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How not to judge families sitting beside you in the cafe

How not to judge families sitting beside you in the cafe

I spend most of my time these days thinking about how we, as a society, get information to parents about infant brain development.  ‘Brain development’ isn’t the right terminology, though.  The English language doesn’t have a word for what I mean.  I mean something more like the intersection of brain and body, self-awareness and self-regulation, anxiety and comfort, and the way that relationships underlie the development of all these systems.  That’s the most crucial point for parents to understand: relationships matter.

Our Western society does not begin to comprehend the importance of relationships for children’s development.  Our modern way of life damages our children – and ourselves – in ways we don’t realise.  It happens without our intending or being aware of it.  It happens because we are increasingly cut off from one another and from ourselves, even from our own bodies.  We end up surviving, rather than thriving.

Let me tell a story to illustrate what I mean.

I was sitting in a café last week, watching a family who had come in to have a meal.  Mum pushed the baby in his buggy, about 18 months old, over to a table.  Dad, Mum, and Big Sister put down their bags and coats.  The three of them went over to the counter to choose drinks and food, leaving the baby parked beside the table. 

The baby immediately got agitated, wriggling and holding out his hands toward them, scrunching his face, and protesting very quietly.  They didn’t notice, though, because their backs were to him, while they read the menu at the counter.  Plus, they will have believed him to be safe, strapped into his stroller and parked near their things at the table.

As minutes passed, the baby’s arm movements and face got more frantic.  His cries did not get louder, though; they stayed consistent and pleading, in their rhythm and tone.  I found myself getting agitated.  His family couldn’t see or hear him.  He needed help to get their attention. 

So I tried a technique that sometimes helps solve things, when a baby is in need and parents are distracted.  I like it because the parents don’t feel offended or blamed.  I simply said to the baby, in an empathic voice loud enough for his parents to hear, “Oh, are you feeling lonely?  Are you missing your Mummy over there?  She’ll be back in a minute.” 

My brief interjection helped Mum to turn around and realise her baby was needing her.  She smiled at me as she came back to the table, and I smiled back at her.  As she neared their table, the baby’s arms quit waving so frantically, and he relaxed a tiny bit, although his arms remained up in the air, as if he was hoping to be picked up.

That made sense to me.  He’d been missing her, far across the room in this unfamiliar place, so stress hormones like cortisol would have been rising.  His brain and body would instinctively have been craving a cuddle, since the reassurance would have brought the cortisol levels down.  Oxytocin would have been boosted too, by her touch, and that would have relaxed him even more.

However, a cuddle is not what happened.  Instead, Mum reached for the handle of the stroller, and moved it back and forth, trying to comfort him by the swaying of the buggy.  I knew that wouldn’t work fully for him, because the swaying of your buggy isn’t the same as the warmth of your mum’s hug.  But I didn’t know how to help the baby this time.  No parent wants an interfering busybody of a stranger telling them how to care for their own child. 

But the baby was still distressed.  His low-level cries of protest continued; his face scrunched; his head hung down in a kind of defeat.  Mum continued to ‘rock’ the stroller with one hand, leaving her other hand free to adjust the coats.  She was now focused on making space at the table, and so she wasn’t looking at his face any longer.  He had neither her gaze nor her touch to draw on for comfort. 

Watching all this, I found myself thinking that her physical closeness would be helping him feel somewhat safer.  The cortisol in his system should at least be levelling off, rather than rising higher.  His overall state wouldn’t change rapidly, though.  Cortisol stays in your system for at least 20 minutes – which is why reassuring touch in this situation is so helpful.  Cuddles kick-start the decrease.

Very soon, Dad and Big Sister came over to the table, having made their choices.  I wondered if the baby might now get a cuddle, or even a hand-hold, since there were more hands available.  This seemed hopeful, because his distress hadn’t ceased.  He was still quietly moaning and looking at the ground.

Let me pause in the midst of my storytelling.  Before I go on, I want to consider what might be happening for you, Dear Reader.  If I am telling this story vividly enough and compassionately enough, then maybe you will be feeling something of the anxiety I was feeling for that baby.

If he can’t get the comforting attention he needs from his family, then he has a problem.  At only 18 months old, his brain is still too immature to fully comfort himself when he is distressed, so he has to look to an outside source for that comfort.  Right there, in that café, in that very ordinary moment, he is learning lessons about where comfort comes from.  It isn’t from his family.

Perhaps, in order to cope with your anxiety for the baby, you might be feeling frustrated with the parents.  Why aren’t they giving him the attention he needs?  That reaction of frustration or exasperation or even anger makes sense to me, because these emotions signal that a situation we are witnessing requires some sort of action.  The trouble is that these emotions easily lead to judgement, and judgement is everywhere these days when it comes to parenting.  Modern parents live with the constant anxiety of being judged harshly.

Consider, for instance, what recently happened to political correspondent Robert Kelly, when was he “interrupted” by his two young children while giving a live television interview to the BBC from his office at home.  His spontaneous response, along with that of his panicked wife (or perhaps nanny – the internet can’t decide), solicited all sorts of criticism from observers.  Commentators on social media began arguing with each other over what response would have been most appropriate, and even the couple’s use of a baby walker was criticised.  My own response was to wonder how I would have reacted as a parent, handling such an unexpected, personally exposing situation, being broadcast live on international television.

So, returning to my story, what happens if we counter any rising sense of judgement with curiosity?  What happens if we wonder what was going on in that moment that kept this little boy’s parents from noticing his distress?  Were public places uncomfortable for them? Had they had to walk a long way in the cold?

What happens if we expand our curiosity even further and wonder what might have happened for them within the last hour or earlier in the day or within their general family interactions?  Had they just had an argument or come from a difficult doctor’s appointment?  Was Mum suffering postnatal depression?  Were they on the edge of divorce?  Did they believe that electronic devices help young children to learn?

And what happens if I search for the words that help this story to prompt curiosity in readers, rather than judgement or anger or blame?  Here are a set of ordinary parents, busy and tired and distracted by the tasks of modern life.  They probably have no idea how scared babies can get, parked far away across the café in a stroller, or that cuddles have a biological impact on a child’s brain.

In that case, how would it be helpful to them if I were to get frustrated about something they did unintentionally?  My curiosity will be more helpful than my frustration could ever be.

And, as it turns out, curiosity is going to be incredibly important for all of us, if we are to reach the end of this story in a compassionate place.  Because it’s about to get worse.

The whole family is now at the table, with Dad sitting next to the baby.  Mum and Big Sister are across the table, stretching out, having taken off the last of their coats.  The baby, though, is still strapped into his stroller, unable to stretch out or shift his posture.  His low level protest cries haven’t stopped, either.  His head is still hanging down, moving slowly back and forth in a restless fashion.

Dad must have noticed though, because he moves to offer the baby a kind of comfort.  He reaches into a bag and brings out a phone.  He hits a couple of buttons, and hands it to the baby.  It must be playing a video.

Sure enough, the baby’s whimpering stops, his head comes up, and his hands cease moving as they grasp the phone.  His agitation fades almost immediately.  He is intensely focused on the display on that phone.

I imagine that the father thinks he has comforted his child.  Outwardly, he does appear calmer and happier. 

As I watch the child’s fierce concentration, though, I think of the dopamine being sparked in his brain.  Dopamine is the hormone of novelty.  We human beings crave it.  It’s the feel good factor.  Dopamine is what gets triggered when we fall in love.  Our brains and bodies yearn for it.  We get addicted to it.

I knew I was watching a father comfort his son’s distress by fostering a biological addiction to technology.

And I knew the father didn’t know that. 

And I knew that when the father would eventually try to take the phone away, the spike in the baby’s disappointment and distress was likely to cause a terrible, wailing conflict – which would further distress everyone in the family. 

And I had no way to explain any of this to them.

Dear Reader, how am I doing? In telling this story, I am trying my best to turn you into a watcher, rather than a reader.  I am trying to have you sit with me in the midst of that café, trying to decide what you would do, how you would feel, what you would think.  I am aiming for that because, of course, we sit down next to ordinary families every day, whenever we walk into cafés.

How do we help ordinary families to understand what science is discovering about children’s development?  How do we help tired parents feel more curious about their baby’s emotional needs?  How do we help them to connect the dots, so that they realise their responses hold long-term, biological consequences for their children?  If this little boy’s brain becomes addicted to the dopamine hit his father’s phone is supplying, the parents will soon have major ‘behavioural issues’ on their hands.  And their little boy will suffer.

The points I am making are not novel ones.  They are part of the reasoning underpinning recommendations by the American Academy of Paediatrics that children under 2 years of age should never view screens alone.  Other organisations have used language shifts to emphasise the biological impacts, arguing that early technology use should be regarded not as an ‘educational’ or ‘cultural’ issue, but as a ‘medical’ one. The author Mary Aiken dedicates several chapters in her new book, The Cyber Effect, to exploring what is happening across our society as children encounter a mismatch between their basic physiological needs and their parents’ technology habits.

I found myself thinking about all this guidance as I watched the final stage of this family’s interactions.  The story doesn’t end happily.

With the baby now (apparently) settled and engaged with the phone, Dad again reached into a bag.  I realised he was taking out his son’s lunch, probably because there was a gap of time available before his own order arrived.  He could feed his son before eating himself.

And that’s what Dad proceeded to do.  He fed his son, spoonful after spoonful of packaged food going into his mouth — while his little boy never took his hands off the phone or his eyes off the display.

The baby didn’t protest.  He didn’t shake his head or refuse.  He passively accepted each spoonful of food the father delivered to his mouth.  His father looked relieved it was going so smoothly.

I knew, though, that this experience meant the baby was not engaged at all with his own body.  He wasn’t developing a conscious awareness of hunger or how to take care of feelings of hunger.  He wasn’t consciously learning about feeling ‘full’ or about ‘relief’ or about ‘companions’.  What he was learning was that you solve uncomfortable feelings with technology. 

The more the baby’s brain experiences that solution, the more the child will be out of touch with his own body.  His internal teddy bear (to use the language I frequently use) will be weaker, less able to comfort him from internal, self-regulatory sources.  He will become more dependent on external sources of comfort, turning to solutions like videos or games or drugs or alcohol or food.  It sounds extreme, to knit these outcomes together, but it is exactly what the research on addiction is teaching us.

I knew I was watching a father nurture an addictive personality within his infant son.  I also knew he had no idea that’s what he was doing.

As I stood to leave the café, 15 minutes later, the rest of the family’s meal was being delivered by the waitress.  Dad could relax.  His son was fed and was engaged in an activity.  He could have his own lunch in peace.

I have no idea what havoc may have descended when it was time for Dad to take the phone away.

That family has clearly stayed with me.  A week on, I’m still thinking about them – and now I’m writing about them, telling their story to a wider world, in the most compassionate way I know.

My hope is that their story, unknown even to themselves, might help other parents feel more curious about what’s going on in their children’s brains and bodies.  And I hope it might help those of us trying to support families, to feel more curious about the unknown struggles going on in parents’ lives.

Curiosity is always more powerful than judgement.

Digitally connected babies are not emotionally connected babies

The Mimo Baby Onesie

You could easily have missed the newest trend underway out there in the virtual world. We have now entered the Age of the Digitally Connected Baby.

We have all become familiar with baby monitors: the device released as early as the 1930s that let parents listen in on babies from another room, in order to know if they were sleeping. The subsequent development of technologies like Skype and Facetime made it unsurprising when monitoring moved to the visual level. Lots of parents now have cameras installed over their baby’s crib, so that they can check their phones to see if the baby is sleeping.

But we’ve moved way past the monitoring of mere sleeping. Parents can now use digital technology to check up on all sorts of things: their baby’s heart rate, breathing rate, temperature, blood oxygen level, whether they are sleeping on their stomach or back, if they are likely to be fussy upon waking, and even if their nappy needs changed. You no longer have to check your baby’s body for these things. Instead, you can just check your phone.

If you want a clear sense of the excitement driving these technological developments – as well as the money that stands to be made – there is no better source than the video released in December 2014 by the New York Times. It is significant for me that it is entitled ‘The Connected Baby’.

There are a growing range of ‘smart devices’ to choose from. They come complete with electronic sensors and downloadable software, with the sensors encased in cute baby-appropriate forms, including anklet bracelets adorned with hearts, arm bands in pastel colours, and clip-ons shaped like turtles and owls.  Once you’ve fixed these to the baby’s clothing or body, you can monitor their internal functioning from hundreds of feet away.

In fact, you don’t even have to go to the effort of clipping on. You can purchase ‘wearables’ that have the electronic leads already sewn into the cloth. Yes, that’s right. Parents can now purchase electronic pyjamas. For example, the Mimo Baby onesie boasts not only the endearing turtle clip-on, but also two attractive green stripes running across the tummy. Those stripes aren’t just for decoration. They contain respiratory sensors, powered by an Intel chip sufficient to run a PC computer. You can buy a starter pack of three onesies plus turtle for about £150, and thereafter they cost only £15 each. And yes, they’re organic and machine washable.

If you want to see even more of what’s on offer in this new world, you can find animated descriptions on a whole range of technology sites, including Latest Gadgets UK and Wifi Baby, as well as in mainstream newspapers. The ‘smart nursery’ is catching up with the ‘smart kitchen’ and ‘smart garage’.

One wonders how parents survived up until now! I say that so we can laugh. We need to be able to laugh at ourselves, at parenting fashions, at the relentless march of technology. For the whole of human history, parents have been able to raise their offspring without the help of electronic pajamas and nappy pee detectors. Yet marketers and fans are arguing that these tools can provide lasting peace of mind. What a tempting promise that is, for anxious parents of new babies.

When we laugh, we’re better able to stay in a curious place, even if we feel troubled. And I think we need to be troubled about these latest technological developments. We should not let the language fool us. Digitally connected babies are not happier babies. They are not healthier babies or safer babies. More importantly, digitally connected babies are not emotionally connected babies.

In fact, we could pause to ask: might there be any risks to babies’ development caused by digital connection? The marketing of these products certainly doesn’t suggest so. But the science of attachment does. These products will change the way that parents relate to their children. That’s what they are designed to do. This means that digital products will inevitably alter the development of infants’ brains and self-regulatory capacities, in ways we have not begun to consider.

I don’t know how major the impact of these devices might be. But I do think parents deserve to be aware of the risks, so that they can make informed choices. Every time a parent allows digital connection to replace physical connection, they change their child’s developmental course.

Sproutling Baby Monitor

I think the manufacturers should be obligated to explain that risk to their customers. The trouble is that the technology is way too new for such legal regulations, and also too new for gathering data that would assess the developmental impacts. The manufacturers probably don’t even know about the science of attachment. They may have no idea that what they are doing could carry long-term impacts for children’s development.

So what does the science of connection tell us that might be relevant? A long history of attachment research has yielded four key insights on this front:

1.  Babies are born with immature brains. This means they cannot regulate their own emotional and physiological states. They are dependent on other people to help them do that. Babies are biologically dependent on the presence of another person in order to feel safe, calm, and reassured.

2.  Babies are born connected to other people. That means every single physiological system within their body is attuned to the adults they spend their day with. Their gaze monitors, their heart rate synchronises, they breathe in parallel, even their body temperature converges.

3.  The growth of neural synapses in a baby’s brain is shaped by experiences of connection. If a baby has enough early experiences of emotional safety and reassurance, then their brain grows synaptic networks that let them recreate those experiences later on in life. If they don’t have such experiences, they have greater difficulty recreating them for themself. They become overwhelmed by strong emotions.

4.  Early emotional experiences are so influential that they predict all sorts of adult outcomes, including mental health, physical health, smoking and drinking, the happiness of marriage, and even the symptoms of dementia. Humans are incredibly social creatures. For us, relationships matter for everything.

Huggies' Nappy Pee Detector
Huggies’ Nappy Pee Detector

Digital technology is designed to alter the relationships of parents and babies. That means it risks undermining babies’ developing self-regulatory capacities. The fact that infant humans have such a strong biological need for the physical presence of adult humans is the result of 100,000 years of primate evolution. Babies cannot feel safe unless their brain has learned that there is always another person nearby, ready to come to the rescue when they feel anxious.

Indeed, it is more than just a baby’s brain that notes that presence. The same systems being monitored with smart devices do too. That’s why kangaroo care, with its emphasis on skin-to-skin contact, is now recommended for all premature babies; the parent’s body temperature regulates the baby’s. That’s why co-sleeping is supported by its advocates: the parent’s breathing rate regulates the baby’s respiration. That’s why smiling with a baby is so pleasurable: it instantly synchronises the heart beats of both partners.

Harry Harlow’s controversial research in the 1950s with infant monkeys made discoveries that were entirely unpredicted at the time. He showed that the drive for touch is stronger than the drive for food. Humans are descended from the primate line, and our babies, born so very early in the gestational process for mammalian species, need to be raised as much as possible in the embrace of human flesh. Every infant benefits from kangaroo care, not just the ones born prematurely.

The problem for the digitally connected baby’s body is that it doesn’t know it is connected to anyone. It is emotional connection that matters to a baby, and it is only the physical presence of another human being that tells a baby they are emotionally connected. My prediction is that digital con-nection is likely to foster emotional dis-connection.

The manufacturers don’t seem to fear that. Carson Darling, one of the founders of the company who created the Mimo Baby, said: “You can look at your smartphone and know that everything is okay.” Okay, as the parent, YOU may know everything is okay, but the baby doesn’t. The baby will only know that everything is okay when you bring your warm, biological arms and pick him up.

I find myself thinking of a story told at a lunch I recently attended:

“I still remember the trips we used to take by car to my grandparents, even though I was very little. We would arrive back at home late at night, and I can remember my father reaching in to unbuckle me, and then lifting me into his arms. He would carry me up the stairs, all warm and smelling wonderful. I always slept best on those nights coming back from my grandparents.”


Today’s children are less likely to experience such ‘wonderful’ memories than were the previous generation. Young children are now transported in travel systems, the technological device that enables a parent to lift the whole car seat out of the car, avoiding any need to wake a sleeping child by lifting them into your arms.

Digital connection removes even the need to check on a sleeping child, let alone lift them into your arms. Today’s children have less and less occasion to sense the presence of their parent. Digital technology is specifically designed to separate parents even further from their children.

The fashion website Cute Munchkins is worried about this. They have said of the Mimo Baby onsie that it “seems to replace parenting with science, turning the whole process [of parenting] into something robotic.” The tech site Wareable argues that, while technology may not harm, it is still important to know when to switch it offPaediatrician Mark Nethercoate, an avowed techy who runs Kidspot, believes that while smart devices have been designed with the best of intentions to help, in practice “they will do the exact opposite.”

Owlet Smart Sock
Owlet Smart Sock

This, then, is the discussion we should be having right now, while the ‘internet of infants’ is still in its own infancy. We should be drawing on the science of attachment to help us think about the long-term consequences of this technology. However, that is not the discussion we are leaning toward. We have tended so far to focus on what it is like to be a ‘connected parent’.

Some parents believe that these products will indeed bring peace of mind, just as the marketers promise. For example, here is what @andrewoutlaw had to say on Engadget’s site, in response to the news in January 2014 that Mimo Baby was soon to be released:

 “I’m seriously considering buying this for a child that me and the wife are expecting this spring. The wife thinks I’m nuts. I am thinking its peace of mind. We were going to buy a monitor anyway and spend about $200 on it. But when the kid is in daycare (even if its the one at my wife’s job), this device will let us know what’s going on. We couldn’t have that with a traditional or video monitor. I’ll need to rethink my presentation of why we need this, to sell her on the idea. But I do think it’s a good idea.”

Not all customers agree. Here is how PegCityNerd responded to that comment:

 “It will NOT bring you piece of mind. Trust me. Having a simple audio baby monitor, let alone one with a video, adds to the stress and lack of sleep….Suddenly, silence becomes worrisome. You lose even more sleep when the baby sleeps longer. You’re always listening. With this new invention, you’ll end up staring at your phone all night….Take it from me, a parent of two young children, this won’t give you peace of mind.”

This debate is important. It speaks to parents’ needs and parents’ stress levels. Maybe digitally connected parents really will feel calmer. My point is that this can never be the case for digitally connected babies. Digitally connected babies are likely to feel lonely.

Wow. Parents can pay hundreds of pounds to help their baby grow up feeling lonely. The fact that no parent intended that, and that no manufacturer probably did either, is no guarantee against it. It is only our wisdom that guarantees against that.


We can’t stop what’s happening. The digital wearables industry is now being described as a gold rush, predicted to be worth $23 billion worldwide by the year 2020.

What we can do is educate people, especially parents, about the science of human connection. If we let our excitement about digital connection interfere with our babies’ need for emotional connection, then we shoot ourselves in the foot. Both they and we will suffer.

All you have to do to help in educating others about that science is to forward this article to someone you love.