phone on airplane mode while holding or feeding the baby
  • Do not allow infants or young children to use the cell phone as a toy.
  • Use a protective cover while breastfeeding your little ones if you use your cell phone during nursing sessions.

Some experts are beginning to caution against extended cell phone use during breastfeeding or bottle feeding, as numerous studies have found that the feeding time is critical to mother-child bonding and socialization. Dr Kateyune Kaeni, a psychologist specializing in maternal mental health at Calfornia’s Pomona Valley Medical Center says eye-contact is vital in building a secure connection between mother and child. Dr. Kaeni continues “If baby is trying to make contact with you by making noises or smiling and they can’t, they learn over time that they can’t rely on you to respond, it runs the risk of them becoming either anxiously attached to your or insecurely attached to you and they will ramp up their behavior until you pay attention.” She added that a distraction such as a smartphone could mean mums are missing cues that baby is “full or they’re still hungry”. Texting while breastfeeding as even spawned a new term- “brexting”- cell phone use while nursing. In the breastfeeding (and bottle feeding) arena there are other concerns associated with parental inattention. Mothers may miss feeding cues, skip or delay feedings and endanger the infant’s nutritional status and compromise her milk supply. They may also miss subtle cues that the infant is latched incorrectly leading to poor milk transfer. Mothers and their ≤24-week-old bottle-feeding infants (N=28) visited our laboratory for a video-recorded feeding observation. Findings demonstrated that “mindless feeding” is associated with greater infant formula/milk intakes and lower maternal sensitivity to infant cues. On the other side of the coin, some mothers have reported that having technology time provides a welcomed and often necessary reprieve from the responsibilities of parenting. Some felt like they could be more “present” with their infants and children when they had some technology break time. Other parents reported feeling like the use of technology and cell phones has brought their families closer. Some felt that mothers/parents have always had “distractions” like radio, TV or even older children requiring their attention which is no different than technology distractions. Is this a topic that might be considered part of the childbirth education classes or included in parenting or breastfeeding classes? It certainly is an intriguing topic that will certainly become more relevant in the near future. Until then, an awareness of the concerns may help us to respond to parental questions or concerns.

References Brunstrom JM1, Mitchell GL. Effects of distraction on the development of satiety. Br J Nutr.  2006 Oct;96(4):761-9.…/201412/are-you-distracted-parent…/brexting-impacts-baby-bonding-during-breastfeeding 

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