Should women text on their phones while breastfeeding?

Is using your smartphone while breastfeeding bad for the bond with your baby? New Hong Kong mothers say it is not a problem and the smartphone stops them feeling isolated.
PHOTO: Pixabay

The pressure to be the perfect breastfeeding, yoga-practising, plastic-free mum has never been more intense. So when a male family doctor told an Australian newspaper that scrolling on your phone while breastfeeding may damage the bond between mother and baby, new mums in Hong Kong were incensed.

Anjali Muthanna, from Discovery Bay, was one mother who voiced her frustration online, when someone shared the story from the Courier Mail on a local Facebook group.

"There are too many people who feel they're entitled to tell women what they should do with their bodies. There are also so many theories on how to raise children perfectly, but they aren't all very practical. It puts a lot of pressure on new mums, and mums in general, and it seems that they're getting fed up of it," says Muthanna, who is breastfeeding her seven-month-old daughter Arya Shrinagesh.

The Courier Mail story featured a comment from Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Harry Nespolon who said the habit of using a smartphone while breastfeeding - known as brexting - may affect children's development and relationships.

The article also referred to the Still Face experiment developed by Edward Tronick at the Harvard Medical School in 1975, which demonstrated how an infant relies on stimulation from their mother's face and becomes withdrawn when met with a blank expression.

PHOTO: Pixabay

Nespolon told the Post that the impact of using a smartphone while feeding was an "important issue" that needed to be verified, and some experts believed there was evidence that it affects bonding.

"Mothers have traditionally used feeding, including [with a] bottle, as a time to bond with their infants. It is possible that putting a phone between the mother and child will disturb this relationship," he says.

But Hong Kong midwife Pascale Maitre, who has cared for mothers of many different cultures for 28 years, says smartphones allow mothers to connect to the outside world, which improves their mental state and reduces isolation.

"I don't see how her stare becomes blank when she breastfeeds. The fact she uses her phone to communicate with her friends, give news and be aware of the world's news, or even ask for advice, helps her maintain social connections.

"Her mental state is, I believe, the most important thing during the interaction between mother and child. It is proven that the baby knows and feels when his mother is blooming and happy. Let's stop criticising mothers - all of this is biased and exaggerated. Let's give mothers more freedom of choice and instinct towards their baby."

Muthanna agrees, and says her smartphone helped her with breastfeeding problems.

"I do feel there is merit to the warning, especially for new mothers who need to pick up on their baby's cues in the early days when the only way your baby can communicate is by crying. However, in my case, having a smartphone really helped me because I had latching issues and a consequent low supply.

"Checking breastfeeding support groups on Facebook really helped me because I realised just how many mothers were facing the same issue," she adds.

New mother Jenny Procter, from Sai Kung in Hong Kong's New Territories, says she uses her phone to keep herself awake when feeding two-month-old Douglas, particularly during the "lonely dark hours".

A male doctor’s remarks about breastfeeding and texting have some Hong Kong mothers up in arms. PHOTO: Pixabay

"I think if a mother were to spend all of the time she breastfeeds on her phone, then both she and the baby would be missing out on an opportunity. As a teacher, I strongly believe that talking with your child from an early age is beneficial to their communication and literacy skills.

"All that said, a newborn feeds up to 10 times a day and, having just gone through nine months of pregnancy and who knows what sort of birth experience, most mothers struggle to remember what day of the week it is, or how to put their knickers on the right way. So a little bit of time on the phone to help keep the eyes open in the small hours does no harm."

She says "judgmental" articles telling mothers that using their phones is bad for bonding might scare impressionable mothers.

"Maybe mums should be praised for using their phones to reach out to others rather than to sit alone worrying or falling asleep. Or perhaps mothers could have constructive suggestions as to what alternatives there are," she adds.

Nespolon acknowledges the huge benefits of using a phone to gain breastfeeding support, but still questions the necessity of constantly chatting to relatives.

"The benefits of allowing mothers to be less isolated by being able to connect with families and friends is a huge benefit, especially where the mother is not living close to her family. The ability, where available, to get advice and support for breastfeeding will help to keep mothers breastfeeding where they might be in difficulty. The other side of this is that face-to-face advice may be preferable.

"The question really is when do they access this help? It might be helpful for advice while they are breastfeeding. Chatting to relatives every time the mother is breastfeeding may not," he adds.

Since he is incapable of breastfeeding himself, Procter strongly believes Nespolon's comments are misjudged.

"What experience does he have of breastfeeding during the night? I think the response to his original comments speaks for itself. From what I read, most people, women and men, condemned his judgment and assumptions and stood up to support breastfeeding mothers and what they endure," Procter says.

"Sometimes it is a bit of an endurance test, to satisfy their babies' hunger day and night regardless of how tired they might be or how they might be feeling."

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.