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ParentsJanuary 29, 2020

What real mums have to say about your texting-while-breastfeeding guilt trip

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

A parenting expert has warned mothers against ‘brexting’ or using their phones while breastfeeding. Renee Liang, a paediatrician, poet and mother, responds.

First there was Brangelina, then Brexit and Megxit. And now, apparently, there’s Brexting.

Brexting, the Herald on Sunday solemnly informed us, is the unpardonable sin of texting while breastfeeding. Don’t click – I’ll cover its main points while laughing angrily.

Clinical psychologist Dr Natalie Flynn worries that texting could distract mothers from the crucial task of holding their infant’s gaze as they feed. I don’t remember my newborn making a lot of eye contact, but admittedly things were hazy back then. So I ignored my now school-age kids and used my phone to ask Facebook if brexting was bad.

I got a heap of laughing-face emojis. Also eyeroll emojis. And comments such as, “What eye contact? My baby has her eyes closed the whole time!” and, “I feel that a person with first hand experience of feeding an infant would never pose this question.”

Here’s the thing: I love my phone. I use it to keep track of what my family are doing, to look up everything from scientific papers to what time is best to call London, to chat to friends I can’t see in person but still love from the bottom of my heart, and to text dad to ask whether he wants me to buy him some great prawns I just saw. Sometimes I even use my phone to make a call. My phone keeps me connected. Technology, right? It’s what we use these days to do the same things humans have always done.

I can’t put it more clearly than one mum who responded: “If you’ve been up all fucking night, you’re losing the plot and sleep deprived and need support and solidarity. If you need help because breastfeeding and mothering is really hard and you wonder if you’re doing it right, [those experts can] fuck off. Facebook is the village we need and breastfeeding is a great time to check it.”

Chimed in another: “And you can log in and see that other mums are up with their babies at 2am. And you might feel less alone.”

After I gave birth, a friend joined me to an online forum for Kiwi mums. At first I was dubious, but then I realised its power. Logging on in the early hours of the morning, with that dark stillness outside and no sound but the rhythmical suckling of my baby (eyes closed), I watched as a post appeared from someone I didn’t know, wanting advice about her infant who wasn’t latching. After a few seconds, an answer appeared from another stranger. Then another. By a minute, there were five comments, lighting up from all around our long white cloud (see what I did there). Some gave ideas, most just offered support and sympathy. I had found it. The Village. People gathering virtually around you. It often became real-life friendships.

By contrast, we need parent-shaming from self-appointed “experts” like we need a battery-powered pepper grinder – it’s unnecessary and quickly becomes useless. Such articles are patronising and unnecessary. And I sometimes struggle to believe they’re genuinely well-meant advice.

There’s an entire industry built on the “stay mean, keep ’em keen” philosophy of making parents feel so guilty they’ll buy anything to be better parents. Let’s assume the best, and that it’s a coincidence that Dr Flynn’s new parenting book is prominently mentioned in the fourth line of the serious news article, but there is no shortage of people using scientific pseudobabble to sell things.

Speaking of science, there’s very little actual evidence presented in this article: most of it is reckons, such as Karen from Plunket helpfully suggesting that “mums [should] take every opportunity to be really present with their baby and that can be difficult when they are on the phone.” No shit, Karen. There are quite a lot of things a parent needs to do to, you know, parent, and some of that might involve a phone. But more on that soon.

The sole scientific study mentioned is the Still Face experiment, done at Harvard in the awfully recent 1970s. In this experiment, mothers who were well bonded to their infants were instructed to deliberately blank their facial expression for three minutes. The infants responded by wriggling more and trying everything they could to attract their mum’s attention. When that failed, they gave up and turned their faces away from their mums.

Friends, this is not “proof” that infants are traumatised by three minutes of inattention. This study is about social cognition and how even very young infants can control their behaviours – it’s like catnip for behavioural scientists. In fact, this famous technique is still used, and it’s been proven that there are cultural differences in response.

To really prove that texting while breastfeeding leads to long-term harms, say, in infant development or socialisation, you would need to track children over time, in, say, a longitudinal study. I checked in with my colleagues who work in this field, and there’s still very little published research (more is coming) – definitely not enough that anyone can say with certainty that being on the phone while breastfeeding is harmful. In fact, a Pubmed search turned up (surprise!) many scholarly articles about the utility of supporting breastfeeding mothers by text. There was also an article supporting the idea that having access to social media shielded mothers from stress.

Here’s my revolutionary concept: mothers are people! We are not just milk production machines sitting on a couch going “moo”. We are real people, with real lives. And while we’re at it, can we please ignore all articles pointing the finger at Mothers (capital M) as if there isn’t another partner, grandparent, friend or flatmate in the parenting equation. Has any dad, ever, been told off for having a phone while they bottle feed? Let me know if you hear of one and I’ll buy them coffee.

Mothers are people. We are not bodies to be policed or minds to be “educated”. We have lives, and it might seem odd, but we continue our lives outside of being attached to a breast. But having a phone may actually aid us in multitasking, which no study is needed to tell us we are terribly good at.

Here is my Facebook crowdsourced list of Things People Have Done With Phones While Breastfeeding:

  • written a memoir of parenting (OK, that might have been me)
  • dictated clinic letters (also me)
  • gone internet shopping (guilty, already confessed to that in print)
  • edited The Spinoff’s books section
  • produced a play
  • completed essays on maternal and infant nutrition & human lactation for Massey
  • refinanced a mortgage
  • launched legal action
  • planned a 70th birthday party
  • worked out whether to sleep train or not using online forums
  • sourced advice about medical treatment for baby
  • watched TV. Yes, just because you have a baby doesn’t mean you have to give up Netflix.

And so on.

Also, how could the marketing guys sell us apps for breastfeeding if we weren’t allowed our phones?

Here’s my conclusion. Firstly, wearing my scientist hat: there is no evidence that all phone use while parenting will harm your baby. Nothing in science is cut and dried, and even when the study results start being reported my hunch is that there will be some benefits and some harms, and it will be up to each individual to weigh their decision.

Secondly, as a media person it is poor form to present marketing as expert advice. Doing so might inadvertently expose your “experts” to righteous motherly rage, as happened to Dr Harry Nespolon, GP, who’s quoted in the article. As poor old Michael Leunig found out recently, this is to be avoided.

Thirdly, wearing my clinician hat: clinicians and other “experts” need to stop being complicit in judging women for their choices. It doesn’t change behaviour (actual research has shown). As shown by my most excellent colleague Dr Maneesh Deva, support and understanding is best. It’s particularly problematic when this judgement comes from other women, because this is really about who controls women’s bodies.

Finally, as a mother, who breastfed continuously for five years (two babies): I simply wouldn’t have been able to do other things, and hence be the person I am, if people looked at me and only saw me as a mother. I am a parent and so much more. So is every parent.

Keep going!