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Am I being a bad parent... by using a smartphone to distract my cranky baby?

It’s a quick fix, but will it cause issues in the long term? Irish experts have their say.

Image: Shutterstock

EACH WEEK, WE hear from a reader who can’t figure out what to do about a tricky parenting situation. To get a balanced take on the dilemma, we ask Irish parenting experts to weigh in.

From choosing whether to push toilet training to allowing a baby to ‘cry it out’, being a parent involves decision after decision – and a whole lot of questioning yourself.

This week, one father is wondering if he and his girlfriend are doing the wrong thing by distracting their one-year-old with a phone. 

Have a parenting dilemma you’re struggling with? Let us know anonymously here and we’ll share it with our panel of experts. 

This week’s dilemma

My one-year-old son loves watching cartoons on my smartphone. My girlfriend and I never intended for him to use a phone at such a young age, but we ended up giving it to him every now and then as a distraction. Now he cries for it all the time. We’ve tried to distract him by playing with toys, but he just wants the phone. We can avoid giving it to him when we’re at home, but if we’re out or need something to keep him happy for a while, the phone is the only thing that will do.

He’s only ever watching cartoons, and it’s never for more than 30 minutes, but my girlfriend and I feel terrible because it feels like we see something every second day saying that giving a screen to a baby is bad. Am I being unreasonable by distracting my one-year-old with a phone?

What the experts have to say… 

No, you’re not being unreasonable. Any parent will agree that we do what we have to do to keep everyone calm when out and about with the kids, and the phone is often the easy option. But, like anything, habits form quite quickly in a child’s eyes. Children, without a doubt, will persist with a view to getting what they want, whether that is the phone or the bag of sweets at their eye level!

If you really want to break the habit of your son being so reliant on the phone, I say keep it out of sight and out of mind, persevere and follow through. The more consistent you are, the more likely it is he’ll move on. On the other hand, if you feel like it’s not having an impact on his form and keeps him happy for the 30 minutes, don’t worry about what anyone says. You’re his parent and only have his best interests at heart!

 - Aoife Lee, Parent Coach at parentsupport.ie.

You’re not being unreasonable – but it might be time for a change. Screen time gets an awful lot of media coverage and there is often legitimate research behind those statements. I don’t think there is a parent among us that hasn’t reached for their phone when under pressure in public, in a sweat trying to get a job done. However, you seem conflicted in yourself about your own behavior which sometimes means you’d like an alternative solution.

As your child is so young, now would be the time to make the change as it will only get more difficult as he gets older. Remember you are the parent and he is, as you said yourself, a baby, so if you would like to break this habit you absolutely can. Avoid having the phone in sight, accessible or in use during these times. Remain consistent with your new rule. Teach him a new norm! Yes, he will be upset and disappointed the first few times, but persevere and it will pass and a new habit will be formed.

  - Deirdre Holland Hannon, Behaviour Specialist at @deehollhan.

You’re being unreasonable – but you are not alone! Many parents feel that way but are not sure how to change the habit they inadvertently created. In the last decade, the American Academy of Pediatricians issued a statement that children under 18 months should not have any screen time aside from video chat. There are physiological, cognitive and behavioural reasons as to why all humans should not be exposed to extensive screen time. For example, it has been associated with mood change and sleep.

So if you feel that you want to set limits, then I would start today. Setting limits as a parent is never easy. However, take heart from the fact that babies and toddlers can be entertained and distracted in many other ways rather than a phone – we all were as kids! A good place to start is to limit our own screen time and to develop a family media plan. Books and interactive games are all good at this age, as well as toys children can press large buttons on!

- Krysia Lynch, Maternity Care Expert at Krysia.ie.

So what’s the final tally? Is this reader being unreasonable?

Yes – 1

No – 2

Have a parenting question you want answered? Let us know anonymously in our survey here or email us on family@thejournal.ie and we’ll put it to the experts.

More: Am I being a bad parent… by spending more time with one child over the other?

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