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Little Kids, Big Questions
is a series of 12 podcasts that translates the research of early childhood development into parenting practices that mothers, fathers and other caregivers can tailor to the needs of their own child and family. Click here to listen to or download the podcasts. This podcast series is generously funded by MetLife Foundation.

Without fail, as soon as I answer the telephone my 1-year-old starts fussing for my attention.

Q: Without fail, as soon as I answer the telephone my 1-year-old starts fussing for my attention. Why is he reacting this way and what should I do?

A: My friend tells the story of calling a local child care center when her daughter was 9 months to see if there were any openings. I dialed the numbers, got the answering machine, and tried to leave a message. Instead, all they heard was: ‘Hello, this is WAAAAAAAH. I have a baby and WAAAAAAAH. Please let us know if WAAAAAAAH. Later, the center director told her that messages like this were common. But at the time my friend couldn’t help thinking: Kiddo, you get my full attention for 99.9% of your waking hours—can I have 15 uninterrupted minutes on the phone, please?

Babies bask in our attention. They light up at the sight of our faces and are comforted by our voices. We are the first ones they go to with a boo-boo and the last ones they want to see at night before they fall asleep. That’s the good part. The tough part of being your baby’s number one person is that when something distracts you from your child—something that you respond to right away, and that seems very important to you—your baby naturally sees it as competition. He is set on winning back your attention from this hard, plastic foe. This is actually a pretty complex intellectual achievement on your son’s part, associating the telephone with “losing” you, even if it’s just momentarily. So your son is doing some important learning, making the kinds of connections that he’ll use again and again to make sense of how the world works.

Here are some strategies that can help your child cope with this loss of attention and make life less stressful for you:   

  • Set aside a basket of “telephone toys.” These are special toys that your son gets to play with only while you’re on the phone. When the phone rings, you can say: Let’s get your telephone toys! Soon the sound of the phone ringing will mean a special opportunity to play with a new set of goodies. (Just be sure to keep rotating and refreshing this basket to keep it new and exciting.)
  • Let him join in. Pick up a play telephone or even a “real” telephone that is not plugged in. As you answer the ringing phone, give your child his telephone to press the buttons, talk into, bang, and chew.
  • Make your phone time his snack time. Try setting your child up with a healthy snack while you talk. Parents that have tried this approach recommend offering “interactive” food that engages more of his attention, such as fruit with yogurt dip, a slice of cheese, or carrot sticks cut into little pieces that can be stacked, pea pods that can be squeezed, etc.
  • Establish certain times of day that are phone-free. Think about what part of the day your child is most alert and playful. During that time, make sure that you keep at least an hour phone free, chore free, and distraction free. Knowing that he can count on having you all to himself for an extended period each day will help your son cope more effectively with brief telephone separations.
  • Resist using the phone while you’re out with your son. When you go to a playground, think of all the parents you see talking on their cell phones while their children play alone. Everybody gets important calls, has bad days, and needs to talk to a friend, or has to remind a partner to pick up some milk on their way home. But when you spend lots of your “together” time with your child talking with someone else, it takes time away from meaningful interaction and is sure to make the phone a real enemy!




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