0- 2 Years

// Do screens really affect babies’ sleep?

Screen use around infants can potentially have negative effects and few known positive effects, especially for children younger than two years of age.

Babies form strong sleep associations. So if screens and other gadgets are always used to pacify babies or encourage them to sleep, they can quickly become accustomed to this type of stimulation in order to fall asleep. It is not healthy in the long term for babies to form such attachments and sleep associations.

TV can disrupt infants’ sleep, as the audio and/or visual stimulus can awaken them prematurely or between sleep cycles, making it difficult to transition back to sleep. This is also why it’s sometimes impossible to settle a baby in front of the TV. Their orienting response keeps them alert.

For other babies, TV can put put them to sleep because it cognitively exhausts them. Their sensory system has been bombarded by the sights and sounds and they fall asleep, but often don’t enter a deep sleep.

Babies also don’t have well-developed circadian rhythms. This is why they often confuse day and night and why they require darkness to establish good sleeping habits. When TVs and other brightly lit digital devices are used around babies, it can hamper their ability to develop their circadian rhythms. The rhythms begin to develop at about six weeks and by 3–6 months most infants have a regular sleep/wake cycle.

This isn’t to suggest that we should never watch TV or use a screen around our baby or toddler (I certainly did when I was feeding babies). This is not feasible, nor necessary. My iPhone was my sanity-saver during the early morning feeds when I was worried about falling asleep on top of my babies. I certainly didn’t do it all the time, but there were times when watching a bit of TV while I fed the baby or occasionally scrolling through my Facebook feed was helpful for me and I don’t believe that it hampered my ability to care for or connect to my babies.
TECHNO-TIP- Don’t fret. Watching TV every now and then or using a tablet device around your sleeping baby won’t have catastrophic effects. I’m not suggesting that bit of background TV while we feed or settle is terribly detrimental to our infants. We just have to be mindful about switching on the TV or illuminating a dark room with our tablet device or having devices switched on when we’re trying to help our little one sleep. It’s can be counter-productive.

// Is there a good age to use my smart phone with my baby?
There’s no safe or ideal age at which to introduce technology to little ones (and there’s absolutely no hurry to do so either.) I advise parents to err on the side of caution, especially when it comes to babies and toddlers.
In the early months and years, young children really only need simple things to thrive: lots of exposure to language (including plenty of serve-and-return interactions with adults) combined with lots of opportunities to move, explore their world and see what their bodies can do.

Screen time can potentially interfere with these skills: young babies and children need laps, not apps!

TECHNO-TIP:If we do want to use technology with our little one, try to use it together. Use it as a way to cement our relationship with them and immerse them in language. For example, watch videos and photos from smart phones and discuss what’s observed. Explore new words or ideas, sounds and images online. Try to connect what they’re watching on DVDs and TV to their life and experiences (to compensate for the video deficit).

We need to make screen time a social and interactive experience with our child and ensure that time spent with screens doesn’t replace or substitute time spent with us or another caregiver.

// Are Baby DVDs helpful?

As parents we’re under increasing pressure to purchase baby media devices and give our little ones a head start.

Despite the marketing hype and claims of many baby DVD products, there’s an absence of research to substantiate their claims that these devices offer any educational advantages to infants. In 2007 Disney, the owner of the Baby Einstein DVDs, was forced to offer a refund on their baby DVD range after the Federal Trade Commission found that their website and packaging claims were not supported by research.

The research actually tells us that babies learn less from TV and touch screens than from live demonstrations because it’s difficult for them to understand how information depicted on a screen relates to the real world. This is called the ‘transfer (or video) deficit’. Research has shown that babies and infants learn half as much and recall it for much shorter periods of time when using touch screens.

Now before we fret or worry that we’ve exposed our baby to TV or other screen time in the first two years, rest assured that a little bit of technology is unlikely to be harmful. Small amounts, of around 15-30 minutes/day is likely to be fine (30 minutes is for children closer to 2 years, than for newborns). I simply encourage parents to limit the time children under two years spend on screens. And don’t feel pressured to prematurely introduce screens.

Studies have shown that baby media doesn’t provide educational benefits to infants, despite marketing claims that suggest otherwise. In fact, there’s some evidence that suggests that DVDs may in fact be detrimental to babies’ language development. For example, a study by Zimmerman, Christakis, and Meltzoff found that for every hour per day that babies aged 8–16 months watched baby DVDs, they knew on average six to eight fewer words than babies who didn’t watch them. The baby media, DVDs and videos, also had no effects, positive or negative, on toddlers between 17 and 24 months of age. So marketing claims that such products will boost language weren’t actually grounded in research.

Baby DVDs are not a teacher in the living room.
Many baby media products have a narrative, or story format. Child development research tells us that infants aren’t able to understand narratives until between 18–22 months of age so many educational DVDs aren’t actually developmentally appropriate.

Now before panic sets in because our child has watched or uses baby DVDs, let me provide some reassurance. Just because our little one has watched these DVDs it doesn’t mean we’ve failed or messed them up. It’s highly unlikely that small doses of these videos and DVDs are harmful and as part of a balanced range of learning experiences, it’s unlikely that these products will adversely affect young children.

In fact, the average length of time spent watching a baby DVD is reported to be 9 minutes, so it’s unlikely that a couple of minutes here or there will cause long-term problems or adverse effects. But if we do choose to use Baby DVDs, we must use them sparingly and use them knowing that they’re not going to ‘teach’ our infant. And when using the DVDs we need to try, where possible, to watch them with our infant and discuss with them what they’re seeing on-screen and help them to connect it to their real life experiences.

Just don’t be duped into thinking that baby DVDs and media are educational or will boost your baby’s IQ or language. This is simply not the case – and there’s no clear evidence to support any benefits of baby media. So don’t feel pressured to introduce them to your child.

// How much screentime is safe and appropriate for babies and infants?

The current Australian screen time guidelines suggest that infants and toddlers should have no screen time whatsoever.

These Australian guidelines are based on a displacement effect- when babies use a screen, they’re not doing something else (playing, moving, interacting with an adult for example).Technology isn’t necessarily toxic or taboo for babies and infants. However, there are concerns that screens can have an opportunity cost for young children, as they can displace other important developmental opportunities. For example, a youngster might only be awake for 10 hours a day, so if they’re watching 1–2 hours of TV/day this is 10–20% of their waking time spent with a screen. This clearly limits the time available to them to engage in essential developmental tasks like moving, speaking and playing.

The Australian guidelines are also based on research with passive types of technology (especially TV research). We don’t yet have a complete picture about more interactive screens like tablets and smartphones.

We don’t need to prematurely introduce technology to little ones. There’s no hurry. I certainly don’t advocate the wholesale or premature introduction of screens – it’s not what developing brains and bodies need.

TECHNO-TIP- In a nutshell, use screens sparingly in the first two years of life. If you are going to use them with your little one:
• Try to co-view and use screens with your child. This helps them to connect what they’re seeing on a screen to real life (this overcomes what we call the video deficit). Look at photos and videos together.
• Use language as much as possible when your child uses a screen. Again, this helps them to make meaning from what they’re watching and develops essential language skills (which their brains need). Read book apps together and watch TV shows and discuss what they’re watching.
• Have enforceable limits on what they can watch and when they can watch it (avoid screens before nap and sleep time as this can delay the onset of sleep). Start having conversations about ‘how much’ as soon as you hand over your smartphone to your toddler.

// Is it okay if my baby watches sport on TV with his dad?

Watching sport on TV isn’t necessarily harmful for babies, but it distracts them and limits the time parents have for serve-and-return interactions, which are essential for their development.

Babies often appear to like the attention-grabbing sound and visual effects from TV –especially when it comes to viewing sports programs – but it’s not necessarily beneficial for them. Adult-directed content, whether it’s the news, sports or game shows, are not meaningful to babies. They simply can’t comprehend what they’re watching. In many instances, it’s their orienting response is captivated by the changes in scenes and audio.

When parents are watching TV, their attention isn’t always on their baby. Babies can sense this. They also need lots of serve-and-return interactions and watching TV can detract from these interactions.

Every now and then a bit of sport watching is unlikely to harm babies, but given their limited awake time, we don’t want this precious time to always be dominated by screens.

// What are some non-digital ways to connect with our children to stimulate their brain development?
Children really need simple things for optimal brain development. In fact, the neuroscience is telling us that ‘ancestral parenting’ (the way that our grandparents and parents, parented) is exactly what developing brains need to thrive (even in this digital age). Babies and toddlers need time to form and sustain relationships, opportunities to use and hear language, daily physical activity, good nutrition, play experiences and adequate sleep (I call these the 7 essential building blocks in my book). So the simple things in life are ideal.

Spending time with your child is one of the best (and most enjoyable) ways to boost your child’s brain development.

Kids need time to play every day. Inside and outside, structured and unstructured play. Children need to be physically active every single day too. So make sure you switch off devices and play and learn together.