Phones and the Pregnant Mother

We may believe that phones can only have an impact on attachment and mental health when the baby is born, however research has found that mobile phone usage can have an impact on attachment of the pregnant mother to their baby. A study by Hood et al, (2022) examined the influence of device use on parents’ thoughts, feelings and behaviours towards their baby whilst in utero. The study found that device use was correlated with both disrupted and enhanced connectedness, and also increased levels of parental stress.

Why is prenatal attachment important?

Simply put, how well the mother attaches to the baby in utero has an impact on how well the mother and baby will attach when the child is born. Healthy attachment is necessary for mental health and good relationships, both of which are essential for success with friends, partners, in education and in careers.

Prenatal attachment predisposes the infant to the nature of their attachment relationship in early childhood and is likely to remain stable throughout early childhood (Trombetta et al. 2021), therefore poor prenatal attachment may cause poor childhood attachment. Furthermore, it is indicative of the nature of attachment relationships after birth and a determinant of positive parenting (Benoit, Parker, and Zeanah 1997; Theran et al. 2005). For example, a Swedish study conducted in 2000 by Siddiqui and Hagglof found that those with higher scores on the Prenatal Attachment Inventory (a questionnaire designed to assess prenatal attachment) had significantly higher scores of observed maternal involvement, sensitivity and stimulation during interactions with their infants 12weeks following birth.

Parent-child attachment is essential for healthy psychological development, it provides a stable foundation for healthy child development. Healthy attachment has been evidenced to have a positive impact on a number of developmental factors including:

  • Cognitive development such as IQ scores (McCormick, O’Connor, and Barnes 2016)
  • Literacy and numeracy (West, Mathews, and Kerns 2013)
  • Socio-emotional development such as behaviour (Ding et al. 2014)
  • Coping skills (Zimmer-Gembeck et al. 2017)
  • Physical development such as obesity risk (Powell et al. 2017)
  • Physical activity (Li, Bunke, and Psouni 2016).

How is attachment impacted by technology?

Studies have found that technology in the home can have a positive impact, for example watching films together can improve feelings of connectedness through shared experiences. However, when it comes to devices, they can have an adverse impact on attachment. Technology has been found to interrupt parent-child engagement time in unstructured play (McDaniel and Coyne 2019), in addition to this, devices can distract the parent, leading to decreased sensitivity and responsiveness to the child’s needs (Radesky et al. 2014), all of which impact attachment. Transitioning into parenthood can be a challenging time, as such expectant mothers seek support in many different ways, quite often in the form of apps. There are more pregnancy related apps than for any other medical related issue (Tripp et al, 2014), this suggests that expectant mothers utilise these resources to find information and connection which help ease the transition into becoming a parent. However, device use in pregnancy has been linked to lower birth weights, with increased anxiety and depression and poorer sleep (Lu et al. 2017). Even prior to birth, the ease of access to phones and devices may potentially, have an adverse impact on the mental health of the mother, attachment to the infant, and poorer pregnancy outcomes. That said, the mother as may feel as though these apps and devices are supporting her through a difficult and challenging time. As with everything, the key is to have a healthy balance and maintain boundaries surrounding device use. Becoming a parent is daunting and therefore apps and devices which facilitate this transition are useful. It’s just important to be mindful of how much time an individual is spending on their devices and to ensure that their device isn’t being used to supress uncomfortable feelings which the mother might be experiencing, as this may suggest it is being used as a coping strategy rather than exploring what she is feeling uncomfortable or concerned about. Establishing the causes of distress, which lead to the need to seek out coping strategies, is the most helpful way of dealing with psychological distress.
Main Risks of overusing devices in pregnancy:
  • Adverse impact on attachment to the baby
  • Potential impact on attachment post partum
  • May indicate the presence of avoidance coping strategies
  • Can impact pregnancy outcomes such as birth weight
  • Has been linked to poorer sleep
  • Has been linked to anxiety and depression
What can I do?
  • Knowledge is power, once you know what the risks are, you can make better choices regarding your phone use.
  • Be mindful of how much you use your devices.
  • Consider whether your devices are a coping strategy or whether they are being used healthily.
  • Implement healthy coping strategies, these could be talking to someone you trust, seeking therapy, journaling, reading a book, going for a walk, exercising.
  • Set boundaries on your device usage and aim to stick to them.
  • Balance is key. Phones and devices are useful in so many ways, it’s not realistic to think of getting rid of them entirely but limiting your reliance on them can be liberating.

Benoit, D., K. C. H. Parker, and C. H. Zeanah. 1997. “Mothers’ Representations of Their Infants Assessed Prenatally: Stability and Association with Infants’ Attachment Classifications.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines 38 (3): 307–313. doi:10.1111/j.1469- 7610.1997.tb01515.x.

Ding, Y., X. Xiu, Z. Wang, H. Li, and W. Wang. 2014. “The Relation of Infant Attachment to Attachment and Cognitive and Behavioral Outcomes in Early Childhood.” Early Human Development 90 (9): 459–464. doi:10.1016/j. earlhumdev.2014.06.004.

Rebecca Hood, Juliana Zabatiero, Desiree Silva, Stephen R. Zubrick & Leon Straker (2022) ‘There’s good and bad’: parent perspectives on the influence of mobile touch screen device use on prenatal attachment, Ergonomics, 65:12, 1593-1608, DOI: 10.1080/00140139.2022.2041734

Li, R., S. Bunke, and E. Psouni. 2016. “Attachment Relationships and Physical Activity in Adolescents: The Mediation Role of Physical Self-Concept.” Psychology of Sport and Exercise 22: 160–169. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport. 2015.07.003.

McDaniel, B., and S. Coyne. 2019. “Technology Interference in the Parenting of Young Children: Implications for Mothers’ Perceptions of Coparenting.” Social Science Journal 53: 435–443.

McCormick, M. P., E. E. O’Connor, and S. P. Barnes. 2016. “Mother–Child Attachment Styles and Math and Reading Skills in Middle Childhood: The Mediating Role of Children’s Exploration and Engagement.” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 36: 295–306. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2016. 01.011.

Powell, E., L. Frankel, T. Umemura, and N. Hazen. 2017. “The Relationship between Adult Attachment Orientation and Child Self-Regulation in Eating: The Mediating Role of Persuasive-Controlling Feeding Practices.” Eating Behaviors 26: 121–128. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2017.02.006.

Radesky, J. S., C. J. Kistin, B. Zuckerman, K. Nitzberg, J. Gross, M. Kaplan-Sanoff, M. Augustyn, and M. Silverstein. 2014. “Patterns of Mobile Device Use by Caregivers and Children during Meals in Fast Food Restaurants.” Pediatrics 133 (4): e843–e849. doi:10.1542/peds.2013-3703.

Siddiqui,A.,andB.Hagglof.2000.“DoesMaternalPrenatal Attachment Predict Postnatal Mother–Infant Interaction?” Early Human Development 59 (1): 13–25. doi:10.1016/ S0378-3782(00)00076-1.

Theran, S. A., A. A. Levendosky, G. Anne Bogat, and A. C. Huth-Bocks. 2005. “Stability and Change in Mothers’ Internal Representations of Their Infants over Time.” Attachment & Human Development 7 (3): 253–268. doi:10. 1080/14616730500245609.

Tripp, N., K. Hainey, A. Liu, A. Poulton, M. Peek, J. Kim, and R. Nanan. 2014. “An Emerging Model of Maternity Care: Smartphone, Midwife, Doctor? Women and Birth.” Women and Birth 27 (1): 64–67. doi:10.1016/j.wombi.2013.11.001.

Trombetta, T., M. Giordano, F. Santoniccolo, L. Vismara, A. M. DellaVedova,andL.Rolle.2021.“Pre-NatalAttachment and Parent-to-Infant Attachment: A Systematic Review.” Frontiers in Psychology 12. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.620942.

West, K., B. Mathews, and K. Kerns. 2013. “Mother-Child Attachment and Cognitive Performance in Middle Childhood: An Examination of Mediating Mechanisms.” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 28 (2): 259–270. doi:10. 1016/j.ecresq.2012.07.005.

Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J., H. J. Webb, C. A. Pepping, K. Swan, O. Merlo, E. A. Skinner, E. Avdagic, and M. Dunbar. 2017. “Review: Is Parent–Child Attachment a Correlate of Children’s Emotion Regulation and Coping?” International Journal of Behavioral Development 41 (1): 74–93. doi:10. 1177/0165025415618276.