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Maternal Distraction

By: Kimanta Moodley (Intern Educational Psychologist)

In our busy modern lives, technology can often distract parents away from being fully focused and preoccupied with their new babies. What does this mean for moms, dads and their babies?

One Sunday afternoon, I was reading through the Sunday Times Newspaper and came across a very interesting article. The first thing that drew my attention to the article was a picture of a baby lying on the bed while her mother was looking down at her ipad. I can’t recall the article word-for-word but I do remember reading something about how this mother was on her ipad and chatting to her sister on Whatsapp, at times when she was breastfeeding her little one or when she was lying down. This is something that this mother admitted to doing as it was one of the only times she had the chance to “catch up” with her friends and family. This image struck me, first as something that seems quite common in modern society. Working mothers, have lots to juggle and while baby is feeding and apparently settled; the opportunity is taken to “try get some work done”. This seems like the norm nowadays and I am not writing this blog to take that away from working mothers. Moreover, I am trying to open up thinking around the possibilities of what this could mean for baby.

Another article I read online, described a father sitting by the poolside, while talking on the phone. His little girl who is in her baby seat, at first seems content and smiling as dad is busy on the phone. However, she starts to become unsettled as time passes. Her dad notices this and shakes a rattle in front of her to try and settle her as he is still busy on his call. However, baby is still not soothed by this and eventually starts kicking and screaming to get her dad’s attention before letting out a loud cry. Only then does dad end his phone call. He then takes her out of her baby seat, picks her up and walks around the pool side with her, which seems to settle her almost immediately. The image of a father who is preoccupied by what can be assumed to be a business or personal call comes up. And again, I wonder, what happens to baby?

It is important to think about the experience of the baby:

When mom or dad may be distracted by external things, it is important that we think about how this may be experienced by the small baby. Work is something that has to be done to survive and take care of our families. However, the moments in which a mother or father are preoccupied with their cellphone or ipad or some form of technology may actually occur at a time when they think baby is not really present, i.e. because they are feeding or playing with a toy. However, this may not always the case. It may come across to a baby when they are feeding or sitting in their baby chair playing with a toy that their mom is not present or disengaged at a time that they may be trying to connect. Why? Because mom is on her cellphone chatting to a friend or relative or putting a project together for work and their attention is elsewhere and therefore not on baby. They are “preoccupied with something else”.

It’s difficult for parents to divide up their own internal emotional resources:

Another example that comes to mind is a working parent who comes home from work. She is tired and she still has to cook dinner. The children are home from school and they are all hyped-up about their day and wanting to show and tell mom all about this. Mom or dad is not only tired from her busy day at work but they also have to think of preparing supper and getting the rest of the things sorted for the evening. They have a lot on their minds and when children come bouncing in and wanting to tell or show mom and dad all about this; it can feel very overwhelming. There may even be a moment in which it feels like it’s too much and mom or dad may explode with “don’t bother me now; I have so many things to do!” It is so hard for parents to divide their emotional resources between too many people and the demands of their day-to-day lives. However, this explosive reaction is not useful to children; because it gives them the impression that mom or dad has so much going on that they can’t share the excitements and challenges of their day.

What messages are we giving to our children when we are busy?

Using some theory to help us think about this more, an article by Claudia Gold comes to mind. She speaks about Winnicott’s concept of “Maternal Preoccupation “which “captures the way in which parents in a healthy way are completely absorbed with their young infant and attentive to his every nuance of expression. It is through this kind of mirror role that an infant begins to make sense of who he is.”(Gold, 2010). This is so important for a child’s development. If we think about the examples above, a baby, who experiences their mother as being preoccupied with a cellphone or some other form of technology, may not develop a good sense of themselves as their experience of their mother is one who is not present. “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.” (Winnicot as cited in Gold, 2010). This may be internalized as a poor sense of self. This is something important, especially for new parents to think about when it comes to their babies. What am I doing now that may affect my baby’s development, self-esteem and self-worth? Can I not do this at another time and spend those extra minutes focused on my baby?

Some tips to help parents be with their babies in a busy world:

  1. Take a moment for yourself:

Finding a place of serenity in the hype of everyday life can be useful, especially in stressful times like this. Allowing yourself a moment or two to settle your own thoughts and feelings can do a lot for you, especially when you have a million other things do to and children who require your undivided attention and love.

  1. Set a rule in the house that prioritizes relationships:

For example, ensure that every day when the family returns home, you have special time to be with family members, despite the to-do list.

  1. Choose when to focus on work:

Try to get work done, especially if you have a small baby. Try do your work when baby is sleeping or at crèche so that during feeding time or nappy changing time you are not focusing elsewhere, but can instead be with your baby in a more intimate way.

Ububele hopes to continue to nurture and support the relationship between caregivers and their babies!


Gold, C. (2010). Cell Phones and “Primary Maternal Preoccupation”. Retrieved from:

Spencer, P. (n.d.) Positive Reinforcement: 9 Things You Shouldn’t Say to Your Child. Retrieved from:

Farber, T. (2016-01-17).Smartphones may be retarding your baby’s development, new study shows. Sunday Times News.

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