Welcome to my blog, which speaks to parents, professionals who work with children, and policy makers. I aim to show how contemporary developmental science points us on a path to effective prevention, intervention, and treatment, with the aim of promoting healthy development and wellbeing of all children and families.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cell Phones and "Primary Maternal Preoccupation"

Recently I was on vacation at a pool with my kids. 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 cell phone. 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 he was not successful. Her crying escalated. Finally he had to abandon the cell phone as he needed two hands to take her out of the car seat. Then 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 re-reading about D.W. Winnicott's notion of what he called "Primary Maternal Preoccupation'(One shortcoming of Winnicott is that he essentially ignored fathers, so when referring to his work I only refer to mothers. To compensate for this inequality I refer to babies as "he"). This idea 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.

Linda Mayes and colleagues, in fascinating research 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, which is present in high levels in a new mother, is connected to 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 adaptive both for mother and baby.

So what does this have to do with cell phones, which are now ubiquitous in our culture? Adam Phillips , in his biography of Winnicott writes:
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 parent is on a cell phone, he or she is "preoccupied with something else." It is certainly understandable that a person, who may have previously been absorbed with a successful career and is suddenly in the role of spending most of her time with a being that does not talk and requires enormous amounts of care 24 hours a day, would be drawn to the possibility of adult conversation. But I wonder if new parents are aware of the importance to a baby's development of that 'primary maternal preoccupation.' Perhaps if they were, they would consider spending a little less time on the phone.

1 comment:

  1. I have observed the same situation. I'm a GP and not a mother yet...but it infuriates me the fact that people miss their precious moments with their children because they're on the phone...either talking or checking e-mails etc...What is more important than your children and family?
    Thanks for this post, I will make sure I pass it to my friends.