The Breastfeeding Challenge

“Take the telephone off the hook before you intend to feed, bathe or diaper your baby, and tell your infant, ‘I’m going to take the phone off the hook so nobody will disturb us, because now I really want to be just with you.’ (When you say it, you reinforce yourself.)
‘Unbusy’ your head and ‘unbusy’ your body. Be fully there, interested only in your baby for that time. I believe it is healthy for any child to get this genuine interest.
 Approaching caregiving as quality time with your infant will give you more enjoyable time together, and will give him the feeling that you value your time together, which affirms for your infant his value as a person.”                                    
                                    – Magda Gerber, Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect

THE CHALLENGE (It applies to bottle feeding, too!)

Following Magda Gerber’s advice to “take the phone off the hook” and avoid other distractions while breastfeeding was a challenge for me when my kids were little. But when Magda helped me to see that my baby was a sentient, aware person, I realized how much paying attention mattered, particularly during our interactions involving touch and physical intimacy. Our babies are inclined to accept whatever we offer them — it’s all they know — but they undoubtedly feel the difference between a present and a distracted parent. This isn’t to say that as a nursing mom I was a model of focused attention at all times, but I was cognizant of the ideal, so I made an effort to rise to the occasion as much as possible.

I’ve often tried to imagine what that challenge would be like today with the ultra-engaging distractions of technology. I’d like to think I’d still be able to do prioritize staying present with my infants for hours of nursing each day, but I’m thankful that I wasn’t put to that test.

So, although I’ll always believe in the power of our presence and recommend it to parents, I’ll never judge them for not getting on board (or off their devices) entirely. All that said, I was truly surprised by the suggestion Hannah posted in a Facebook discussion group:

“Breastfeeding challenge! No looking at the phone while nursing! One week. Who’s with me? (Surely, I can’t be the only nursing mom here who struggles with this?) My idea is that folks who want in can say so here, and then in a week we can check in and see how we’ve done, what it felt like, etc. My mom, who knows nothing about Magda Gerber’s RIE approach, said to me tonight, ‘You shouldn’t check your phone so much when you’re nursing. The baby can sense it.’ Ouch. Time to make a change.”

I was even more astonished when Hannah’s challenge was answered with a chorus of, “I’m in!” with varying levels of enthusiasm and confidence.

“I have been sort of forced to do this because my 8- month- old unlatches to look at the screen repeatedly!”

“I am in! was thinking about it for some time, needed some motivation. Thanks!”

“Ah, hesitantly, I am in! I will read a book once she is asleep. Thanks for this!”

“I’ve struggled so much with this! I got in the habit in those early sleep-deprived days because I was terrified of falling asleep and smothering the baby! (PPD and PPA certainly didn’t help). Lately I’ve been obsessively reading news and just feeling upset and frustrated by it. It’s time to commit to putting the phone away during these important caregiving times. I want to be mindful and present with my children instead of dwelling in fear about current events.”

“OK bring it on (games on the iPad are my distraction).”

“Totally in, but when am I going to get a chance to scroll through these comments?”

ENCOURAGEMENT

There were also encouragers like Alyssa, who mentioned a post of mine from several years ago,”There’s a Person on Your Breast,” which wasn’t overwhelmingly well received at that time (to say the least). “This article is what finally broke my phone habit a few months ago. You can do it!!!” she shared.

Others chimed in:

“I stopped phone reading and FB while breastfeeding my youngest (when I found this group, which was probably while breastfeeding). While I missed the time to read and learn. I benefited from the calming effects of being mindful and aware. It was great!

“Just breastfed my 7-week-old in bed without my phone and it was sooooo peaceful, so I am definitely in!”

“Best choice I made was no distractions during nursing time with my son. Number 2 is almost due and I will do the same, but it will be harder this time I bet.”

Another parent shared her experience and a tip: “I was bad about this in the beginning until I learned that RIE discourages it. I stopped and it really wasn’t difficult. If you can’t reach your phone, it’s very easy to avoid.”

Others agreed:

“This is key! Put the phone far away!”

“You can do it!!! I broke my phone while nursing habit a few months ago, which, after nursing 3 babies before this one, was wellllllll entrenched. it’s doable! Putting the phone where you can’t reach it is important!”

DEFINING ‘PRESENCE’

Then Hannah, the original poster, asked, “Should we make an exception for when the baby is sleeping while nursing?”

Magda Gerber associate Lisa Sunbury weighed in: “The baby feels your emotional presence and attention or lack thereof, even if his eyes are closed. If your baby isn’t actively nursing, and is asleep, put him down. You want to practice being present during nursing, even if baby’s eyes are closed.”

Kate Russell, whose blog is inspired by Magda Gerber, concurred: “I have made the mistake of occasionally using my phone during nursing when my baby has her eyes closed but what I found was that I stopped tuning in to her. I stopped noticing her patterns of sucking during feeding. I would over nurse and not realize she had finished feeding and was then just dummy sucking. It’s astounded me how much I have learned about my baby during those feeding times and I definitely feel a connection with her even when her eyes are closed. It’s such an intimate act that it really does deserve our full attention.”

Sophie shared her personal concern: “This might sound paranoid but I’ll share anyway. With my first daughter, I always fed and looked at my phone. She wasn’t a great sleeper until she weaned at 7 months. I didn’t think much of it. Then with my second I did the same until she was about 2 months old when I thought how interesting it was that so many babies these days don’t seem to sleep as well as my mum remembers our generation sleeping back when there was no Wi-Fi. As soon as I had this thought it frightened me. Their little skulls are so underdeveloped, so of course they would be absorbing more radio waves than we would. Even cell phones advise that they be used at a distance of 30 cm from the skull! I found plenty of conflicting articles out there when I started researching, but I went with my gut and stopped feeding with my phone. I noticed a difference in her sleep almost immediately, plus all the other benefits of offering her my complete presence during a feed. I’ll never go back!!
Good luck ladies!”

I weighed in as well. “I define ‘presence’ while nursing or feeding a little differently. For me, what matters is our mindful presence… our availability and complete openness to our child. We could do this with our eyes closed and not actually be observing. In other words, the parent does not have to be so active in this exchange.”

OUR AWARE BABIES

Several had already noticed evidence of their baby’s high awareness and desire for connection.

 “I nurse my 10-month-old in her quiet nursery, in low light and away from her bubbly, bouncy older sister, so that she will actually nurse. Otherwise, she is just too distracted and awed by life to bother with nursing in the day time (but then she is up all night nursing!). I’ve been tempted a few times to bring my phone with me to nurse, but it’s like she has a sixth sense! The second I lift it up to look at something on my phone, she stops nursing and looks at me like, ‘Ok, mom, I’m feeling like not 110% of your attention is on me!’ She keeps me connected! Besides, is there any better feeling than just staring down at your nursing baby, snuggled up in your arms and knowing that at that moment, the only place in the whole world she wants to be is right there, snuggled up in the warmth of your arms?”

 “My son is also 10 months and he does the exact. Same. Thing. Mostly if it’s naptime or bedtime. He will refuse to go to sleep if I’m on my phone.”

“I just tried it – just as a practice for tomorrow. My baby was all occupied with nursing, and after a couple of minutes my hand wandered off to grab my phone without me even noticing! But I stopped myself. And then this 3-month-old baby just grabbed my finger and held it tightly, as if he wanted to help.”

PROGRESS

Hannah checked in a couple days later. “How’s everyone doing?”

“Day one down. How’d it go? I managed to get through it. Even though my girl picked up my phone and handed it to me. ‘Here’s your phone mommy!’ Saboteur!”

“I find this extremely liberating. I do not even miss the stupid phone-FB-whatever-I-was-doing! Like shaking a bad habit, which this so truly is.”

“I’m in. I actually put the phone away last night and just watched my 2.5-year-old. It was actually really sweet and he kept giving me gorgeous big smiles. Totally worth it! It’s really nice to have these quiet moments! Even though I get itchy fingers sometimes and want to pick up the phone!”

“Still haven’t used my phone! Feeling very pleased with myself. My partner gave me my phone at one stage and that was hard to leave it beside me but I did it.”

“Doing great. I really appreciate the time to sit still, take a break from horrible news media, appreciate my baby, zone out a bit even.”

“I’m doing well with it. It’s a habit I excused for myself because my daughters both looked off another way when nursing but my son make eye contact a ton. I feel good doing this connecting thing, which he deserves.”

I offered a clarification:

“I just want to reiterate that this is not necessarily about eye contact at all. It’s about being present and available. We can close our eyes and still be present, and available to our child. Maybe think of this as a kind of time-out from other concerns of the day… a few moments to bask in gratitude for our baby and the ability to feed him or her.”

Others commented:

“This is what I have discovered entering Day Three of my phoneless nursing. I am resting more, taking advantage of the natural relaxation that comes with nursing hormones. In turn, my baby is resting better too.”

“Good point. I love the eye contact because, you know, cute baby eyes (of someone I love). But closing my eyes while singing and nursing for my toddler at bedtime always felt better than being mentally distracted.”

“I’m getting a little antsy when the breastfeeding session goes longer than I’m expecting. I’m especially finding it hard at night. I’ve been trying to sit up and feed rather than lying in bed so that I can make sure my baby gets enough, plus safe sleeping, etc., but it’s sooooo much harder when I can’t use my phone to keep me awake or distract me from my exhaustion.”

OBSERVATIONS

When parents were able to keep their eyes open, they noticed how beneficial their observations could be for their baby’s feedings and sleep:

“Never had my mobile with me when I breastfed my first, but this time around my 7-week-old has been thoroughly neglected in that respect. And I’ve been feeling terrible about it. When I don’t have my phone, the feeds are also much more efficient, I suppose because I’m paying attention and making whatever changes are needed.”

“I find this too. When I don’t have my phone, she’s finished much quicker.”

“Yes, and I find less discomfort and vomiting if I remember to pull him off for a few seconds with the first big letdown (I have extremely fast flow) and in the night and morning the second let down too, which means less changing and quicker resettles and ultimately more sleep for me!”

“I had a couple of failed feedings as well, but this thread keeps coming back. And every feeding is another chance. It helps to look for advantages. She drinks more active and calmer.”

Hannah shared:

“First couple of days were pretty good but not perfect for me. But I noticed some things. First of all, my daughter has the softest little head. Okay, I knew that before but I got to touch it more than usual these last few days. Second, I noticed that I space out a lot but even with those space-outs I am more present more of the time than when I have my phone on. Third, I have been a bit more patient with getting the breastfeeding session started and I actually discovered that my daughter can latch all by herself really well. It had been a two person job before but now I see that, as long as she is in more or less the right position, she can do it all by herself. And it is painless! Fourth, I actually get a weird feeling in my gut when I reach for my phone. It passes when I don’t actually pick it up. It probably passes when I do pick it up. Anyway, I’m going to watch that one. I think it is related to the addiction somehow. Go team!”

Hannah later gave this update:

“I posted another question, after (and seemingly unrelated to) this one, about infant sleep (schedules, getting baby to sleep on her own). The responses were fantastic, and they made me see that there is no magic bullet to helping a baby to fall asleep on her own–it takes a lot of observation and communication, and maybe a bit of experimentation. The guest blog on Janet’s site by Alice Callahan made me realize this as well. I have been trying to observe my daughter more, and to experiment with letting her fall asleep on her own when that seems possible–looking for little openings, for example, after she nurses a bit when she is awake and in my arms. Anyway, I mention all this here because it occurred to me that all this observation–which seems like the absolute basis for getting the baby to fall asleep on her own–is impossible when I am on the phone.”

RESULTS

A week later, Hannah asked, “How’d we do?”

Erin: “If I were my daughter, I’d say, ‘I did it!!! All. By. My. Self!!!’”

Haritha: “A couple slip ups. But we nursed longer, more often, and with less gas for ditching the cell phone!”

Jaclyn: “I did it too! I think I’m going to make it a permanent thing! It was easier than I thought.”

Nell: “Yup, had a couple slip ups as well but overall I think it’s a permanent change!”

Hannah: “Awesome. Permanent change for me too. Now it seems crazy that I was nursing her with my phone in hand!”

Kimberly: “The new habit has formed!”

Shaleen: “Permanent change for me too. I’ve felt restless a few times, but overall it’s been a beautiful, mindful experience. I love looking at him and feeling him heavy and relaxed in my arms. Now I need to work on letting go of the guilt that I may have harmed him and my daughter before I made this change.
Thanks for initiating the challenge!”

Megan: “I’m on Day Four. A couple of slips but enjoying the extra closeness.”

Becky: “Yay everyone! I also had a few slip ups, but I’m using my phone less over all, which I’m very happy about!”

Erin: “I support it. I’ll admit I’ve used my phone a couple of times since the first 2 or so weeks without but it’s only for quick looks and it’s given me the desire to keep it out of my hands more in general.”

Jaclyn: “I’ve maintained it 99%. If I do get my phone, it’s to turn it down so I can’t hear the notifications.”

Megan: “I’ve turned my phone on silent and mainly use it to send a cheeky message to DH in the other room if I need a cup of tea or help with the transfer etc. I still occasionally sneak a look, but I’ve been singing more, reading and telling stories and just looking at my baby. DH has also been singing which is something new for him. It’s made bedtimes a bit more special. I’ve been wondering about making it really magical with a candle too.”

Libby: “I think it’s a challenge which should be shared far and wide! I have made huge improvements (with some slips ups and some really difficult times requiring constantly holding my 10-week-old and sick 3-year-old and, therefore, I decided that some chores and research really had to be done despite it taking my focus from bub) and most of all, am just very conscious of the full extent of what I’m doing when I pick up my phone during breastfeeding. It’s now occasional rather than routine. I’d love to say I’m doing even better than that but I’m also trying not to be too hard on myself – another challenge! Thanks everyone for all the motivating posts. Rereading them had a great impact too.”

Tulka: “I’ve managed the whole week, even though TV was on in the evenings. But am prepared to go on, because it gave me some great moments of sheer joy to watch my baby latched. They are beautiful when they drink and are in sort of trance and as their eyes are closing just before they enter the Land of Dreams.”

Leshia: “This is harder than a New Year’s resolution, but so worth it. Thank you.”

Are you up for the challenge?

Thank you all for allowing me to share your comments!

For more about Magda Gerber’s approach, I recommend: Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect and Your Self-Confident Baby… and also my book: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting:

I also recommend Magda Gerber’s website and Lisa Sunbury’s blog at regardingbaby.org

 

10 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I’m in! The irony/fate/timing of this post is strong. I’ve been feeling disconnected from my 8 month old, and feeling very guilty. I also have a 2.5 year old, so baby doesn’t get as much of my attention. Just 20 minutes ago my phone died while nursing and I was able to enjoy just looking at her, and was thinking that I need to make a concerted effort to ditch the phone regularly. I plugged my phone in and this was the first blog post on my feed.

  2. I love this! My daughter is 2.5 now and I was so guilty of this when I was breastfeeding. My sisters are both due with first babies this summer, and I just shared this with them!

  3. I’m in! Although it’s easy for me since I don’t have a smart phone. 🙂 I have noticed that my baby nurses better and more peacefully when I’m not on the computer or watching TV either, so maybe that will be my challenge. The one distraction that I will probably keep doing is reading to my 3 year old while nursing the baby. I wonder what your take on that is, Janet? Every time I sit down to nurse the baby, it’s like my older child can sense it, even if he’s on the other end of the house, he’ll come running to sit down with us. Sometimes I find it annoying, but mostly I find it sweet and try to make it a moment of connection between all three of us.

  4. I’m so glad you posted this. It has become a terrible habit of mine to scroll through facebook or read my Kindle during breastfeeding. It started because I had my phone with me to check how long we’d been feeding (sometimes in the middle of the night I thought it’d been ages but had actually only been a few minutes).
    The last couple of days I’ve resisted the urge to look at my phone, except to quickly look at the time at night, and it’s been extremely rewarding for me, and hopefully for my 6 1/2 month old son. Now we hold hands or I stroke his head or back or I just relax and close my eyes while I dwell on the moment. I’ve been wanting to add meditation to my life and this is the perfect opportunity to remain present and focused on the moment. Thanks.

  5. I so appreciate this post, thank you for sharing here (I don’t look at facebook very much anymore).

    Just a thought, but you note at the very end that this works for bottle feeding too, but I imagine bottle feeding caregivers might not even start reading this post, let alone make it to the end before giving up due to emotional difficulty / feeling it isn’t for them. Maybe consider adjusting the post title to reflect that this can be adjusted to work for bottle feeding too.

    1. I really appreciate your feedback and that thought did occur to me, but I wasn’t sure how to fit it in closer to the title. I’ll take another look! Thanks again.

  6. As my baby grew older, I noticed he would get restless if I used the phone while feeding him. Now I use the quiet time when he feeds (we are down to one feed before bedtime) to meditate – he sleeps much better.

  7. YES YES YES! Already for 7 months I am enjoying to breastfeed my daughter, and right from the start I intuitively detested my slight addiction and use of my phone while breastfeeding. I started off with throwing my iphone out of reach if I caught myself with it. For me it’s a meditation. I solely focus on my daughter, to BE with her, SEE her, enjoy feeding her, nursing her, spend time with her. Time flies, it’s a cliché but true. I don’t want to miss it by being half present and half inside some facebook or whatsapp distraction! I love this challenge, although for me by now it is ‘normal’. 🙂

  8. Awesome felt so me while reading your post .very well expressed and put into words kudos !!

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