Many parents, in an effort to give their baby the best head start in life, purchase educational DVDs such as Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children should not watch television until two years of age, countless parents contradict this standard pediatric advice, seduced by the promise of a smarter child, or at least by the idea of half an hour of free babysitting.
Although sophisticated advertising claims the DVDs teach babies to understand and speak earlier, no independent research has supported this claim. Recently, however, a University of Washington study of 8- to 16-month-old babies reported that the babies who watched baby dvds understood an average of six to eight words FEWER for every hour per day spent watching baby DVDs, than those who did not watch them.
The study author, Dimitri Christakis, said that other factors, such as parents' educational status and the number of children per household, were controlled for and do not explain the results. Why vocabulary acquisition was slowed must be explored with further research, said one author of the study, adding "There are only a fixed number of hours that young babies are awake and alert, and these babies are not getting the same linguistic experience" that they would from interacting with adults if that alert time is spent watching DVDs.
In my view, the language delays may also be explained by the brain changes caused by early TV viewing, such as those linked to attention deficit disorder in adolescence. Babies have important developmental tasks, and screen time, including Baby Einstein videos, undermines those tasks. How? Screen time shortens attention spans and habituates babies to watching rather than doing. Instead of experimenting with cause and effect, the baby is simply a passive viewer, which has been proven to reduce creativity.
Can some screentime be educational? Sure, but so is reading Shakespeare. That doesn't mean it's appropriate for a baby. In fact, while Shakespeare would simply bore your baby so he wouldn't listen, Baby Einstein mesmerizes him. That doesn't mean it's good for him, it may well mean just the opposite. And I for one wouldn't trust the marketing department at Baby Einstein to decide that for my baby.
My bottom line is this: Even if we don't know exactly why watching TV -- even educational baby videos -- impairs kids' cognitive development, we do know we are actively lowering their IQs every time we let them do it.
All of us face the challenge of keeping baby busy while we shower, make a phone call, or cook dinner. Anything we do to keep them busy will turn into a habit. If we can get them used to playing during this time, it will be much better for them in the long run than if we get them used to watching a video, even if the video holds their attention for longer.
In my view, if parents need to use a video occasionally, fine. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against it, but there are worse things you can do as a parent. Baby Einstein is no worse than many others. But parents should understand that any screentime at all for babies is a compromise, rather than believing the marketers who are making money off our babies.
In 2006, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed a Federal Trade Commission complaint against Baby Einstein for false and deceptive advertising. That complaint is still pending, but has received support from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Dr. Laura Markham