Why Looking at Your Phone May Hurt Your Baby

A mother holding a baby while us a cell phone
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So a scientist from California did a study on a bunch of rats and concluded...drumroll please...that we are all bad parents for looking at our phones.


Me too. So let's break it down.

The Study

Dr. Tallie Z. Baram and friends at the Conte Center on Brain Programming in Adolescent Vulnerabilities in California basically did a study that looked at how "fragmented" care by the mother rats affected the baby rats as they become teenage rats.

They found that any "fragmented" care--essentially interrupted care--really impacted how the baby rat brains developed and that more of those baby rats grew up into teen rats with some depression problems.

The rats who hadn't experienced consistent maternal attention actually didn't play with their rat friends as much and skipped out on eating special sugar rat treats because they were so lost in their little rat funk. This was because the way the rats had been treated as babies changed the way their brains functioned and how they experienced happiness levels on a chemical level. Or in other words, their mothers' lack of attention damaged their brains so much it left them depressed.

What A Study About Rats Has To Say About Babies

Because we know that depression and other mental health disorders can be trigged by interactions between someone who has the genes to be at risk for it and something in the environment that can 'trigger" that depression, this study took what could happen in rat babies and applied it to human babies.

Or, in other words, how we treat our babies early on shapes the way that their brains develop. And in some cases, even if we don't realize it, getting distracted on a consistent, daily, hourly, or minute-by-minute basis by the constant interruptions of our phones from calls, emails, texts, and SnapChats, we may be harming our babies and putting them at risk for problems down the roads.

It's not so much that we are ignoring our babies as we are inconsistent and interrupted with our reactions and responses with them.

For example, 10 years ago, if your baby was crying, you might have responded instantly to his cues. But today, if you're a working parent and you're in the middle of typing a super important email to your boss, your baby might just come second—and that decision could have a consequence.

What This Study Means For You As A Parent

I will say I did not appreciate that this study put so much blame on mothers, ahem, because mothers are not the only parents caring for babies, am I right? But overall, I'm taking this study with a grain of salt, because since when has life ever allowed us to place uninterrupted, total and complete attention, 24/7 on our babies?

I can't picture those cavewomen back in the day saying, Sorry, I can't get this fire going for dinner to cook that hunk of meat my man just killed because I must give my children my complete and undivided attention, can you?

Parenting is a part of life and life isn't smooth, uninterrupted, and perfect, so in my mind, I say we can take this study as a good reminder to put the phone down once in a while (always a good idea!) but to also realize that technology is definitely a part of life that is never, ever going away, so we have to learn to balance the benefits with the distractions.

If you're a mom with a young baby, that might mean putting down the phone while you're nursing your baby (something I was so guilty of!) and making that crucial eye contact with your little one or if you have an older baby, around the six-month-age, try putting your phone away (except for pictures, of course!) for longer blocks of time so you can focus on playing with your baby or reading to him or her. I think the key to takeaway from this study is that when you're focused on your baby, be focused on your baby and when you need to use your phone, use your phone and then put it away. 

Because after all, there's nothing that really can beat the sight of your little one, right?


Molet, J., et al. (January, 2016). Fragmentation and high entropy of neonatal experience predict adolescent emotional outcome. Translational Psychiatry. http://www.nature.com/tp/journal/v6/n1/full/tp2015200a.html.