Aug. 7, 2007 -- "Smart baby" videos don't help kids before age 2 years -- and may actually slow word learning, a University of Washington study suggests.
Frederick J. Zimmerman, PhD, of the child health institute at the University of Washington School of Public Health, and colleagues held long telephone interviews with more than 1,000 parents about their children's TV viewing habits. All the children were younger than 2 years of age.
The American Academy of Pediatrics warns parents not to let kids this young watch any TV at all. But the researchers found that 90% of kids regularly watch TV, DVDs, or videos by age 2. Does it really hurt?
To test the kids' language development, Zimmerman and colleagues asked the parents how many words on a 90-word list their children knew.
"We found no association with language acquisition and TV watching -- even adult programming seemed to have no effect," Zimmerman tells WebMD. "But there was one quite large effect -- from baby videos like the Baby Einstein and Baby Genius products. These kids were 17% slower in language development than the kids who didn't watch such videos."
If you're one of the millions of parents who has bought one of these products, don't panic. Zimmerman is quick to add that this single study does not prove the DVDs cause harm.
"I don't think this study definitively proves any harm," he says. "If parents are comfortable with their babies' video watching, fine. Just keep it to a minimum. Do not assume it will help make them smarter, but do not assume it will hurt, either."
"If you have exposed your child to an enormous amount of video, do not despair: There is no science showing lasting harm," Meltzoff tells WebMD. "Children are enormously resilient. Your kid is probably doing just fine. But what the science is showing is that if you are in the group that thinks you must establish a training regimen by having your child spend an hour or two a day watching these DVDs, put that aside -- and also put aside the DVDs."
Meltzoff says the research team was surprised to find out that the main reason parents let kids aged 0 to 2 years watch TV is to promote brain development.
Many companies that sell "smart-baby" video products claim or imply that the products will make children smarter -- and that parents who don't buy the products will miss a crucial window of opportunity to do the right thing.
There's no scientific evidence behind these claims, says David S. Bickham, PhD, of Harvard's Center on Media and Child Health.
"It is really important for parents to realize there isn't any research showing a positive effect of smart-baby videos. Their kids aren't missing out on anything by not doing this," Bickham tells WebMD. "That is the opposite of what the company advertisements say. We do know the activities that lead to important levels of brain development among young kids. TV doesn't necessarily provide that."
The Other Side Responds
Rachel F. Barr, PhD, director of the early learning project at Georgetown University in Washington, serves on the advisory board of Sesame Beginnings Workshop, which produces video products for kids aged 0 to 3 years.
"We are still at the early stages in finding out what is going on with these videos," Barr tells WebMD. "What I typically advise to parents, if they do show infants television, they should co-view with them and talk with them. If babies are watching on their own, they are not going to acquire vocabulary at the same rate. This doesn't mean the parent has to be there every second. The parent can walk in and out of the room and see a cat on the screen and say, 'Oh, look, there is a cat just like our cat.'"
Some kinds of television do delay language development in very young children, says Deborah L. Linebarger, PhD, assistant professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. But she says others seem to help.
"We are starting to get an idea of what are the essential components of media for kids under age 2," Linebarger tells WebMD. "Magazine-format shows, like Sesame Street, tend to reduce expressive language and vocabulary skills in children under the age of 2 years. Over age 2 years, there is a huge body of literature that this is positive for children, but it is really not appropriate for kids under age 2."
Videos with simple story lines that elicit language -- such as Dora the Explorer urging kids to say "Backpack!" -- seem to encourage word-learning skills in under-2 children. But Linebarger warns parents against expecting too much from such programs.
"Parents need to be really careful and not get sucked in by labels that say this is going to make your baby smarter or a genius," she says. "I have a 1-year-old, and would have no qualms about showing her particular kinds of video content. The shows with changing stimuli or animals I would not show. Try to show your babies some kind of media with a simple story embedded in familiar routines the baby would experience in everyday life."
WebMD offered two makers of smart-baby video products an opportunity to comment. The Brainy Baby company did not make a spokesperson available. Susan McLain, general manager of The Baby Einstein company, responded by email.
"All Baby Einstein DVD/videos are designed as interactive tools and catalysts to promote interaction between parents and their young children, which is one of the most critical elements to the development of a healthy and happy baby during the first three years of life," McLain tells WebMD. "The entire Baby Einstein collection is specifically designed to promote discovery and inspire new ways for parents and babies to interact - such as clapping, pointing to objects, and verbally interacting with their baby - in real time and in age and developmentally appropriate ways."
Zimmerman and colleagues report their findings in the current issue of the Journal of Pediatrics.