Smartphones: ‘Mindless scrolling is the enemy to being attuned to your baby’

Warning overuse of smartphones can interfere with a baby’s feeding routines, social-emotional development and language development

The overuse of smartphones among mothers of babies can interfere with a baby’s feeding routines, social-emotional development and language development, a researcher on mother-baby relationships has told a Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) webinar.

“Studies have found that parents are missing the baby’s cues of satiation with the risk of over-feeding and obesity as a long-term consequence of the baby’s inability to regulate their feelings of satiation during feeding routines,” said Miriam McCaleb, who is researching the impacts of mothers’ smartphone use for her PhD at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

Studies have also found that the number of audible notifications on smartphones negatively correlates with the number of words in an 18-month-old baby.

McCaleb, who will speak at the Congress for the World Association for Infant Mental Health in Dublin in July, said that we must prioritise the health of the relationship between mothers and babies. “The more you connect [with your smartphone], the less you connect with your baby,” she said. “Mindless scrolling is the enemy to being attuned to your baby.”


She said that purposeful use of smartphones in the presence of babies to a maximum of about two hours a day is reasonable. McCaleb argued that “responsive care-giving should be a public health priority” and that there should be public health guidelines for parental smartphone use in the presence of infants.

“Doctors, lactation consultants and public health nurses should ask new mothers if they are keeping an eye on their phone use in the same way they are asked about their mental health, their physical health and risks of domestic violence,” she said. Some studies have also found that the overuse of smartphones among new mothers is associated with loneliness.

McCaleb said that none of us are much good at estimating how long we are on our phones during the day. Her research findings from 2019/2020 found that pregnant women increased their screen time from three hours and 25 minutes to four hours and 16 minutes after having their babies. Her 2023 data has found pregnant women are on their phones about five hours a day with 102 pick-ups each day compared with 53 pick-ups in the earlier study. The data on use of smartphones by new mothers in 2023 is not yet complete.

McCaleb was adamant that this is not a “blame or shame” issue and new mothers should subscribe to the good-enough mother model. “The pressure of perfect motherhood is already here and even greater because of social media,” she said.

Instead, she called on systematic changes, and actions by governments and companies, to address the addictive nature of scrolling on smartphones. “It’s unreasonable to design services to be compulsive and then reprimand people for being preoccupied with their devices,” said McCaleb.

As part of her doctorate on how to best support women’s healthy smartphone habits to prioritise parent-infant connection and therefore optimise child development, McCaleb is developing a phone use action plan.

“It’s about keeping in mind the baby’s eye view,” she said. She suggested taking voice calls on speaker phone so the baby can hear the turn-taking and saying excuse me to your baby when you take out your phone to use it. She cautioned new mothers about panic-scrolling for advice and recommended reliable government, hospital or university websites as sources of information.

She also recommended leaving your phone in the car for a while or taking turns with your partner to turn your phone off. “It’s such a treat to turn your phone off for a while. It can be liberating,” she told attendees at the webinar organised by the PSI’s Special Interest Group in Perinatal and Infant Mental Health.

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment