The impact of screen time and television on early child development is an issue concerning many parents. Just how much time in front of a screen is appropriate for babies and toddlers, and how does this impact on their early development?
It’s tempting, isn’t it, to turn on the television, to have just a few minutes all to yourself? Baby seems to love it, and sits transfixed, staring at the screen. As mums, we have a chance to do some chores, or even just sit down and read a book or check our phones. This give us time to communicate with the world outside, and escape, just for a little while, from feeds, nappies, and the constant need for attention that our babies crave from us.
But, what happens to baby while he is sitting still in front of the TV? Or, rather, should I say, what is not happening?
Your baby is not moving, not exploring his or her world, or engaging in face-to-face social interactions, which form the foundations for later learning in all its forms – social, emotional, physical, behavioural and academic. Authorities such as the World Health Organisation strongly discourage screen time for infants under two years of age, issuing guidelines recommending zero screen time for infants under 2, and no more of one hour a day of sedentary screen time for children under 4, saying less is better. Why is this?
Stages of Child Development
Development happens in stages, like building blocks. The first three years are vital to your child’s early development in so many ways. Babies early movements build necessary sensory and motor skills as they explore their world, which is the basis for school readiness. Challenging behaviours, such as ADD and ADHD can be linked back to gaps in early development.
As a Counsellor/Psychotherapist, I assess children who struggle with learning and behavioural difficulties for gaps in their early development. I then offer an individualised 1:1 program to “fill in the gaps” of these missed or incomplete early stages through a graded series of developmental exercises. The first priority is building a relationship with the child, then we work on building sensory and motor skills.
Watching my granddaughter is an absolute delight, as she instinctively knows what her body needs to do, from lying on her tummy and learning to lift her head, to early rolling movements, first tummy to back, then back to her tummy again, before getting up on her hands and knees at around 6 months, and rocking in preparation for crawling. These movements are the basis of a sense of balance, and coordinate balance with vision, an essential skill for learning to read.
Importance of Crawling
I have read that babies need to do 50,000 crawling steps. This seems reasonable, as I watch my granddaughter develop confidence and motor coordination through this process. Crawling helps your baby build important pathways in her brain, develop hand-eye coordination, linking the left and right sides of her body, and brain. She is also building strength and rhythmic coordination in her limbs and developing self esteem through being able to explore her world.
At around 8 months your baby will start to pull herself up on furniture, building strength in her little legs, getting ready to walk. Before she walks, though, she will cruise around the furniture, slowly building motor and coordination and confidence, in preparation for taking her first independent steps. The confidence and self-esteem that develops through doing this all by herself cannot be underestimated.
Language and Listening
Talking to your baby builds her ability to listen and understand sounds. She began “hearing” the vibrations of your voice while she was in utero, and her ears are naturally attuned to these sounds. She also learns to recognise vocal tones. Baby knows intuitively when you are happy, or if you are feeling stressed. This is not the same as the electronic sounds coming from your TV screen.
Having you by her side helps your baby learn to self-regulate her emotions, knowing you are there to protect her. She will watch your face to see how you are reacting, and will follow your lead. She also needs you to empathise with her when she is struggling, and will recognise these qualities in your voice and demeanour. Screen time will not teach her this.
Development is Instinctive
All of these stages are important. They happen instinctively and, given the opportunity, your baby will know what to do. She does not need any fancy gadgets or walking equipment, just your support as she explores her world.
For those of us who struggle with relationships and issues of poor self esteem, it can be a very real challenge to adapt to the needs of parenting, recognising just how important we really are to our baby. The Circle of Security is an internationally recognised program designed to help parents build closer relationships with their infants.
I know, too, how hard it is to come home tired from a day at work, and have to interact with an infant, when all you want to do is to sit down and have a rest, and turning on the TV is a great way to escape. Then there are the chores to do, dinner to prepare… How do we find the time to spend with baby? This time is important to baby, because to our children we are the most important people in their world.
The Good News
The good news is, it’s never too late to change, and it’s OK to seek help if you feel you are struggling.
So, to answer the initial question, should I let my baby watch TV, the answer is up to you, but be aware that the issue is not only about what they are doing, but is just as much about what they are not doing.