No Need For TV, Baby

According to dismaying statistics published recently by Common Sense Media, raising infants and toddlers without using TV as a babysitter has become a countercultural choice — the path less taken. Why are we so stuck on doing something we know is, at best, a waste of time for our babies?

In A Creative Alternative To Baby TV Time, I speculated that parents desperately need breaks from the 24/7 job of baby care, especially in those first years (been there!). Sometimes TV can seem the easiest or only answer. The majority of these parents must not be aware that there is a healthier, safer way that’s guaranteed to have a positive impact on their baby’s developing brain…

Independent play keeps babies safely occupied, while also providing an essential developmental opportunity. Not only is inner-directed and uninterrupted play a profoundly educational, therapeutic, creative (the list goes on) activity for babies, it’s also the key to raising a child capable of self-entertainment. Provided with safe places to play, these babies have no need for TV.

The American Academy of Pediatrics corroborated these statements when it (all too briefly) mentioned a viable alternative to TV use in its recent update to recommendations for children under 2: leave the baby to play alone. Unfortunately, they neglected to include the most important element of solo play: a 100% safe, gated off area. Parents listening to the report might have been imagining their babies wandering around the house while they went to the bathroom and thinking, ‘no way am I going to do that!’ Nor should they.

Establishing the play ‘habit’ takes a bit more thought and conscious effort in the beginning than does plunking a baby in front of TV. It’s worth it, though, and I can’t imagine a better description of the process than the account and video sent to me by Kerry, a mum from New Zealand…

I’m so happy I’ve persevered with uninterrupted play. I can definitely see the results now. My baby is very content to explore his environment.

The biggest thing for me was TRUST – trusting him to move just the way he needs to, trusting him to spend his time doing what is most relevant to his learning, trusting him to let me know when he needs me. By doing this I have got more and more enjoyment out of observing him and I think we both get more satisfaction out of each small achievement.  It’s like watching life unfold.

I’ve also found it’s almost about going *against* your instincts – to not rattle a toy in his face when he’s day dreaming, to not help him straight away when he’s stuck or frustrated, to not ‘teach’ him how to reach his next milestone.  When he’s playing, he’s being, and by respecting that he’s learnt to love his time on the floor.

Kobe is my ‘proof’ that babies move through physical milestones naturally without the need for adult intervention or teaching. He has found his hands and feet, reached for toys, rolled one way, rolled the other, rolled back, turned in a circle, and I didn’t teach him a thing!

So that’s a couple things, otherwise I always place him on his back first, don’t use any equipment that restricts movement, give him opportunities to play every time he’s awake, give him full attention during care moments, leave the room sometimes when he’s settled and playing (always tell him I’ll be back in 1 minute), acknowledge eye-contact and any frustrations, and make time for interactive play time too (lots of cuddles and singing etc.). 

(Kerry mentioned that she accidentally erased the sound from this video, so we’re unable to hear Kobe reciting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 while he plays.)

P.S. Kobe has just started daycare and the teachers have commented on his agility and confidence in his movements, his ability to self-soothe and the way he anticipates and responds to adult’s actions…. I’m such proud mum!

I share more about child-led play and respectful care in my book: 

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

Thank you, Kerry!

Kerry is an early childhood teacher in New Zealand and began working in a nursery 2 years ago which sparked her passion for respectful care and the RIE philosophy.  Since having Kobe 6 months ago she has been privileged to put into practice all she’s learnt and is amazed everyday at Kobe’s attentiveness, confidence and grace

20 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. TV and computer are terrible. No need to be zero-tolerance about it, but you are 100% right that play is much better. Yes, maybe you need a safe place to play, but I don’t think parents should leave their children to watch tv in danger zones either. What parent doesn’t have a safe place for their kids to play in (if that’s someone reading this, then create one!)

    I wrote a piece called Train Your Child To Be A Gifted Genius — 4 “Easy” Steps! and step one is to get rid of time wasters like TV. These things literally eat up years of lifespan, and anything younger than about 4 can’t even understand what flashing on the screen so it’s pointless to put on quasi-educational stuff.

    We’re on the same wavelength. TV = bad!

    1. Good point, Alex, about leaving babies to watch TV in an unsafe area. Do parents leave them strapped in infant seats? I’ve always wondered how this works… I agree that very young children have difficulty comprehending TV. Magda Gerber advised exposing children to toys and objects that they could make sense of, because by doing so we encourage them to keep working to understand their world. But TV discourages that kind of active learning because the very idea of it (“life” that emits from a screen) is impossible for a young child to understand.

      Thanks for sharing your post. I appreciated it, and yes, we are like-minded!

  2. Darn, I was so looking forward to hearing Kobe reciting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 while he was playing!
    I realize the irony of the following statement, but it was really wonderful to be able to watch (on my computer screen) Kobe playing so contentedly, and to read Kerry’s letter detailing her process. I wish parents to be and new parents the world over could be shown this post and video. I bet many fewer parents would resort to turning on the TV if they could just be shown another way to do things that would ultimately benefit them and their child greatly.

  3. The TV is just a distraction. I watch my 11 month old when her big sister is watching TV or playing on the Wii. She (11mo) will continue playing, but glance up at the TV every so often because she can hear it. Or else she’ll pester sister to play with her instead (and sister often does).

    Sometimes I’ll call up Sesame Street on the computer, for a lark. At first I left the screen on, and 11mo would glance at it, same as always. Then I started putting it on with the screen off, so it was just those fun songs playing in the background, and she stopped looking for the images. She recognizes the songs, now, though, and grins if I sing them to her.

  4. I’m not perfect at no TV, but my 2.5 year old watches a lot less TV than most kids his age. There are some days he doesn’t watch any TV and when he does, he usually just gets to watch one show and we watch it together. When I have to shower or get ready, I lock him in my bedroom with me. I pull out a few toys for him or let him choose some to bring. He is perfectly happy playing by himself and I know he is safe near me. Sometimes I’ll let him take a bath while I am in the bathroom getting ready. He loves to bring his plastic guys and animals in the bath with him and plays so well. When he was an infant, I used to put him in his playpen in the bathroom and he was usually pretty content. There are lots of creative things you can do that foster independent play while you need to shower or get ready. I’ve found that even if you do turn on the TV for them to be “baby-sat” they end up wandering around and looking for something to play with anyway.

  5. Well, no TV here, simply because we don’t own one! A few years back we wanted to spend some good money on one, and couldn’t decide on a model so we postponed and postponed. Best thing we ever did. Now with a baby we have more reason not to buy a TV anymore.

    Entertainment for my 13 month old is using singing to her, listening to music and occasionally watching a video clip of a song or two on youtube.

    1. no tv here, either! with 3 children 7, 6 and 2 who are completely capable of entertaining themselves when need be:)
      love that i’ve found this blog!

  6. Thank you for emphasizing an alternative to television as babysitter!

    “Independent play keeps babies safely occupied” My little guy is living proof of this fact! 🙂

  7. Great article, I think the biggest issue with TV is that it is proven to put your baby into a state of paralysis. No learning takes place, and if anything it can go the other way.

    People wonder why learning disorders are so prevalent or obesity is on the rise. There are direct correlations between watching lots of TV and these issues.

    The average child in the US watches 5 hours of TV a day, that is ridiculous. We live in New Zealand and it wouldn’t surprise me if in general we are not that far behind.

    When they watch TV they stop creating pathways in their brain, this is due to the fact that movement is required for brain function.

    It’s not necessarily what is on the TV, it is the medium itself. There has been no scientific evidence that anything on TV is valuable for your baby. So, in this case TV is for the benefit of the parent and not the baby.

    Armed with this knowledge you know that the decision you make is based on you or your baby.

    Hopefully there is value in this for someone.

    1. Patrick, thank you. I agree, as does the research I’ve read.

  8. Just thought I’d mention that I was brought up with no T.V. so it’s quite fitting that Kobe is in a post relating to that very subject! I am always thankful to have had such a rich childhood and hope to give the same gift to my children. Thanks again for the post, Janet 🙂

  9. Hi Janet,
    I have just discovered your website and have been devouring all of your posts!!
    I have some concerns about my daughter that I would love to hear your thoughts on…but first a little background…
    I am an early childhood educator but now a stay at home mom (most of the time). I only became aware of RIE a few years ago. But much of what I am reading here on your website rings true to my natural instincts with children. Unfortunately, I did not follow my instincts with my daughter and we spend lots of time playing together. We do no TV but it seems I have become the entertainment. I have been racking my brain to figure out why she is not playing independently and will not leave the room I am in. And now I see that I need to implement more alone playtime for her. How do I go about this with a four year old? I have thought for the last 2 years that if I just refuse to play with her she will play on her own. However, it turns into these battles where she follows me around the house and brilliantly she engages me in deep conversations while I do things I need to do. She will play by herself as long as I am in the room but if I walk out for even a minute she stops her play and follows me. I would love to hear what you think.

    I also have an 8 mos. old little boy who I am now going to try and implement many RIE practices with.
    Thank you again for your post, as TV is something I can’t stand with young children but unfortunately I am not seeing as many benefits as I thought I would at this point…

    1. Hi Shannon! Your daughter sounds brilliant, indeed. It makes perfect sense to me that she is not going to give you up easily! Here’s a post I wrote in response to the mom of a 21/2 year old, some of which might apply: http://dev.janetlansbury.com/2009/11/becoming-unglued/

      And here’s another written to the mom of a 31/2 year old: http://dev.janetlansbury.com/2010/08/solo-engagement-fostering-your-toddlers-independent-play/

      Note that the “parent as entertainment” issue occurs almost exclusively with a firstborn child…which makes perfect sense.

  10. I’m a great believer in all things in moderation! My nearly three year old is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine and it has been a great stroma for learning. We let him watch 20 minutes of tv a day (but it is nearly always Thomas) and this seems about right for us. Thomas helped him with colour recognition, counting, phonics and story telling!

    Whilst, I would agree there is no need for tv, Thomas, at a set time, chosen by us, has enriched our lives and become another educational tool.

    I try to watch it with him, and although I don’t test him on his comprehension of the episodes we do talk about them and what has happened. I think there is a big difference between this and tv as an electronic babysitter, and even worse, tv in the background, all day long!!

  11. I think I use the exersaucer in place of TV. It’s sort of the same thing- I know it’s not especially good for him, but it gives me a half hour if peace in the evenings when my 6 month old is getting fussy and won’t play on his own anymore. I feel a bit better about the exersaucer than TV… it’s a bunch of plastic crap I wouldn’t normally give him, but at least nothing lights up or plays music, so everything on it moves because of his efforts.

    He spends most of his time in independent play… between naps and feedings there really isn’t THAT much time to fill. Usually when he starts fussing it’s because he’s getting cranky and needs a nap… not because he’s had too much time playing on his own.

    I disagree with Alex a bit on computers though. A computer is not TV. I spend most of my non-baby time on a computer and my husband works on computers. Obviously trying to teach an infant to use a computer isn’t the best use of his time, but I have every intention of familiarizing my baby with computers in small doses. I know the official stance… and I don’t agree with it.

  12. My daughter wasn’t interested in TV until she was 1 1/2, so we never had kids channels on,it was only by a fluke that she watched some at my parents house one day and decided she likes that one show. She’s never been a huge fan but now she’s almost 3 and has found her love of Disney films.

    I really hate it with i see babies stapped in prams infront of the TV, but no tv fullstop is kind of harsh. We live in a mordern world, TV is everywhere.

  13. There is a great video about the growth of the child’s brain and how television watching impacts the brain’s development in infants and toddlers by pediatrician Dimitri Christakis and well worth a watch:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BoT7qH_uVNo

    Our six month old son has probably seen an hour or two worth of TV in his entire lifetime, and it is very easy to cut it out of your life. A few years ago I wrote a blog post called ‘Eight Reasons to Quit Cable TV’ and it’s much easier than you think (see: http://www.seancast.com/2009/10/eight-reasons-to-quit-cable-tv/).

    The best way to avoid a child watching too much television to is lead by example!

  14. I found Janet’s blog and RIE when my now 2.6 yo boy was a few months old. We’ve recently had grandparents from overseas staying with us (who have another 5 grand kids back home). Last time they were here my son was 9 months and we got constant comments about how he must be so bored without TV and how would he learn anything without TV. This time at 2.5 years they are constantly blown away and amazed by his independent play. They cannot believe that a child can initiate their own play and play contentedly for such long periods of time. They are very proud that they can take him to cafés and restaurants where he sits and eats, drinks or plays quietly at the table. They love the comments from other grandparents and apparently had 1 couple ask what medication he was on. This visit they where very respectful of our parenting choices and approach. No TV has been an easier choice for us as we have no family close by to undermine our decision. It was a conscious decision to have no TV but thanks to finding RIE and the ideas and inspiration it offered we’ve never found it difficult. I’ve never struggled to shower, cook dinner or even get some work done on the computer because my son is bored. Sometimes I even sit down, put my feet up and relax with a good book while he plays in the same room! Thank you Janet & Magda.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience, Sarah! It has been mine, too, with all three of my children. And the parents in my classes share similar stories. Congratulations on your mindfulness and concerted effort!

      THIS is simply insane and a very sad reflection of our times: “…had 1 couple ask what medication he was on.”

  15. Hi Janet,
    I am a first time mom to a 3 month old girl. I never leave her to watch tv alone, and since discovering your blog I’ve been trying to foster more and more independent play. However, we got a set of baby Einstein DVDs as a gift at my shower, and I’m curious what your thoughts are on those? Should I avoid using them all together? Thanks!

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