Claudia M. Gold

Distracted parenting: Hang up and see your baby

By Claudia M. Gold
June 14, 2010

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RECENTLY I was on vacation sitting by a pool. I noticed a father with his infant daughter who looked to be about 3 months old. Perched on a table in her car seat, she sat kicking and smiling. Her father faced her, but was talking on his cellphone. He distractedly shook the rattle hanging in front of her as he spoke in an animated way with the person on the other end of the line.

His daughter continued to smile and kick for a while. Gradually, however, she slowed down. She became quiet. Then she began to fuss. Still on the phone, he made more intense efforts to engage her with the rattle. But her crying escalated. Finally he had to abandon the cellphone as he needed two hands to take her out of the car seat. He picked her up and held her, walking around the pool in an effort to quiet her, which eventually he did.

I was thinking about this scene when reading about D.W. Winnicott’s notion of what he called “primary maternal preoccupation.’’ Winnicott was a kind of British Dr. Spock of the 20th century. Through his work as a pediatrician and psychoanalyst, he offered great insight into parent-child relationships. He used this term to describe what he considered to be a kind of benign illness that, for the first three to four months of an infant’s life, is not only healthy, but very important for a baby’s development.

In a natural way, through single-minded focus and intense identification with her baby, a mother is exactly in tune with this little person who is completely dependent on her. She knows what the baby is communicating without words. She interprets the child’s every move and facial expression, knowing when he or she needs to be changed, or fed, or simply held. A mother knows this without ever having been taught or read any books. It is something that mothers usually do without effort and unselfconsciously.

Linda Mayes and colleagues at the Yale Child Study Center are examining the neurobiology of this maternal behavior and its effect on the developing infant brain.

For example, they have shown that oxytocin, a hormone that facilitates both labor and breastfeeding, is associated with what under other circumstances might be called obsessive compulsive behavior, but in the setting of having a new baby is not only normal but highly beneficial both for mother and baby.

So what does this have to do with cellphones? Primary maternal preoccupation refers not only to knowing when to feed or change a baby. A mother, by reflecting her baby’s facial expressions, helps him to manage and make sense of his feelings. It is through this kind of mirror role that an infant begins to develop a sense of self.

Adam Phillips, a biographer of Winnicott, captures this idea well. “When the infant looks at the mother’s face, he can see himself, how he feels reflected back in her expression. If she is preoccupied by something else, when he looks at her he will only see how she feels. He will not be able to get ‘something of himself back from the environment.’ He can only discover what he feels by seeing it reflected back. If the infant is seen in a way that makes him feel that he exists, in a way that confirms him, he is free to go on looking.’’

When a person is on a cellphone, she is “preoccupied with something else.’’ It is certainly understandable that a parent would be drawn to the possibility of adult conversation. Mothers may fear losing their minds in the face of the seemingly simplistic tasks of feeding, holding, and diaper changes. But in fact they are laying down the foundations of their babies’ healthy emotional development.

In our culture, unfortunately, new parents may not be supported in a way that frees them to surrender to their new role. And perhaps parents are not aware of the importance to a baby’s development of “primary maternal preoccupation.’’ If they were, they might, just for those first few critical months, consider spending less time on their cellphones.

Dr. Claudia M. Gold is a pediatrician in Great Barrington.

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