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Baby Videos: what’s the big deal?

By Isabel Kallman

albert-einstein-1.jpgBy now you have seen all the press reports about the new study concluding that watching Baby DVDs/Videos may hinder, not help infants’ language developments (for children 8 to 16 months old). Of course this news makes for an attention grabbing headline. I got my hands on the study published in the Journal of Pediatrics to look a bit deeper behind the press release.

Babies and toddlers under 2 years old watch lots of TV despite the Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation of no screen time for kids under 2. Almost 40% of babies start watching by 3 months of age and 90% by 24 months. The median age to starting watching TV is 9 months. Does this surprise you? Nope, me neither.

Putting my baby in front of the TV to watch Baby Einstein was a practical everyday affair for me starting at the three-month mark. It allowed me a well-needed 20 minutes to pump breastmilk or wash some baby bottles. I had a hard time nursing at the font. And truthfully, if I couldn’t have pumped breastmilk successfully (and that definition includes my infant’s compliance to sit still) I would have given up at 6 weeks rather than continued until 12 months. It was a realistic use of TV/DVD/video as an electronic babysitter.

I never believed that these videos were educational. (Though, the study showed brain development and educational as the top reasons given by parents for allowing babies to watch TV). I’m an adult; I know that Baby Einstein doesn’t make your baby smarter and likewise, Baby Einstein never claimed it did. I can read the box. I was just happy that it kept my son entertained. All I could think was I’m the Einstein for having discovered it. It was the ultimate parent hack in my book.
Also, my son only watched for twenty minutes at a time. Yes, I did press replay sometimes, but the vast majority of the time, the baby video was on for what has been seared into my mind as some of the most precious 20 minutes, allowing me to use the bathroom without my 8 month-old ankle-biter following me in. To this day, my now 4-year old and I stick out our tongues and shout blah whenever we play with the dragon puppet from Baby Van Gogh.

But, there are some heavy dosers out there given that 17% of children 8- to 16- months watch 1 hour or more per day of baby videos. Interestingly, the study showed that increased viewing of baby videos is associated with slower vocabulary in a linear way. Vocabulary growth was used because it’s a good measure of cognitive development in this age range as it is easily observed and is a major developmental task of the age.

A couple of issues naturally jump to mind: the researchers admit that they didn’t rule out that the parents that allow their kids a heavy dose of baby videos may also be less motivated to interact, talk or read to their kids, all of which promotes language development.

Also, why is it that watching baby videos does not affect the language development of 16- to 24-month olds? Well, the researchers admit that the association may disappear by the time the children become toddlers. As such, the impact of baby videos may be transient.

Okay new parents, you have freaked out for nothing.

Well, this looks like yet another news headline designed to freak out new moms who are already prone to anxiety and depression. When I was a new mom it was Toxins in Breastmilk!  But on further thought I guess studies like these are somewhat like the safety tags put on pillow cases and mattresses. They’re a public service! You parents are just not smart enough so we need to begin the process of regulating your parenting, too.

In fairness to the researchers, they do state the analysis presented here is not a direct test of the developmental impact of viewing baby videos but go on to recommend further wide-scale research to enable them to make firmer statements… based on scientific information. Too bad the media didn’t read that line.

Well, I have confidence that parents are smart enough to read past the news headlines (co-sleeping is bad! bottle-feeding is bad!) and will make decisions that are best for them and their families. I think that we parents can and should help our children make appropriate media choices and should be proactive in contacting companies to tell them what we want and don’t want to see on TV. As head of Alpha Mom, I read every piece of viewer and reader mail.

I am also in the process of joining a newly-formed Board of Parents (volunteer position) for a leading baby TV/video company where, along with other parents, I will be actively involved in making recommendations on media content, product development, marketing and website initiatives. I am beyond giddy about this opportunity as I believe I can have an impact on the future of children’s media. It’s not going anywhere. We should embrace this reality and make it better.
As such, I would love to hear your thoughts on baby/ toddler videos. Anything and everything is welcome. Bring it on.

* UPDATE: Disney demands a retraction from the University of Washington (where these researchers are based) for misleading press release. Disney called the press release “deliberately misleading, irresponsible and derogatory” because it “blatantly misrepresented what the study was about, distorted the actual findings and conclusions, and ignored the study’s own explicit acknowledgment of its limitations and shortcomings.”

Isabel Kallman
About the Author

Isabel Kallman

Isabel Kallman is the founding mom of

Feel free to send nice emails to isabel[at]alphamom[dot]com.


Isabel Kallman is the founding mom of

Feel free to send nice emails to isabel[at]alphamom[dot]com.

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  • Jenifer

    August 10, 2007 at 1:19 am

    I completely agree with all you said!! The conclusions are completely flawed! As are the studies that found that watching more TV a day leads to ADHD. ADHD is hereditary, so isn’t it likely that the parents with ADHD might have been disorganized/overwhelmed (like the rest of us), but more so, and that lead them to put their kids in front of TV more? I mean, this is basic science guys. I used baby einstien the exact same way you did (and also, for the first six months, to have a 20 minute dinner with my husband, since I had babies that wanted to be held at all other times until they could move/eat by themselves!!).
    thank you for this blog!

  • Wicked Stepmom

    August 10, 2007 at 11:33 am

    My son, who is 5, watched Baby Einstein videos and I hit replay quite often (to pump, get stuff done, etc). But I also watched the videos with him quite often and pointed out what was on the screen. He was extraordinarily articulate before he was 2yrs. And was speaking full sentences by the time he was 2.
    My daughter, who is 21 months, has hardly watched any Baby Einstein. And she is not nearly as articulate. But she is also the baby and has an older brother and sister (my 11 y/o stepdaughter) who will speak for her. And who also compete for my attention, so she sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.
    With the two older kids at camp this summer, I’ve been able to work WITH HER on her language skills (just as I did with her brother.) And she is talking much more now in the past month than she has before the summer started. But still not as much as her brother was. But that’s ok. She’s not him.
    I don’t believe tv or videos are bad for kids. I am skeptical of the latest studies and pay them little mind. I do believe TV and videos need to be played in moderation, though. For tons of reasons – not just language development, or ADHD.
    I also think we need to NOT compare our kids with other kids (or their siblings). I started to worry when I noted my daughter wasn’t speaking as much as my son did at her age. But then I reminded myself that every kid is different. They all progress at their own pace.

  • Rose

    August 10, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    I put them in so I could get a break plain and simple. It helped that the music didn’t annoy me.
    Did it make her smarter? Nope. But she did learn some sign language which was a GREAT party trick.

  • Brenda P.

    August 10, 2007 at 10:09 pm

    Both my children enjoyed multiple versions of the Baby Einstein videos. Now 2 and 4 years old, I feel that these videos can be great tools in a family’s life, a simple resource that we could use or abuse. Like so many things, videos should definitely be used in moderation. Dependency on anything can be unhealthy. Although many parents tend to abuse the convenience of popping in a video, children could definitely be watching worse things. When blended with the correct amount of hands-on parenting and simple parental guidance, these captivating videos might just help engage a child through music or otherwise help expose them to something new that might not have ever been seen without this inexpensive resource….but along with everything, the key to any child’s learning is the parent being the child’s most important teacher…not the tv.

  • Eli

    August 10, 2007 at 10:39 pm

    Ditto and kudos to what you point out. We had the entire Einstein library. I only started with one DVD at a time, and only once a day for 20 minutes. Several days without any video time.
    I read to my daughter A LOT! She has incredible verbal skills, and early too. I do have a homevideo of her trying to watch Einstein, but I’m standing in the way, and it is hilarious. She was so enthused and stimulated by the DVD. I think it was a great way to break up our activities for the day, and to get a 20 minute break.
    Still, to this day, we put on the occasional DVD. I admit to even owning some Elmo’s World.
    I wasn’t sure about Elmo–he sort of has a whiney voice. But Elmo’s world ended up seeming positive and educational. My daughter actually picked up even more vocabulary and cognitive thought from the occasional video viewing.
    Out of the blue she would surprise me with a new observation, and I’d wonder, “where did you learn that?…oh…Elmo…”
    But the main point I liked that you stressed was this: moderation (duh!), and don’t let it replace reading books. Read, read, read!
    Some kids like to read more than others, luckily mine loves it. We started from the time she was a newborn (singsong books like “Jamberry”). It seemed pointless at times, but she grew up loving books–so maybe it helped? Maybe they’re just born with it or without it. So much of parenting is just a guessing game and following your gut.

  • Beth B

    August 11, 2007 at 1:21 am

    Great post. I agree completely, I do not know what all the fuss is about! I know videos are just babysitters – never thought they were “educational”. And I agree the studies do not take into account those people that may use videos for a short amount of time (say 20 minutes like you did) but spend THE rest of the time interacting with their kids. Or have caregivers that do.
    I think we need to shift the focus away from blaming this company or that one – to helping educate parents to talk/interact with their kids as much as possible….

  • Suburban Turmoil

    August 12, 2007 at 3:25 pm

    Thanks for having the guts to admit you put your baby in front of the TV. With my first, putting her in front of an episode of The Wiggles when she was a baby gave me just the amount of time I needed to vacuum the downstairs. I often felt guilty because of all the studies and recommendations about TV and babies, but of course, I gave into my selfish vacuuming needs. Plus, Anthony is kinda hot.
    I think it all depends on how much one-on-one time we’re spending with our kids. I spend a lot of time playing with them, reading to them, singing to them, etc-since I’m staying home with them, I think of their “education” as my primary job- therefore any TV time they have is not an issue for me. In fact, TV has taught my now 3-year-old plenty, from a budding Spanish vocabulary to the planets in the solar system.

  • cagey

    August 12, 2007 at 11:40 pm

    You know what? If mama and daddy need to get a little “somethin’ somethin'” action, what’s wrong with a little Baby Noah to help entertain our precious progeny while meeting that lofty goal?? Aren’t there studies showing that kids NEED siblings?
    On a serious note, I agree this should be filed under the God Forbid, We Would Trust Parents With Their OWN Children section. Everything in moderation – my son is awake for 11-12 hours a day. Videos are just one part of his days that are filled with loads of other activities. Another commenter made the great point of watching the video WITH her child and talking about the action as it went along – I also do this. I’ve also found television can be a great reinforcement for the things that we are already working on – say shapes and animals, for example. I live in Kansas City – where else is my kid going to see a panda IN ACTION and not just printed on a page in a book?

  • Isabel Kallman

    Isabel Kallman

    August 12, 2007 at 11:52 pm

    thank you all commenters to pointing out something that I did not stress: that interacting with your child in every day life and reading are the most important to your child’s language and social development.
    And, I agree. Everything in moderation and a little dose of TV should be considered in context of an overall day of social interaction.
    Also, I know the AAP’s recommendation of NO tv for kids under 2. But, they don’t back it up with any data. Then, in 2004 the same researchers who conducted this study I discuss here released a study about babies’ TV watching an ADHD. I believe that study is flawed as well.

  • Meagan Francis

    August 13, 2007 at 10:41 am

    This is exactly my reaction to the whole thing! In my house, TV is entertainment for the big kids, and for the little kids, a tool I use to buy me some time here and there. I never actually thought my kids were learning from it–and yes, if kids are sitting in front of a video for hours at a time, it makes sense that they are learning less because the parents aren’t interacting with them during that time! (so it’s not that the tv-watching causes the problem but just eats up time they otherwise would have spent interacting, hearing parents speak, etc). I hate when studies try to point to a cause when what may actually be happening is only a correlation, as seems to be the case here.

  • Susan

    August 13, 2007 at 11:12 am

    My oldest son refused to watch television until he was nearly 2 (and I was expecting a second baby). He would follow me EVERYWHERE, dragging his toys with him. It was exhausting.
    (It turned out that he has terrible vision; once we got him glasses, he was all about television. But I digress.)
    I spent a lot of time interacting with my sons; I still do. But on a day when they are up at 6:00 am and ready to go and do and play, there comes a moment when I need a break. Now, at 5 and 7, they have graduated from Baby Einstein to Scooby Doo, and I think of it not as “educational” (unless they’re hoping to be teen crime fighters) but as a welcome break for all of us at the end of a long, busy day.
    I agree that this study is one more way to make us question our parenting, particularly as mothers. The message clearly is god forbid we ask for 20 uninterrupted moments to pump or pee or just stare into space. Personally, I’m a better mom if I can stare at the wall for a wee bit every day.

  • Kennedy

    February 4, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    I can’t imagine why we would need to turn to television to “inspire and engage a baby’s imagination”. Playing games, reading books, singing songs are all such nice ways to spend time with your baby. Parking them in front of a TV seems like a poor substitute.