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Written by:  Kyla Steinkraus
Date: April 1, 2008

No matter how much you love your baby, once in a while you need a few minutes to take a shower or make an important phone call. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies and toddlers refrain from watching television, a recent University of Washington study revealed that 40 percent of 3-month-olds and 90 percent of 2-year-olds regularly watch an hour or more of TV a day.

“The AAP's recommendation is because television time replaces important parent interaction, and not because of any harmful effects of television viewing,” says Dr. James Sears, M.D., a noted pediatrician and co-author of The Baby Book.

If parents make it a priority to get in lots of cuddle and play time to stimulate their baby’s brain the rest of the day, they can stop feeling guilty about switching on the tube every now and then.

Sears suggests a limit of 30 minutes a day for children under 2. For kids older than 2, the AAP recommends a maximum of two hours of media exposure — including video games and computers — a day.

Negative effects of TV

Too much TV is detrimental for kids of all ages. Excessive television-viewing by young children has been linked to lowered cognitive development, smaller vocabularies, ADHD and obesity. One study showed that for every hour a day a preschooler watched TV, his risk for obesity increased by 6 percent. A TV in the bedroom increased a child’s odds of being overweight by 31 percent. More than one to two hours a day replaces critical interactions with parents, siblings and friends and reduces time spent reading, engaging in imaginative play, exploring and exercising outside.

“I can see a difference in my sons’ behavior when they’ve been spending too much time in front of the tube,” says Heather Hoffman, a mother of two boys, ages 2 and 5. “They don’t listen as well and tend to get overactive after the TV goes off.”

Educational value

What your child watches may be as important as how much he watches. Shows and DVDs deemed “educational” can enhance a preschooler’s learning development when used in limited amounts.

A 2005 study published in the American Behavioral Scientist supports the importance of content when choosing programs for your child. Children who were 30 months old watched Dora the Explorer, Blue’s Clues, Arthur or Clifford developed larger vocabularies and higher expressive language scores, while those who watched Teletubbies or Barney & Friends knew fewer vocabulary words.

Barbara Holden, MSW, director of the Urban Child Institute in Memphis, Tenn., and a member of the Tennessee Commission for Children and Youth, recommends watching quality programming with your child. This enhances the learning experience through sharing, reinforcement and parent-child interaction.

The educational value of television for babies is suspect, however. If you show your baby educational programs hoping to enhance her development, you might want to reconsider popping in that Baby Einstein DVD. According to the University of Washington study, 29 percent of parents believe that television is educational or good for their child’s brain development. In fact, there is no proof that educational programming enhances cognitive, social or emotional development in babies and toddlers younger than 2.

“There is no substitute for the human face, touch, vocal interactions such as talking and singing, playing and the early brain stimulation that comes from a baby connecting with another human being,” Holden says. “Is 30 minutes of TV going to ‘hurt’ the child’s development? Probably not. Is it good for a baby or toddler? Probably not.”

Violent messages

When your toddler does watch television, make sure he’s viewing age-appropriate material, especially if there are older children in the house. Nix any kind of violence, even cartoon violence.

“Your child can't recognize that the images on the television are not real, and this can have important implications in terms of mental and social development," warns Dr. Perlmutter, M.D., a neurologist and author of Raise a Smarter Child by Kindergarten.

Holden agrees saying, “As we are teaching our 2- and 3-year-olds not to bite, hit and shove, TV is filled with ‘good guys’ doing just what we are trying to prevent.”

A recent study published in Pediatrics revealed that preschool-aged boys who watched violence on television were more aggressive and anti-social at ages 7 to 10.

Balance a TV diet

So what’s appropriate? Baby Einstein, nature DVDs, or educational shows like Dora the Explorer and Blue’s Clues are all better choices for little ones. The Noggin channel features educational, commercial-free programming for young children.

“I usually feel good about a program that gets kids dancing and singing along,” says Sears.

Hoffman chooses PBS, Veggie Tales and Leap Frog DVDs for her sons.

Just make sure you’re realistic about the actual value of such shows. Think of the majority of television as empty calories, the sugary drinks and candy of your child’s developmental diet. If your toddler spends most of his day playing, singing, reading, exploring, and interacting with loving caregivers, then an occasional episode of The Wiggles isn’t going to hurt.

You have enough to worry about without adding guilt to the mix. Think balance. Go ahead, turn on the TV and tend to yourself for a few minutes. After all, a well-showered mom is a happy mom. And a happy mom can devote herself to all of her child’s physical, emotional and cognitive needs.

Kyla Steinkraus is a freelance writer and mom of a 2-year-old who loves his limited TV time. She also is the founder of the family travel Web site www.ToddlerTravelGuide.com.


How Much TV Do We Watch?

- Adults and teens spend four hours and 35 minutes a day watching the tube. That’s 65 nonstop days a year in front of the TV. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006)

- By the age of 65, the average American will have spent nearly nine years watching TV. (Nielsen)

- The average American home keeps the television on for more than eight hours every day. (Center for Screen-time Awareness)

- The average American child spends 900 hours a year in school. Hours per year they watch television: 1500. (Center for Screen-time Awareness)



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