Oh screen time… one of the most controversial topics you can find in any space devoted to parenting. It’s also a topic that people without children feel free to hop in and discuss as well. I know that because it was me just a couple of short years ago. My background is in early childhood education, and I taught preschool for years before my husband joined the military and I got pregnant with our first baby. Before having my daughter, I was firmly in the camp that the American Academy of Pediatrics has it right: absolutely no screen time before the age of two. I could see no reason why parents of babies and toddlers would even need to use screen time to occupy their children.
Let’s all pause to laugh at me for a moment there. It’s okay, go ahead and laugh!
Since having my daughter, I have had to learn a little thing called balance. I’ve learned to find the in-between space, and be okay with it. We don’t use screens to distract our daughter 24/7, but we also do not just plop her in front of the TV all day and ignore her. It’s taken us quite a while to find our groove, so here’s what we’ve learned and started to implement regarding screen time for babies. Everything here is my personal experiences and my own opinion!
I am not discounting the possible negative effects that screen time has been shown to have on very young children. Those studies are very real and raise very valid concerns. For example, one such study concluded that children who are exposed to screens at age two read less books at the age of three than their peers who did not receive any screen time, and that those same children at age five were consuming even more screens (Study: Early Childhood Screen Time Leads to Less Time Reading Print Books (aap.org)).
Of course we all want our children to be successful, and one of the first things that we want them to be successful in is school when they are old enough to start. Reading is an essential skill for success in school. I do believe that we can have academically successful children who also have access to screens. This is a new age where screens are more accessible than ever for children. I find it unrealistic to tell parents a resounding NO on screens for babies younger than two.
Frankly, screen time can be a saving grace to struggling parents. I know it was for me. My daughter had absolutely no screen time until she was about seven months old, when she and I moved to my husband’s new duty station by ourselves. I was solo parenting for a good two months while we waited for my husband to be able to join us. All of a sudden, I found myself unable to go to the bathroom or cook dinner without my daughter on my hip. She also had just started to get more mobile and curious about her surroundings, so I couldn’t just sit her in a baby seat and hope she’d fall asleep. She did not want to sit by herself and play with toys either.
Everything I did was either with her attached to me, or with my baby screaming from a safe space (like her pack and play) for me to come back and get her. Desperate, I pulled out my husband’s iPad and pulled up Disney plus. And when I tell you it changed my life… It. Changed. My. LIFE. All of a sudden I was able to cook dinner! Go to the bathroom! Brush my teeth! Take five minutes to stretch my tired arms and just breathe! It was a game changer. Yet because of my background in child development and my previous convictions against screen time, I did feel pretty guilty for allowing my baby to watch Disney movies and children’s TV shows.
Let’s be real for a moment here… screen time might not be optimal for children younger than two, but it can be a very real necessity. The very best thing you can do for your baby is be present. A burnt out parent is not showing up as their best self for their baby, and THAT right there is why I will never ever judge a parent who is using screen time younger than experts recommend.
We can use screen time as a tool to give ourselves time to do all of the things that otherwise would not get down. We can use screen time to give ourselves a little break so that we can enjoy the rest of our day rather than simply survive it. For me at least, this made a world of difference as I solo parented my daughter. Here are a few tips on ways to utilize screen time as the gift that it can be, and also making sure it’s a good experience for babies:
- It goes without saying that not all children’s shows are created equal. Parents should make sure that they are familiar with what shows their children are watching, and screen for age-appropriate content.
- Watch with your babies and toddlers! Studies have shown that co-viewing TV is beneficial for older children. You can read one study’s results on this here (Television and Children | Johns Hopkins Medicine). Watching with an adult helps children better understand what they are watching, and also enjoy it more. Although most studies on this have tracked older children, I believe that it is just as important (if not more important) when viewing TV with babies and toddlers. I like to sing along with the children’s programs that I choose for my daughter, and she enjoys shows more when I do.
- Be selective about what your babies and toddlers are watching. Studies have shown that some shows may be overstimulating for children younger than two. Babies respond better to slower-paced shows such as If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. One of my personal favorite resources for better toddler TV shows is Raising Well Kids on Instagram. We also absolutely love Sesame Street, Little Bear, and Elinor Wonders Why!
These are just a few of the things that work for my family. Everyone is different, and what works for us may not work for you! That’s okay. I just hope that if you are a fellow screen friendly mama, this article helped to de-stigmatize the topic of screen time for our youngest kiddos! For families looking to make a comprehensive plan for screen time for the whole family, the AAP has a great resource linked here (AAP Media Plan (healthychildren.org))! If you have any more TV show recommendations or anything to add to our conversation, please feel free to share in the comments!