Psychologists have long warned parents to stop checking their cellphones during family time. Now neuroscientists at the University of California, Irvine have gone a step further, urging mothers to put away their smartphones when caring for their babies.

The reason: Maternal care that’s rife with interruptions can disrupt normal brain development in babies and lead to troubled teens.

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At least that’s what researchers found in rats. And based on the results of the new study, “we might wish to turn off the mobile phone when caring for baby and be predictable and consistent,” says the lead author.

In the study, Tallie Z. Baram, MD, PhD, and colleagues at UCI’s Conte Center on Brain Programming in Adolescent Vulnerability found that “consistent rhythms and patterns of maternal care seems to be crucially important for the developing brain,” according to a university news release. Babies’ brains, it said, need predictable, ongoing stimulation to ensure the growth of “robust neuron networks.”

The researchers looked at two groups of rat babies. Both got the same total amount of maternal care (think licking and grooming), but in one group, the moms doled it out in predictable doses. In the other, circumstances made the care and attention more fragmented.

The rats in the second group, once they reached adolescence, were more likely to have adhedonia — the inability to experience pleasure. They had no interest in two things teen rats normally love: peer play and sweet food.

As far as the nervous system goes, rats and humans aren’t that dissimilar. That’s why the researchers suggest their results could apply to humans, and parents should take note. “The appearance of anhedonic behaviors during adolescence in humans is important and ominous because it is considered a source of risk-taking behavior and addiction and often heralds depression.”

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Baram, a pediatric neurology specialist, says it’s well known that vulnerability to emotional disorders stems from an interaction between our genes and the environment, especially during sensitive developmental periods.

“Our work builds on many studies showing that maternal care is important for future emotional health,” she says in a UCI news release. “Importantly, it shows that it is now how much maternal care that influences adolescent behavior, but the avoidance of fragmented and unpredictable care that is crucial.”

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Diana is an award-winning writer and editor with more than 20 years' experience in magazine, video, book and digital journalism, with a specialty in health coverage. She was a longtime writer and news editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting; has written for publications from the Washington Post to the Times of London syndicate; and has served as a senior and/or consulting editor at Time Inc. Health, Hippocrates, HealthDay News Service and Reporting on Health. She was also editor in chief of Consumer Health Interactive, a national health and medical web site, and has reported on finance for Blueshift Research and PBS Frontline. Before joining SafeBee, she was editor of Bioenergy Connection, a national magazine about bioenergy at UC Berkeley. Her favorite safety tip: Wear a bike helmet.