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Face time and the problem with masks and phones

Miriam Mccaleb says that issues around face coverings highlight a greater problem for this generation of babies – our use of smartphones. By Kate Barber

Miriam McCaleb cannot emphasise enough the importance of a baby’s attachment to their mother. Wholly dependent on her to meet their needs in order to survive, “for a baby, attaching to Mum is as importantas food and oxygen,” she says.

Currently part of a research team at the University of Canterbury investigating the role of smartphones in the lives of mothers and babies, Miriam says that masks and phones are both barriers to a baby as they look to attach to their mother.

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Within minutes of birth, babies can make out faces, and they pick out one very special face in particular. Staring firstly at their mother’s mouth for cues of safety, a baby will then stare into her eyes as this attachment begins to form, says Miriam. 

“Having someone gazing lovingly at them soothes their nervous system, which allows them to digest food and settle.” And, over time, as a baby focuses on your face, they begin to make sense of their physical and social world through their attachment to you. 

The current situation where most of us wear masks in public is fraught because babies are periodically denied full access to faces – notably, your face.

Yet face coverings highlight another big problem for the babies of Generation Alpha, as they contend with smartphones disrupting their interactions with their most significant other. 

On average, new mothers in New Zealand are on their phones four hours a day, says Miriam. 

But the problem with smartphones is not simply that of the time we spend on them, but how unpredictable and disruptive the notifications are – how they suddenly pull our attention away
from our babies.

In the 1970s, a study was done into the “Still Face Paradigm”, which showed how stressful it is for babies when their mothers go from being animated and responsive to having a blank, unresponsive face. 

Miriam says that the randomness of smartphone use creates uncertainty in a baby’s nervous system. Each day babies may be subjected to multiple incidences of “still face” when the person caring for them checks their phone or responds to a text, which, for a baby, can be confusing and stressful. When notifications frequently disrupt time with Mum, babies are at risk of “learning that they can’t trust social engagement.”

On a neuro-hormonal level, says Miriam, our smartphones are competing with our precious babies for a dopamine hit – that is, the neurochemical that makes us feel good. 

But Miriam is quick to stamp down hard on any implication that mothers should be made to feel guilty about this. Phones are designed to be alluring, “and it’s not your fault if you’re tempted by them,” she says. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and alone at times, especially when up half the night feeding and trying to settle a new baby, “and yet we censure mums for looking at their phones”.

At a time when many mothers feel isolated, exhausted and anxious, phones can serve as a lifeline.

As we pause to consider the world through the eyes of a baby, a conversation about masks highlights the related threat posed by smartphones. However, there is much we can do to counter the impact of these barriers and change our habits, and ultimately enjoy more beautiful face time with our babies. 

Research tells us that in their first 1000 days a baby’s brain develops a blueprint for the sort of brain it needs for life. It is the strength of their relationship with their most responsive carer, usually Mum, that drives their brain development during this critical period. 

Miriam’s Advice 


  • Talk to your baby through the mask.
  • When not wearing your mask, maximise facial interactions with your baby.
  • Let infants and children see the mask and then put it on your face. Play peekaboo with
    the mask on and then off, so that children see that you are smiling under the mask. 


  • Think about using your phone deliberately, mindfully, purposefully.
  • Have physical cues to remind you, like putting it in the nappy bag when baby is awake and
    using it only when baby is asleep. 
  • When you can, turn off audible notifications. 
  • When you use your phone in front of your kids, including babies, try to get in the habit of making eye contact with them and saying out loud, “Would you excuse me for just a minute so I can reply to this message?” That way, they know that this is temporary and that their interaction with you is important. Then say, “Right, I am finished with that now”. Get in the habit of defining what you’re doing, so your phone use has a beginning and an end, and a specific purpose, and so it isn’t just a random interruption where Mum’s face suddenly goes blank. 
  • When you’re out and about and masked up, be the sparkly person who is not on their phone and who responds to a baby or young child. Remember, they’re scanning the room for faces to engage with all the time. 

Miriam McCaleb is a researcher, writer, teacher and mum of two great girls.

Sleep safe, my baby

SIDS and Kids New Zealand is dedicated to saving the lives of babies and children during pregnancy, birth, infancy and childhood and supporting bereaved families. The organisation delivers on its vision through world-class research, evidence-based education and bereavement support, and advocacy.

Remind everyone who cares for your child:

  • Sleep baby on their back
  • Keep head and face uncovered
  • Keep baby smoke-free before and after birth
  • Safe sleeping environment night and day
  • Sleep baby in a safe cot in parents’ room.

SIDS and Kids provides a range of safe sleeping education and support services as well as a national 24-hour sudden infant death helpline. 

0800 164 455 / sidsandkids.org.nz

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