Is ‘brexting’ (breast-feeding your baby whilst using your smartphone) really that bad?
Is brexting really different from watching TV, reading a book or taking a quick nap whilst feeding a baby? Nobody criticised these habits, so why are we finding yet another thing to criticise mums about?
Or do we need to fret? Is a screen more sinister than flicking through a magazine or taking a quick nap whilst our baby feeds?
There’s been a lively debate on mummy-blogs and social media in the last few weeks, addressing this important issue. And I’m going to boldly (perhaps foolishly) step into the arena and share my insights.
This isn’t about mummy guilt
I don’t want to inflame this sensitive issue. Parenting is a contentious issue. There are no hard and fast rules (I learnt that lesson early on).
I want to declare at the start that I’m not intending to make mums feel guilty or ashamed of what they’ve done, or what they consciously choose to do when it comes to feeding their baby. As mums, I think we’re all doing the best that we can do. Period.
I also want to openly declare that yes, I ‘brexted’ with both of my children (more on that later on).
Instead, like all of my work, I simply want this post to arm you with evidence-based information so that you can make informed decisions as to whether or when you’ll brext (or perhaps so you can make an informed contribution to this discussion).
I’m not here to ‘should’ on you.
Feeding time is critical
When mums feed their baby, whether it’s via a bottle or breast, it’s a really critical time for bonding. It’s also a critical time for a baby’s brain development.
You see, when a baby feeds, they engage in a process called ‘facial mapping’. It might look like they’re staring vacantly at you, but their little brains are processing so much information. During facial mapping, babies are actually engaging in some important visual and cognitive tasks.
Facial mapping is a critical part of their development. It’s one reason why we need to spend lots of time holding and playing with babies. They want (and need) to stare at our faces. Research* published in 2012 revealed that infants’ brains respond to faces in a similar way to adults’ brains, even though the rest of their visual system is still developing. Babies, even newborn babies, will stare at faces for longer periods than any other object. We also know that unique regions of their brain light up when gazing at faces.
Therefore, babies need ‘real’ face-time with parents.
We must be really mindful about how we use technology especially around babies when we’re feeding them. Early on, given their limited waking hours, feeding time is a unique opportunity for this facial mapping to occur. They’re simply not awake for much longer than a feed and a quick play and then they’re off snoozing again (hopefully).
If we’re always glued to our smartphone or tablet or always watching TV whilst feeding infants, then our little ones just aren’t getting the direct gaze that their brains need. They want to stare into our eyes, not to always watch our faces simply be illuminated by a screen.
Babies need our direct gaze, not our glazed look as we scroll through our phone.
Why is ‘brexting’ a concern?
As previously explained babies need real face-time with their mother when feeding for the visual and cognitive and emotional development.
But babies simply can’t do this if their mother’s face is always obscured by a phone or tablet device. If a device is interfering with their line of sight, they simply can’t engage in facial mapping.
Do we want our kids thinking our phone is part of visage?
Mums may also miss vital cues from their baby if they’re always immersed in their phone. Those little grimacing faces or signs that they’re full may be overlooked if we’re immersed in our smartphone.
There are also some physical risks associated with brexting, such as dropping your device on your little one (see my confession below).
So what do I suggest?
I’m certainly not suggesting that we should never use our smartphone around our babies, or that we’re a ‘bad’ parent if we watch TV whilst we’re feeding our child. That’s certainly not the case. We just need to make sure that our smartphone isn’t impeding our capacity to connect and bond with our little one.
Those hours and hours spent on the couch or bed can feel like they’ll never end, but I’ve learnt that they do, oh so quickly.
Confession from a brexter…
As I acknowledged before I engaged in brexting with both of my boys. To varying extents.
My first son was a serial-sleeper when he fed. He’d start a feed awake, screaming for dear life, start his feed and would nod off to sleep after a couple of minutes of frantic feeding. So I had few qualms about brexting with him. However, my second guy was the complete antithesis- awake and alert for every feed! And yes, I did ‘brext’ with him.
I admit that my iPhone was a lifeline during the bleary-eyed, early morning feeds with baby # 2. I started off to use it every now and then when I wanted to read a snippet from a blog, or quickly respond to emails that were mounting in my inbox, or catch up on five minutes of trashy TV (my guilty indulgence was Revenge).
But over time, I started to slip into some unhealthy habits, grabbing my phone for every single feed and using it for a lot of the feeding time. Scrolling Facebook and Instagram. Grabbing the uninterrupted time to reply to my bulging inbox or the many unread SMS.
I realised, that I was missing out on some really important time with my little guy, but I also felt overwhelmed by my swelling inbox and the red icon that said I had 10 unread messages.
Sadly, it wasn’t until my little one accidentally swiped my phone with one of his jerky movements (and it almost bumped him on the head) that I realised that my phone habit had become unhealthy (and possibly dangerous).
So I made a conscious and deliberate choice to leave my phone in another room, during some feeds. So there was no temptation to just have a quick peek.
If I’m completely transparent, I certainly didn’t go phone-free for every feed. But I was careful that scrolling my phone was not my default activity for every feed.
So my suggestion, as both a researcher and a mum who’s enjoyed (and endured) the countless hours spent feeding little ones, we just have to make sure that we’re not scrolling our Facebook feed all the time when feeding our little one.
Our babies want and need direct face-time with us. A quick scroll through our phone every now and then is really not going to harm our little one’s development. It really needs to be a balanced approach.
Are we ‘techno-shaming’ mums? Should we leave mums alone?
Didn’t we always read books or magazines whilst feeding and there wasn’t this technophobic paranoia?
However, books and magazines didn’t have the same captivating pull that our smartphones have on us. I’m not going to enter the ‘addiction’ debate, but many of us adults have very strong attachments to our digital devices (anyone else here suffer from ‘nomophobia’? The fear of not having your phone with you?). So it’s hard…really hard for us to sometimes avoid not using these.
In addition, our digital devices also offer a plethora of stimulation and distractions that our 2D book simply didn’t offer. There are videos, sound effects, audio and visual components that can not only distract us but also our babies too.
There’s a difference between using it to stay awake in those early morning feeds when your little one’s asleep (been there plenty of times too and I admit that brexting was my saviour sometimes) and using it every.single.feed at the cost of interacting with your baby.
Smartphones as saviours
For some mums, particularly those of us who have limited family or friend support, motherhood can be a terribly isolating experience. Connecting online can be a wonderful way for us to feel a little more assured, or to seek help when we feel overwhelmed. And sometimes, those feed times are the only times we get to do this.
So we have to be gentle on ourselves. This isn’t a black and white issue. Like everything with parenting, there’s no universal ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do things.
You need to decide how or if you’ll ‘brext’. A little bit, every now and then is unlikely to have detrimental effects, but too much, or all the time is certainly not helping your baby’s development.