Connection failure?

Mothers of newborns want to stay wired into the adult world, but concerns arise that the Net is separating mom and baby

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Seetha Narayan
Globe Correspondent / April 21, 2008

Soon after giving birth, Kimberly Frazier-Booth, 40, developed what she called a computer position. "Imagine the baby Velcroed to my chest," Frazier-Booth said. "I would get an angle where she was firmly attached, my knees up under the desk, and answer e-mails."

Christy Arnold, 30, learned to type with her left hand while nursing her son, Noah. He's 10 months now, and Arnold puts him in a playpen lest he crawl off to the kitchen and sample cat food while she's online with her laptop on the couch.

Johanna Minich, 31, who works from home, once took her laptop to the bathroom. She held her newborn son, Bodhi, with one hand while he pooped, and she checked online to see whether the stools looked normal. There are always laptops open around Bodhi, now 8 months old, with Minich online sporadically throughout the day.

Other mothers in similar situations perform similar contortions to stay online while watching over their squealing, pooping, nursing, eating, sleeping, playing babies. You get the idea: mom, Internet, baby.

This may be no big deal. We live in the Internet age, and most adults are hooked. But there are rumblings of concern about heavy Internet use harming the new mother, her bond with the baby, and the baby's development.

Take the new mom's social life. "Without the Internet, mothers had to get out of their homes," said Gail Levy, a lactation consultant with Jewish Family & Children's Service of Greater Boston in Waltham. "How many mothers don't go out as much because they're online?"

Internet access is a boon during newborn days, when recovery issues, weather, or the baby's fragility could keep mothers homebound. But an Internet habit can persist long afterward. It's an open question whether the Internet keeps people home or makes staying home easier for people already prone to it.

Arnold doesn't believe that the absence of the Internet would get her outside more often. "It's made it easier to be in the house," she conceded.

Kim Anton Myatt, 39, who is online "every single day throughout the day," concurs. "Even before becoming a mom I wasn't outdoorsy. I generally get out to run errands." She's been uncomfortable at moms' events, and doesn't use the Internet to socialize.

Erin Krpata, 32, quit work to stay home with her infant and toddler. She's online whenever possible, checking e-mail, visiting parenting forums, or blogging. Her neighborhood has a Yahoo parenting group composed of similarly plugged-in moms whose interactions occur online. "It's a little odd, since we all live so close together," Krpata observed. "It's a bit of a bummer."

Several mothers interviewed for this story said they use the Internet to expand face-to-face contact. Family-service professionals like to see such networking. They voiced concern only about virtual exchanges that reduce or replace actual meetings. Internet connections, they felt, might be just fulfilling enough to stave off the need for in-person interaction, but the latter would be healthier.

"Time spent on the Web is associated with increased depression," said Dr. Michael Rich, pediatrician and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital. "A mom who feels isolated would do better to put her baby in a sling, go to a coffee shop, and get talking to real people - to seek out real relationships with real complications and real sustainability."

"When you see other moms, they are frazzled and exhausted, and you can see that that's what new moms are like," said Terri Chebot of JF&CS' Visiting Moms program. She says that idealized self-descriptions found online can undermine a new mother's confidence. "There's nothing as valuable as a face-to-face connection."

Take the mother-baby face-to-face connection.

Arnold often feeds Noah with her laptop open at the table. Minich sometimes finds herself on the phone, on the Internet, and watching Bodhi at the same time.

Frazier-Booth, a high-school teacher, gets online after hours so that her students have access to her. She sends instant feedback when they submit work online or have a concern, something that she's found strengthens her relationships with them. But such access eats into her time with her 21-month-old daughter, Mary, playing nearby on the study floor. "There's a trade-off," she said. "I have to multitask as a parent to buy a half hour to an hour where I don't have to multitask."

Mothers have always multitasked, from foraging with babies strapped to their backs to sewing, engaging an older child, or even cooking while nursing. Is Internet use any different?

"If you observe women who, let's say, knit, their gaze is moving back and forth from the baby to knitting," Rich said. "The Internet demands a lot more attention. You're receiving and sometimes sending communication, so there's sustained concentration away from the baby."

Habitual Internet use while nursing, especially if the baby's awake and seeking the mother's eyes, concerns Rich. "It can be a real rejection for the baby, for whom you fill his or her world," he said.

All the mothers interviewed revealed an attunement to their babies' cues and moods. The effect of Internet use on bonding may be a matter of missed, rather than absent, opportunities.

Chebot said she understands the humanity of it. "You have to do something during the day to get a little break. Computer relationships can be affirming and helpful. You try not to do damage and you try not to go crazy." But she advises moderation. "You bond with your baby in the quiet moments," she noted, "and the Internet is just another distraction."

For Frazier-Booth, it's a question of balancing needs. Besides high-school kids and her husband, "my e-mail might be the first time I had a conversation with an adult. It's important for my sanity, too.

"I don't want [Mary] to be an Xbox kid," she said, "but the old image of the kid sitting in the tree reading 'Tom Sawyer,' I'm not sure that's realistic either."

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