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Too much 'brexting' undermines bonding during breastfeeding

New mom Rochelle Gonzalez didn’t use her phone very much during the first four weeks of her baby Ivan Gomez’s life because he was in the neonatal intensive care unit.

But after Ivan, now 12 weeks-old, came home to Ontario, Gonzales found herself using her smartphone nearly every time she breastfed.

"I used it a lot at night to help me 'cause he’s asleep and I'm just waking up. I'd be on it, on Instagram, to help me stay awake," she says.

Experts say Gonzalez’s experience is more and more common, especially among younger and professional moms.  The trend has spurred lively debates on a lot of mommy blogs about whether it's okay to be on the phone while feeding.

There’s even a word for texting while breastfeeding: "brexting."

Experts are beginning to caution against extended smartphone use during breastfeeding or bottle feeding, pointing to studies which have found that feeding time is critical to mother-child bonding.

Distracted moms can miss "important messages"

"It is very hard to bond and talk to the baby if you are on the phone," says Terry Bretscher, a nurse and the lactation supervisor at Pomona Valley Medical Center, where Ivan Gomez was born. 

She says her nurses often run up against this issue as they try to teach new moms how to breastfeed. 

"You assist them latching on and you can see the phone buzzing, they're getting an alert or something, and you see their eyes move down and look at it," says Bretscher. "Sometimes they will actually answer that right then and we go, 'well let's work on this now.'"

A mom distracted by her phone could be ignoring important messages from her baby, says Dr. Kateyune Kaeni, a psychologist specializing in maternal mental health who works with new moms at Pomona Valley.

Babies need moms to respond to them to build a secure attachment whether they’re breast or bottle feeding, she says.

"When babies are first born their vision is only basically from the breast to the mothers face," Kaeni says. "That’s as far as they can see. So babies do a lot of staring and bonding in that way."

A mother "could be missing cues that they’re full or they’re still hungry or their latch isn’t secure or if they are having trouble swallowing," she adds.

A little bit of distraction is okay

A little bit of distraction is fine, she says, especially since new moms are under a lot of pressure and breastfeeding can take a long time. Kaeni does warn against reading or watching content that might create stress or anxiety for the mom, because that also impacts breastfeeding time.

What worries her most, she says, is prolonged distraction.

"If baby is trying to make contact with you by noises or smiles and they can’t and they learn over time that they can’t rely on you to respond, it runs the risk of them becoming either anxiously attached to your or insecurely attached to you and they will ramp up their behavior until you pay attention," Kaeni says.

Pomona Valley Medical Center has one of the busiest labor and delivery units in the region. Bretscher says on average the hospital births more than 20 babies a day.

That gives her nurses plenty of opportunities to talk to moms about cutting down on their screen time while feeding their newborns.

"It's that one-on-one learning," Bretscher says. "This is the most important time to learn 'cause baby is in their room, they’re with them all the time."

The aha moment

Caption: Rochelle Gonzalez holds her napping son Ivan Gomez, 12 weeks, after breastfeeding him. (Elizabeth Aguilera/ KPCC)

New mom Rochelle Gonzalez says she didn't get that kind of tech talk. She says a nurse explained that breastfeeding time is about communication, and helped her understand what to look for with her son.

Gonzalez says the light bulb came on one night after she realized baby Ivan wasn’t latched on during a feeding.

"It’s very easy to say let me check my email, let me do this while I’m doing that," she says, while her baby naps on her lap. "I figured that’s taking away time from me bonding with him."

Gonzalez says now when she breastfeeds she may turn on the TV but mostly she talks to Ivan. 

"I try to leave [my phone] as far away as possible or I’ll charge my phone so this way I'm not tempted, it's harder for me to get up and go get it," she says.

Gonzalez says because of that she can now easily spot the cues the nurse told her about in the hospital.

"If he's getting too much [while eating] his eyebrows come up and if I'm not looking at him I'm not going to know that," she says. "If he's really hungry when he wakes up he has his hands in a fist, and as he eats and he gets relaxed and gets fuller his hands open and his arms go down to the side. If I'm on my phone I'm not going to know that."

At Pomona Valley the lactation team is now strategizing how to expand breastfeeding classes for expectant and new moms to include lessons on the importance of limiting screen time.