Attention-Deprived Babies

When you hear the phrase attention deprived babies, what do you think? If you are like most people, your imagination conjures up stark images of abandoned babies in a large, colorless room filled with row upon row of cribs in an overseas orphanage or the dirty, half-naked, dark-skinned babies from Third World countries depicted in the heart wrenching Send Money Now infomercials on TV. Maybe you imagine the tear-stained face of a tiny, two-year old little girl standing in the doorway of her filthy apartment who is destined to live the same impoverished life as her four older siblings and their 26 year-old mother.

As pitiful as these images are, I don’t just think about those kids anymore. It’s from personal experience that I’ve become a little more jaded and increasingly aware of what attention-deprived can also mean. Let me share a specific scenario I witnessed a few weeks ago.

After spending the previous hour wiping a kid’s green, runny nose during my last appointment as a pediatric speech-language pathologist, I decided that hand washing may not have been enough to fend off yet another cold this year. As I was driving and thinking that I absolutely could not get sick right before Christmas, I spotted a Walgreen’s just ahead on the right.Great!I could make a quick stop, and then be on the way to see my next kiddo.Just as I was about to pull into the parking lot, a huge (Did I mention HUGE?) black SUV veered right in from of me to enter the shopping center.This woman, talking on her cell phone, was oblivious to the fact she had nearly caused an accident.Before I could even collect myself enough to park, she had whirled into the only empty spot near Walgreen’s, slung open her door, jumped down from her vehicle, sprinted over to the opposite rear passenger side, and yanked out a baby carrier covered by a pink blanket.

Oh I felt a little guilty for all the mean thoughts I’d had about her in the last 10 seconds since she had nearly killed me.She wasn’t a dangerous, maniac driver.This woman was a new, anxious mother, and she had jeopardized all of our lives for a good reason.She needed to get her sick baby some medicine.

I will forgive her, I thought, as I grabbed my purse, clicked the lock, and continued to watch her as we both headed into the store.She was well-dressed in her black, stylish shawl, dark jeans, and high-heeled boots.To my surprise, she did not walk straight back to the pharmacy.She stopped to glance at the Christmas decorations, still chatting away on her phone and carrying her covered car seat.Maybe she’s looking for something else before she gets her prescription, I surmised.Then I heard it, the muffled whimper of a baby.

Usually I am in such a hurry during my own errands that I don’t analyze the behaviors of every mother I encounter.I probably have dismissed hundreds of sobbing babies while in stores in my lifetime.Babies fuss; it’s a fact of life.But on this particular day, in this particular store, it struck my attention.

I decided to pause and look at the wrapping paper myself.Patterns of Santa, snowmen, and The Grinch couldn’t divert my awareness from the mother and the covered seat.Did she even notice that her baby had now begun to cry? The display didn’t hold the mother’s interest either, since she moved on now casually laughing into her phone and lugging the baby as she rounded the corner.

By now I could hear the baby earnestly crying from the next aisle over.I paused and waited before continuing on myself.Will she think I’m stalking her, I wondered.No way, I answered myself. She didn’t notice that she had nearly slaughtered me with her black death-machine less than five minutes ago. I followed this woman and her wailing baby up and down several rows of the store.She did not once act as if she noticed me, an obviously disturbed woman, hot on her boot-clad heels.How could she?She was on a mission to complete her own errands.Turns out she needed box of Kleenex and Glade Plug-Ins, both of which she carefully placed on top of the pink blanket, still covering the car seat.In case you’re wondering, yes, the baby was still crying, however, not as loudly.And yes, she remained on her cell phone, all the way through her trek to the cash register.

Somehow I maintained my wits about me and managed to grab the Purell.I now stood beside her as she swiped her card for the purchase and then gathered her bag.She glanced at me, and then ended her call with a quick, I gotta go.Finally, I thought.Maybe my indignation is showing.Maybe she’s knows what I’m thinking about her.Now at last she’s going to acknowledge her child who has tried to gain her attention for the last 10 minutes or so.I looked down toward the baby carrier, so I could get a quick glimpse of the baby myself.To my surprise the blanket remained intact.Turns out, my judgmental look and the continuing complaints from her child weren’t enough to get this mother’s attention after all.Just as I looked up, she turned way, and I felt the breeze as she threw her fabulous shawl back over shoulder.Without pausing to thank the cashier, apologize to me for nearly slapping me in the face with the corner of her shawl, or without even a shhhh for her crying baby, she breathily uttered Hello to her next caller as she walked through the sliding doors.

This is the world we now live in.In upper middle class, east-end Louisville, KY, where expensive birthday parties, fancy private schools, and horse-riding lessons are the norm rather than the exception, children are attention deprived.Why?So a stay-at-home mom can keep in touch with her friends as she whisks through her errands.So a distracted dad can check his e-mail 24/7 from his Blackberry while he babysits. So we can see the latest shows from our 300+ cable channels or watch sports the entire weekend.So we can read the latest and greatest information on anything and everything from our laptops while our children roam around underneath our noses looking for something stimulating and worthwhile to do. In this crazy information-driven, chronically connected world of ours, we are losing the most basic, most fundamental connection we’ll ever have the opportunity to make.Parents are too distracted to parent.Many children of educated, middle-class parents are also attention deprived.Just as attention deprived as children forgotten in orphanages in Russia or in mud huts in Africa. Just as attention deprived as when mothers leave their children in the care of an 8-year-old to go out for the evening.No attention because Mommy is on the phone for a series of twenty minute phone calls that add up to the majority of the day is the same as no attention when Mommy is strung out on crack.To a baby who needs consistent attention, it’s the same.Mommy and Daddy are not available.

Research from neuroscientists about the brain tells us that babies need predictable and responsive care from loving parents in their first year to be able to develop the brain wiring that it takes to successfully learn as they grow older.Some parents mistakenly dismiss this time thinking, He’s just a baby, and don’t actually make much of an effort to teach them anything during this phase.They mistakenly think that babies are going to learn just what they need from hanging around the house all day and going from feeding to sleeping to bathing and pick up all they need to know in order to learn how to talk.Others might occasionally take the time by reading a story book here and there or playing peekaboo when they happen to think about it.Research tells us that it takes consistent and repeated actions to help babies learn the foundational skills they need to communicate.Consistent and repeated actions take TIME. Many parents are just too busy and distracted themselves to make the investment.They might spend more time researching their next vacation or even on mundane but necessary things like cleaning the house than they do with direct, purposeful time with their babies.

My advice to parents has come to be that you absolutely must make time to spend with your baby just as you would any other activity you deem important.For some parents this literally means scheduling an hour at some point in their busy day to do nothing but play.For some parents it means purposefully finding several brief 10-15 minute periods of time during the day when they turn off cell phones, lap tops, and televisions and send older siblings to their rooms or outside.

The great news is that it doesn’t take a lot of money beyond the several hundreds of dollars you’ve already invested in the piles of toys you already own.The things that research tells us works to help babies and toddlers learn to talk aren’t rocket science.It’s basically play, but with a language twist.That’s what this web-site is all about.We are dedicated to helping parents learn how to teach kids to talk.But it all starts with making the time.So grab your Palm Pilot, your Daytimer, or whatever other calendar you busy parents use, and get ready to write your kid’s name in it.You and your undivided time and attention are the number one thing your kid needs everyday, for the next 20 years or so.

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  1. bmarkham on February 2, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    this is amazing, i can’t wait for dawn to see this site. she is so wonderful with her children and her major is early childhood development….she works really hard with her children and will find this info on your site very helpful…

  2. Marla Whittenburg on March 1, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    I read this a few days ago and it’s been bothering me ever since…

    I’m amazed at how judgmental you seem to be of this fellow mother. Who knows? Maybe this was the very first time she had ignored her baby’s cry (gasp!). Maybe she’d had enough and was about to do something horrible, but then decided that she needed to get out and just get some Plug-ins for her poopy, spit-up-laden home. Maybe she was finally focusing on herself for that moment–albeit not to your liking. Maybe she suffers from PPD. Or, maybe she doesn’t always drop everything when her baby makes a peep or even cry? How dare you judge someone–especially when you don’t even know her name? And a fellow mother, at that? There’s enough competition between mothers and this certainly doesn’t help the issue! I finally understood your point, but it didn’t require you do sound so terribly self-righteous. Maybe an example/story of someone who continually ignores her baby would be a little more effective and supportive. And, no–I wasn’t the woman in your story.

  3. Laura on March 1, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    Didn’t mean to step on your toes there Marla! I was just making a point that as parents we need to respond to our babies. That’s how they learn to communicate. If no one responds to our attempts, then why bother? The ability to communicate is what separates us from animals.

    Sadly, this is not the first and only time that I have encountered this kind of attitude. Today while out shopping with my family, I noticed several mothers who picked up, or at least acknowledged, their babies when they cried. Unfortunately, one mother today let her newborn wail for a good 10 minutes in Target, and my 11 year old daughter finally said to me, “Why doesn’t she pick up her baby?” If an 11 year old can “get it,” I don’t understand why a grown woman can’t. My point is, we are responsible for teaching our children to communicate, and that begins with responding consistently to their attempts, and yes, this includes crying, and yes, even when you are having a bad day. Sorry I hit a nerve with you, but maybe it will make another mother more senstive to her children’s earliest attempts to communicate. That’s my mission. Laura

  4. concerned reader on March 1, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    Marla, I cannot believe how you have gone off on Laura about her story on the website. Who cares if the mother is tired or whatever. Once you are a mother, it is all about the care of the children. You need to get a grip yourself.

  5. Marla Whittenburg on March 1, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    I guess Laura *did* hit a nerve with me, considering it bothered me for so many days. I completely understand your point, Laura, but it sounded demeaning and self-righteous. I find your website to be so insightful and knowledge-filled. There are so many parents out there who could use your help–but attacking them isn’t going to help them.

    My point was this–if you truly want to help someone who ignores their child, I doubt attacking them for their behavior without knowing them or their situation is not going to help. The people who ignore their children already have something bad going on in their lives…that’s why their ignoring their children.

    I am a mother of three incredible children, I rarely have a grip on things, I shower my kids with love and attention, but I also heed the advice of the airline stewards fairly often–“Please attach your own mask before assisting others.” Maybe someday I’ll get a grip.

  6. maddy on April 9, 2008 at 12:50 am

    Its no wonder so many people on meds for depression because so many people are of the belief its ok to ignore a baby… well believe me its not. Infant issolation (even if its due to a fancy blackberry or being poor orphan)it results in a life time of suffering.

  7. Laura on April 9, 2008 at 6:23 am

    Maddy – We’re right there with you! Thanks for your comments! Laura

  8. Tahna on August 22, 2008 at 4:38 pm

    So sad!! and I see it all the time when my son and I go grocery shopping as well. I see little tiny babies just wailing away and the mom is acting like she’s deaf! I just want to pick those little ones up and hold them!!
    Toddlers just BEGGING for some of their parent’s time and attention and being told to “be quiet! I’m on the phone!”.
    Meanwhile, I’m talking up a storm to my son, about everything we’re looking at, everything we’re buying, just anything at all I can think of.
    Yet, because my son is 2 and can only loudly and happily babble instead of respond in words back to me,they look at US like WE’RE the crazy ones!
    I’m definitely not saying I’m perfect. There are some days that I think “where did the day go and why didn’t I spend more of it playing with my son?”
    We all do need to wake up, and I don’t think this article was too harsh at all!

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