TV time for babies and toddlers

watching childrens tv on a laptopTelevision is a big part of most of our lives, add to this the time spent on your phone, tablet and laptop and we are probably looking at back-lit screens for entertainment purposes for a longer period of time than any generation before us. Research has shown British children have regular access to an average five screens at home by the age of ten. But how much time should your baby or toddler be in front of the TV? Or watching nursery rhymes on your iPad? Or playing games on your phone? TV has been blamed for contributing towards childhood obesity, aggression and even ADHD. So, in a world where we are surrounded by shiny objects emitting bright lights that amuse and entertain, how can we get the balance right for our children? Or is there a balance at all?

How much TV time is acceptable for a baby?

In 1998 the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) advised every child under the age of two should watch no television at all, and children aged two and older should watch no more than 2 hours a day maximum. This includes time spent on video games and iPads etc. The AAP report said TV deterred children from interacting with their parents (or vice versa), and interaction is crucial to vocabulary development. So no tv for you and no tv for baby.

What? No TV for 2 years?

Baby sat infront of tvFirst of all, lets not forget children have been around a lot longer than television sets and have always been able to keep themselves entertained. At the same time, we can’t ignore the fact parents are busier than ever before, life can be hectic and sometimes the tv can be a life/sanity saver. My advice would be, don’t feel guilty about using the TV, just be sensible about. 5 minutes of TV for a baby and gradually increasing this as she grows will do your child no harm, the fear for paediatricians is parents using the TV as a babysitter or having it constantly on in the background disrupting free play and distracting your child. Sitting with your child, talking about the programme and commentating on what is happening is a sure fire way to turn your baby/toddlers TV time into something a little more productive. Once the tv is off again it may inspire you to create some imaginary play based on what you have watched together or sing songs you have heard. Most program’s aimed at young children often have their own catchy songs or incorporate popular rhymes into the program. Having your television on in the background is a distraction for you both and will ultimately result in your child thinking this is normal (which doesn’t bode well for later in life) and may be the cause or a contributing factor of a language delay. Babies need to differentiate between various sounds and tones as part of their language and speech development and the background noise of a television is more than capable of hampering this. Keep telly watching time short. A few minutes at a time is quite enough stimulation for a baby, this can increase slightly for toddlers but you should still watch the majority of programmes together.

What about my baby’s older siblings?

It can be an extremely difficult balancing act with two young children at home, in terms of getting the balance right with tv time my advice would be:

Trust yourself, if you feel your toddler is watching too much TV then he/she probably is.

One thing you can try is to allow your child to watch recorded programmes or DVDs – this way you can control when the program starts. You can then watch it together once baby is having a nap – it gives you some much needed one to one time and prevents too much passive/ background TV viewing for your baby.

What is the harm in TV viewing or having it on in the background?

Parents who watch their own programmes during the day or who leave the television on in the background aren’t doing their children any favours at all – your baby’s brain develops rapidly and in a unique way; between the age of birth to three, neural pathways are constantly being created which are essential to your child’s development, a child sitting in front of the TV or constantly being distracted by the TV will not be given as many opportunities to create and reinstate these neural pathways which could lead to concentration problems later in life. The more a television is on, the less opportunity there is for conversation or the more likely it is that conversations will be unfinished or unproductive. The bottom line is, turn your TV off if no one is watching it.

Why watch it with my child?

Surely it’s a time to do the laundry? Or clean the kitchen right? Wrong! Academic success is linked not only to how much TV viewing time your child has but also how the TV is viewed. A child who watches a moderate amount of television with a parent will score better academically than a child who watches the same amount on his/her own. It also sets a much better example if you watch it together. Why not watch the TV together then do the laundry together afterwards?

In a study of more than 2,000 children, by D A Christakis of Seattle Children’s Research Institute, it was found that for every hour watched at age one and age three, children had just under a ten percent higher chance of developing attention problems that could be diagnosed as ADHD by age 7. A toddler watching three hours of television daily had nearly a 30 percent higher chance of having attention problems at school.

Top tips for sensible TV time

  • Lead by example: Don’t watch your programs whilst you are with your child, or if you do make sure it is once in a blue moon.
  • Setting limits from day one : It is much easier to gradually increase viewing time as your baby grows than try to reign it in once you have realised it has gone too far.
  • Pick your viewing carefully: Watch age appropriate programs that offer some form of educational material.
  • Watch it together: Discuss the programme, refer back to it at a later date, create drawings and play it out together, don’t let your child be a passive viewer!
  • Don’t have on in the background: it will distract you and distract your child and may harm your child’s speech, concentration and your relationship with each other.
  • Use the pause and skip button : Pause it to discuss what is going on, skip it if you need/ want it to end soon (particularly if your child has been ‘sucked in’).
  • No TV in the bedroom: Your child should not have a tv in the bedroom and you should never watch tv at dinner time.
  • Trust your instinct: If you think your child may be having too much TV time, you are probably right. Try reducing it gradually and making it more productive.
  • Plenty of play time: Unstructured’ free play time is much more valuable for the developing brain than any electronic media however educational it claims to be.
  • Everything in moderation: This is the key. Just as it is for junk food. Be honest with yourself and do the best you can for your baby’s developing brain.

If you are interested in further reading, you may find this study by D A Christakis of Seattle Children’s Research Institute interesting in which mice were overstimulated to simulate the effect of infants watching television.

Your comments are very much appreciated. Do you agree with me? Do you have any thing to add?

One thought on “TV time for babies and toddlers

  1. Hello Angela,

    I am happy to see you and your husband started this blog. How old are your two children now?

    I am a big advocate for no TV before age three.

    It is too much of a temptation to say 5 minutes, and only if we watch together. I would put an older child in a separate room, or better yet, I would ban TV until the youngest turned three.

    Please check out my post in rebuttal to an New York article talking about smart phone apps for babies.

    My wife and I live 80 miles north of Seattle. The study was another confirmation of our mutual opinions on this very important subject.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts. i’m also happy we connected on Google+

    Cheers, John

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