Devices, Babies & Attachment

Healthy attachment is essential for healthy psychological development and for mental health throughout the lifetime. Without healthy attachment from birth, a child can go on to develop unhelpful and unhealthy personality traits which may cause them difficulties later in life, potentially leading them on the path to develop mental health problems as they mature.

Research has evidenced that insecure attachment is a predisposing factor in the development of addictive behaviours such as addiction to food (Holgerson et al, 2018), alcoholism (Laurette et al, 2020), tobacco dependence (Serra et al, 2019), drug addiction (Lv et al, 2020) and mobile phone addiction (Han-Yu Liang et al, 2021). The reason that this happens is because when an individual experiences insecure attachment with their primary caregiver, they continue to seek out a healthy attachment object to replace the insecure attachment from the parent. They may become attached to other ‘objects’ such as a cigarette, alcohol, or even a mobile phone by way of seeking out the secure attachment that they crave on a deep level. Sadly though, many of these replacement attachment objects can cause further distress for the individual, rather than helping to heal them. These attachment wounds caused in infancy will follow an individual throughout their lives, presenting in different ways.

What is attachment?

Attachment refers to the ability of an infant to attach to its primary caregiver. The ability for the parent to respond to the needs of the baby has an impact on the psychological development of that baby, most importantly it can have an impact on attachment. Babies require their primary caregivers to be emotionally present, to respond to their needs in order for the baby to feel safe and secure. A baby will attach to its parent through feeding, through eye contact, through touch, through the parents ability to understand the needs of the baby and respond appropriately; in essence as a result of the parent being responsive to the needs of the baby. However, sometimes there are situations which will impact the ability of the baby to attach to the parent, this could be mental illness such as post-natal depression, alcoholism, drug use or other addictions such as mobile phone addiction. The reason why these problems impact attachment and bonding is because the parent is unable to be emotionally present for the infant, they are detached themselves whether through mental illness, being intoxicated or being absent. Whatever the reason, it can cause psychological difficulties for the infant.

Insecure attachment is associated with a number of mental health problems such as physical health problems, chronic pain, relationship difficulties, addictions and mental health problems. It can have a lifelong impact for the infant. With this in mind, we can see how damaging it can be if a primary caregiver is unable to be emotionally present with their infant as the result of something like addiction to devices. As with all addictions, there is an underlying issue driving the behaviour, a reason why the individual feels that they need to distract themselves from the present moment but insecure attachment predisposes an individual to addictive behaviours. Herein we can already see the cycle of addiction that may perforate through generations of a family.

The easy to hide addiction:

When a baby is born, there are usually others around the baby that may be able to spot the warning signs of distress in the parent, signs which may be indicative of a deeper problem that requires some form of psychological intervention. These problems may have an impact on the ability of the parent to attach with the baby. Consequently, recognition of this issue by others in the support network of the parent would lead to an intervention of some sort, whether that is a family member or health professional stepping in and escalating the situation where possible or necessary. However, for this intervention to happen, there needs to be a recognition of a problem, this is quite easy to see when a parent chooses to be drunk around the baby for example.

What happens when the issue causing the parent to be emotionally distracted is something like a phone? Something that is socially acceptable, where it is hard to recognise the use of the phone as a coping strategy, distraction or addiction? In this case, it may be much harder to see that the phone is acting much in the same way as other addictions do, it gives the user a distraction from the world that they are living in. If the primary caregiver is addicted to their phone, it could impact their ability to be emotionally present, thereby impacting their attachment with their baby resulting in a similar psychological impact for the baby as an emotionally absent mother, at the extreme end of the spectrum.


Furthermore, using devices and being online can have a negative impact on the mental health of parents. Becoming a parent is a huge lifechanging experience and it can take time to get used to the changes in your relationships, freedoms, career and priorities. As such spending time on social media can cause distress for the parent as well as preventing them from processing the emotions that they are feeling. If the parent is psychologically distressed, it can impact the psychological health of the baby, this may not be obvious which the child is still a baby, but may present as personality traits as the child develops.

Main Risks:

  • Overuse of devices impacting how emotionally present the parent is, thereby impacting attachment.
  • Difficult to spot because device use is socially acceptable and a normal part of daily life.
  • Social media can impact the mental health of the mother, consequently impacting the psychological development of the baby.

How to become aware of this:

  • Be mindful of the amount of time you spend online.
  • Ask yourself why you are reaching for your device, is it necessary.
  • Be conscious of how you feel when you are online.
  • How often does your baby cry for you whilst you are scrolling?
  • Do you regularly feel that you are being interrupted on the phone by your baby?
  • If the answer is yes, you may be spending too much time online.
  • Consider what your device is soothing for you.
  • How do you feel when you aren’t with your phone or aren’t on your phone.

What can I do?

  • Keep a phone diary of your usage and feelings.
  • Ensure that you are regularly getting out once a day and meeting with people in real life.
  • Make a conscious effort to limit your device usage, set boundaries around how much time you spend on your phone.
  • Create no phone/device spaces in your home, such as the bedroom.
  • Put your phone on airplane mode when you are out for a walk, you can still have your phone for safety and other functions such as the camera, but you won’t be regularly interrupted by it.
  • Reach out and talk to others if you find that you are struggling with your mental health.
  • Join a parent’s group, it’s important to have a community of people who understand the stage of life that you are in.
  • Speak to your doctor if you feel that your emotions are unmanageable.