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Baby Einstein no make smart? Uh oh.

By Alice Bradley

This week, researchers at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute sensed that parents were starting to feel good about themselves again. Luckily they’re putting a stop to that, with the announcement that Baby Einstein HAS RUINED CHILDREN EVERYWHERE. Okay, not that. Actually, they published a study that showed that Baby Einstein and similar videos that purport to educate don’t actually help children develop at all. In fact, they may even hurt their development. Whoops!

The scientists discovered that that younger infants—ranging in age from 8 to 16 months—understood six to eight fewer words for every hour of baby video they watched a day. (Infants older than 16 months were unaffected; apparently they had long ago ceased listening to their parents’ constant prattle.) They determined this via telephone survey, which begs the question: doesn’t it seem like there’s a better way to determine how much an infant understands? Like, say, observing them, instead of taking the parents’ word for it? We’ve all been around parents who say, “He looked right at the remote control when I said ‘clicker,’ did you see that?” when all we can see is an infant with drool puddling in his neck folds.

Every other category of television they listed in their survey—educational children’s programming, non-educational children’s programming, and non-children’s programming—didn’t show any negative (or positive) effects. So why does Baby Einstein get a black mark? Perhaps, the researchers hypothesize, because the videos “[show] linguistically indescribable images such as a lava lamp.” Now, can I point something out, here? There is nothing linguistically indescribable about a lava lamp. Lava Lamp. There, I just linguistically described it. Now, if these videos actually showed linguistically indescribable images, that would be something. Maybe if they showed the FACE OF GOD. The boundaries of the infinite. The ineluctable modality of the visible. Baby Joyce! I would totally buy that one. Gaze in your omphalos, kids!
Henry occasionally (okay, daily) watched these videos way back when (okay, he still likes them when he’s sick), so I asked him if he believed that they hampered his intellectual development. He shook his head. “Puppet stealing balloon,” he said. That means he’s sad at the thought that babies are being deprived of Baby Einstein, just because of some silly study.

“Rubber Ducky floating across screen. Baby reaching for blanket? Toy UFO floating into space!” Then he imitated a Moog synthesizer playing “Ode To Joy” for five or six minutes. He had a lot to say on the subject.

Seriously, now: did anyone ever think they were helping their kid develop a bigger vocabulary, watching these videos? First of all, there aren’t many, you know, words. Baby Galileo was Henry’s favorite, and it was twenty minutes of pictures of space with a kid occasionally shouting words like PLANETS! and GALAXIES! while toys meandered across the screen. Does anyone think that’s teaching? Planets come in toy form as well as in giant real-life size! Feel your mind grow, my child!

Why do we need the pretense that these videos are educational? Parents put their kids in front of them so that they can get things done. Take a shower. Boil water for pasta. Floss. And there’s nothing terribly wrong with that. An hour (or more) of Baby Einstein at a time, okay, that’s a bit much. Unless you desperately need a nap, in which case it’s perfectly fine. Don’t look at me like that.

Isabel actually covered this study today in her column, and she made some trenchant points regarding flaws in the researcher’s methodology. (Thus sparing me a great deal of mental effort. Thanks, Isabel!) This point, especially, stood out: the researchers themselves admitted that people who park their kids in front of videos for hours a day might also be neglecting their development in other ways. Maybe they don’t talk to them at all. Maybe they despise books. Maybe they put a nipple on the sweet vermouth, tape it to their children’s faces, and call it a day. We will never know.

Alice Bradley
About the Author

Alice Bradley

Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.


Alice Bradley was a regular contributor to Alpha Mom, writing about current events as they related to parenting. You can read about her daily life at her personal blog, Finslippy.

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  • Isabel Kallman

    Isabel Kallman

    August 10, 2007 at 9:54 am

    I just realized that no one has made mention of the legend that Einstein didn’t start speaking until he was 3. Ha!

  • lizpenn

    August 14, 2007 at 11:05 am

    Yeah, as one of my friends put it, when Einstein himself was a child he probably amused himself with a stick and a wagon wheel.
    We use television in a way that I don’t hear other people talk about: to relax my tightly wound 18-month-old enough to put her to bed at night. After her bath we pop in a video — usually My Neighbor Totoro, which is, to me, one of the greatest kid movies of all time — give her a bottle, and put on her pajamas while watching it with her. I know you’re supposed to read bedtime stories, and I love the idea of relaxing with a book, but the fact is that books do not relax our child. They make her excited and chatty and running like a crack addict to the shelf for more books. So while she gets stories in the morning and throughout the day, for the last ten or fifteen minutes before bedtime it’s TV. Is that horribly wrong?

  • Amy

    August 15, 2007 at 1:09 pm

    My kidlet loved the 2 Baby Einstein “Discovering Music” videos. We got them when she was about 11 months old, and watching them was the only activity that she would stay still for. Now she’s graduated to Barney (Thank you, God, for blessing me with PBS Sprout in my On Demand menu. Amen!), and it’s the same deal. For 30 minutes she’s completely fascinated by what is on the screen, and I can actually leave the room without fear of coming back to find a complete disaster. I don’t care if Baby Einstein or Barney or Sesame Street are educational or not. I care that I get a half hour to make dinner without having to entertain my little benevolent dictator.

  • Kristen

    August 16, 2007 at 9:46 am

    it’s just another great example of how so many are now relying on electronics to teach their kids.
    And what kind of study is this? A telephone survey? Because we all know just how accurate those are.
    I have come to the conclusion that the science community is jealous. As children they didn’t have anything close to Baby Einstein and now want something.
    It’s just all jealousy for toys floating across the screen.

  • Crabmommy

    August 24, 2007 at 6:48 pm

    Mostly what i object to is the Baby Einstein Mommy, Julie Double-Barrelled-Whatchamacallit’s irritating reverent voice and undertanned mug glinting from her promo materials. When BE is silent, it’s all good. When Julie Figgerton-Whillicker speaks in that voice that SONDS AS THOUGH SHE IS SMILING WHEN SHE TALKS I feel I might have to BREAK SOMETHING.
    To me, BE is mostly annoying for the fact that it has become such a success. That an annoying woman can make a million convincing people that having their kids watch TV will make them smarter — now THAT’S genius. Annoying, but genius.
    I wrote about this quite a bit at my blog, Crabmommy, last month, under several posts called “We Don’t Need No Education” if anyone wants to know. (Plug plug plug. Sheesh Crabmommy, buzz off!) I’m probably going to get kicked out of comments now.

  • EOMama

    August 27, 2007 at 1:17 pm

    My twins have been watching the Baby Einstein videos since they were about 2 months old. They are now 2 years old and currently sitting in their cribs having a perfectly intelligible conversation with each other. Guess their verbal skills haven’t been damaged, huh? And if they have, I really don’t care, because Baby Mozart was my very best friend back in the dark days of newborn twin hell. I’ve taken lots of showers and eaten lots of dinners because of that video. God bless it!

  • Joy, of course

    September 2, 2007 at 8:30 am

    Giggle. This was quite funny. And I agree. But, I genuinely doubt I could make dinner each night without Baby Einstein so I need to agree. So my family can eat.


    November 8, 2007 at 10:54 am

    I didn’t have to hear about the study to know that putting a baby in front of the tv is not a good idea. The videos are training babies to be great tv watchers. There are other ways to stimulate a child so mom can take a shower. I don’t think some moms can figure that out because they to are addicted to the television. The tv screen is not good for the eyes, and it is overstimulating.

  • Sueblimely

    April 3, 2008 at 7:57 am

    Indeed,it is true, it’s always true. Comments ain’t even necessary.

  • aselvarial

    March 9, 2013 at 3:50 am

    My son hated these videos. we tried. He refused to watch any of them except the numbers one. he watched it in the car when we drove pretty much anywhere. It was 20 minutes which is about how long it takes us to get anywhere. Ironically, even though he violently hated these, he has to be in speech therapy because he hit 3 and had maybe 25 words. Somehow I don’t think that those that DON’T watch mattered to the researchers so much.