Is Your Cell-Phone Addiction Increasing Your Baby’s Risk of ADHD?

Research unveils new reason to ditch the phone when you’re around your baby.

Playing with blocks, practicing tummy time, and rolling around on the living room floor can start off fun, but after you’ve taken 32 pics, from every possible angle, of your cute growing baby, your mind can start to wonder. Before you know it, you’re scanning your Instagram feed and are engulfed in pics of Kylie Jenner’s latest body enhancement.

Don’t feel bad. I do it too.

baby crawling on the grass with mom nearby

But, science has discovered yet another reason to keep the phone away and focus on your child.

According to a 2016 study published in the journal Current Biology, the length of time parents pay attention directly affects an infant’s own attention span. Researchers in the study used specialized head-mounted eye tracking devices to record data from 36 parents and their one-year-old babies. During child-parents free play, they tested how long the babies’ attention span was on an object when the parents were also staring at it, and when they weren’t.

The study’s author, Chen Yu, Ph.D., professor of psychology and brain science at Indiana University, Bloomington states that “if parents join their child’s attention on a toy object, children are more likely to show longer attention on the target object compared with cases in which parents don’t show any attention or interest.”

Current Biology, 2016

What’s even more impressive, the longer parents jointly paid attention to the toy, the longer the babies remained interested in the toy even once the parents had shifted their attention elsewhere.

This study shows that parents have a direct impact on the babies’ developing attention span. Their eyes are upon us!

“This cognitive skill is traditionally viewed as an intrinsic property of individuals, says Yu. Our study shows that it can be changed by real-time behaviors from parents.”

Thus, an infant’s attention span doesn’t develop on its own—it’s influenced by social factors. It makes sense, but I have to say, it’s just not something we as moms really think about. Or, am I the only one? My baby’s attention span? Sorry, I must have been busy pouring my third cup of coffee.

How Your Behavior Influences Your Baby’s Attention Span

When you pay attention, too, it helps guide your baby to stay focused, otherwise, it’s up to your baby when to stop and switch to something else. If you or your partner, or a sibling joins the mix, it is more likely that the baby will show more attention and interest on the object.

Eventually, the few seconds of attention achieved by these routine social interactions between a parent and an infant “will help strengthen pathways in the child’s brain involved in sustaining attention and concentration,” the researchers noted.

So, what they’re really saying is we’re actually setting examples for our children long before we even begin to think of ourselves as role models. It’s fascinating to learn that during the infancy stages, this chubby little pooping machine has actually been observing and learning so much from me far beyond my random mumblings and funny faces. Who knew?

Related: Why You Should Talk to Your Baby Every Chance You Get

Why Baby’s Attention Span Matters

Your baby’s attention span is important to think about because it has an impact on brain development later in life. The longer the attention span, the better the child can self-regulate and stay on task. Self-regulation allows children to manage their emotions, behavior and body movement when faced with difficult situations. Early deficits in attention are indicators for later diagnoses of attention disorders.

The ability to pay attention is also important later in life once they are sitting in the classroom at school.

“Young children always [have] some difficulty to show sustained attention on objects, and they are likely to frequently switch their attention on different objects and different tasks,” Yu says. As children grow, they get better at focusing. “Sustained attention is linked to deeper information processing, and studies have shown sustained attention at younger ages is predictive of later cognitive development, for example problem solving.”

It’s up to us moms, and parents as a whole, to figure out a way to dedicate our undivided attention to our children and not become distracted by the glossy screen and chimes from our smartphones.

How to Help Your Baby Develop

When you are spending time with your child, try to dedicate time to focus completely on him or her. I leave my phone in my bedroom upstairs when I am trying to escape the electronic leash and spend exclusive time with Violet. If you can’t fathom having your phone in a different room than you, at least turn off the sound so you don’t get bombarded with pings and alerts from texts and social media notifications.

Though more research is still needed, Yu suggests these additional three tips to help baby develop and improve your child’s attention span.

  • Parents and caregivers should be actively engaged when playing with kids. This means playing alongside the kids, not just sitting with them in the same room and looking elsewhere or appearing distracted.
  • Let your child lead. “This means that parents should follow their child’s lead as they play and allow the child to express interest in a toy first, Yu said. Then, the parent can explore that interest by naming the toy and encouraging play.” The study found that when parents tried to lead by getting a child to focus on a particular object, they were less successful in gaining the child’s attention.
  • Be responsive to a child’s needs and attention, Yu recommends. The research findings showed that a parent’s responses to their child’s behavior had a real-time impact on the infant’s behavior and attention, he said.

It is easy to fall prey to Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and everything else on the world wide web when times get tiring and humdrum. But, we have to remember our babies are forever watching us with those big curious eyes and drooly smiles, let’s try our best to toss the phone and be present. After all, they are only going to be little for a very short window of time.

And, let’s be real here, there will always be another Hollywood star flaunting their latest assets on Instagram, even after you put the baby down for a nap. I mean, have you seen Madonna’s new butt??

My sentiments exactly.

Is Your Cell-Phone Addiction Increasing Your Baby's Risk of ADHD?

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Author: Brandi Wiatrak

Hey, Mama! I'm Violet's mom and Chris' step-mama, Brandi. This space is a peek into my cold-brew fueled life navigating motherhood and the world. With brutal honesty, humor, and sarcasm, I talk about the joys (and sucks) of parenting, ways to live a simple & sane life, and awesome adventures to embark on with your family. Come aboard my crazy train! Wine and Gerber Puffs included.

5 thoughts

  1. Very interesting article- as a Special Education Teacher, your title caught my eye. I teach high school, and I’m seeing the direct impacts technology has on student’s attention spans in my classroom everyday. I’m curious to see the indirect impacts of their parents technology habits in the next generation. I hope more parents will understand and practice this, as it could have huge learning ramifications!

    1. Brandi Wiatrak says:

      I think technology has been a double edged sword. I notice a huge difference with my 14 year old stepson too since he got a cell phone. He has a shorter attention spans and always appears distracted. Oh, the joys of technology!

  2. Argh. One of those good to read but hard to read posts. Very convicting! My husband and I definitely need to get better at this.

    1. Brandi Wiatrak says:

      It was hard for me to read the research because I am so guilty of this. It’s made me want to try to be better for the sake of my daughter.

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