In any given day, 8-month-old Anthony Esposito can be found clapping his hands, dancing, and chiming in to tunes pealing from his collection of videotapes. The Staten Island, N.Y., infant is apparently a big fan of the Baby Einstein series, with titles like Baby Mozart, Baby Shakespeare, and Language Nursery making regular rounds in his family's VCR.
"These tapes have a lot of colors and shapes that hold his attention," says Anthony's mom, Lejla. "It's funny, because if I stand in front of him to distract him, he'll move his head to look behind me to continue watching the show."
Across the country, in Alameda, Calif., 17-month-old Lauryn Nakamura seems to be equally riveted with her Baby Einstein products, says her mother, Lilybell. Not only does the toddler watch the Neighborhood Animals DVD, but she also responds to matching flash cards, eagerly identifying creatures and their sounds, as seen on the show.
The Baby Einstein line of videos, DVDs, flash cards, software, books, CDs, and educational toys has captured the attention of many infant households. After two years under the Disney label, 27% of kids own at least one of the brand videos, according to a recent Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation survey of more than 1,000 parents.
Yet Baby Einstein isn't the only product to have moved into the now-hot neighborhood of goods claiming to promote children's intellectual development. If browsing through toy store aisles and online baby sites is any indication, the amount of educational merchandise for kids -- especially for newborns to preschoolers -- has exploded in the last few years.
This week alone, Amazon.com's top toy sellers include teaching materials such as the LeapStart Learning Table, Bake-A-Shape Sorter, Learning Drum, and Hug and Learn Baby Tad.
Some of these may simply be souped-up variations of old gadgets or based on the latest technological wizardry. Nonetheless, today's electronic and educational gizmos and programs are getting a lot of kid and parent attention.
The Kaiser survey found that children 6 months to 6 years spend an average of two hours a day with screen media, mostly watching TV and videos. The survey is supposedly the first to document media use by tots under age 2.
"There was anecdotal evidence of the trend toward younger and younger kids using media, but there had not been any national documentation of it," says Vicky Rideout, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation. "This was important to do because we know how critical these very early years are to children's development."
Report Card on Smart Baby Goods
Just how good are these educational products for infants and toddlers? It depends on the medium, say child development experts, giving mixed marks to anything from blocks to videotapes to kiddy laptops.
"The toys can't hurt," says John Colombo, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan., noting that researchers have found general stimulation to be good for the growth of young minds. "A child's best environment is going to involve both stimulation with materials -- personally, I prefer books -- and personal interaction with parents."
Many, if not all, early childhood professionals advocate for parent involvement, which is why psychiatrist Michael Brody, MD, has a problem with videos, DVDs, and computers.
"Parents, because they're busy, think they could have their kids watch TV, or sit on their laps with their own computers while they're working," says Brody, chairman of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry's committee on TV and media, adding that just because something is labeled "educational" doesn't mean that it is.
The so-called educational media can, in fact, be more harmful, because they give parents a false sense of reassurance that their children are learning, says Brody. He explains that there has been no good scientific evidence of the value of smart baby products.
His main protest, though, is with the electronic media, warning that it may provide too much stimulation for kids and may give them a head start in becoming addicted to the tube.
The bottom line is that children need contact with the real world and with human beings, says Brody, giving a thumbs-up to baby dolls, blocks, stuffed animals, and toy trucks. "These give children a greater chance to develop their imagination and motor skills," he says. "They need to touch, experience, and listen."
Physical interaction is so valuable for very young children that anything else -- such as structured games, flash cards, books, videotapes, and DVDs -- can hinder full development, says Stanley Greenspan, MD, author of Building Healthy Minds and a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School in Washington, D.C.
According to Greenspan, newborns to preschoolers need the following kinds of interaction with a caregiver to enhance their intellectual and emotional growth:
- Taking part in activities that exercise multiple senses at once. An example would be a newborn baby following mommy's face and finding her voice.
- Engaging in activities that build intimacy and trust. Infants experience this when they play with their mommies and daddies.
- Establishing two-way communication. This could happen in the following scenarios: The baby smiles, and daddy smiles back; the baby vocalizes a sound, and mommy vocalizes something back; the baby reaches for something on mommy's head, mommy smiles, takes it back, and puts it back on her head, and then baby reaches again.
- Acting as a joint problem solver or scientist with a caregiver. For instance, a toddler could take a parent or day care worker by the hand, asking to help search for a new toy. The little one sees a toy up on the shelf, asks to bring it down, and the caregiver picks him up to help him get the object.
- Creating imaginary worlds, especially at 18 months to 2 years old. This is a chance for kids to develop their creativity. In order to do this, they need to be able to play "pretend," such as going on trips or out to dinner with a parent. Toys such as dolls, trucks, houses, action figures, and houses do well in promoting make-believe environments.
- Participating in activities that help promote logical and reality-based thinking. A child, for example, asks to go outside. The caregiver asks why, and the child responds with something like, "Because I want to play."
Educational toys and other media should be used to enhance these core experiences, says Greenspan. Structured games, information-oriented materials, and other "educational" products are OK to use as springboards for interaction, but relying solely on them could hamper broad development.
"The games and toys are advertised as building intelligence, but, in fact, most of them just build narrow types of skills, such as memory -- like memorizing letters or sounds -- or some very narrow types of problem solving -- something mechanical and not the type of broad problem-solving these six experiences [mentioned above] promote," says Greenspan.
The Baby Einstein web site says their products "expose your little ones to the world around them through the use of real world objects, music, art, language, science, poetry and nature. ... Our products provide fun and stimulating ways for parents and caregivers to interact and enrich their children's lives."
Marketing to Parents and Babies
Lois Liebowitz received the Baby Einstein videotapes as gifts for her daughter, Melissa. Although the 2-year-old appears to enjoy the shows, Liebowitz is unsure of their impact on her toddler.
Given her doubts about the value of such educational media, Liebowitz ponders whether or not she would have bought the tapes on her own. "I probably would've been guilt-tripped into it," confesses the Manhattan, N.Y., resident. "There's this thing about wanting to give your kid every advantage, and since you're not sure if this really makes a difference, then you better do it in case it really does make a difference."
The 45-year-old marketing executive says her fears about being a good first-time mother have especially made her more vulnerable. "From an advertising perspective, you're almost like a sitting duck," she says.
Liebowitz is far from being the only parent to feel this way. The sentiment is so common that in a review of the Kaiser survey, an advocacy group called Stop the Commercial Exploitation of Children (SCEC), calls for helping "parents understand the harms associated with marketing to children and themselves."
The editorial explains that babies who watch TV -- even PBS shows -- are exposed to thousands of marketing and commercial messages for things that aren't good for them, such as junk food, toys, and other products.
To Liebowitz's credit, she limits Melissa's TV- and video-watching time to a maximum of 90 minutes per day and makes sure the 2-year-old gets lots of reading time, free play, and trips to places such as the zoo and museum.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours of screen time for children who are older than 2 years old and no screen time at all for younger kids.
The no-screen-time-rule may be tough for some parents to follow, given they may find time to do things such as prepare dinner or make phone calls while babies are engaged in educational toys or shows.
Colombo says there's nothing wrong with moms and dads using some harmless merchandise to keep kids occupied for a short amount of time. "Parents need a break, too," he says, adding that caregivers who care about their kids' intellectual development are probably already doing many of the right things. He reminds parents that there is no equation for producing an exceptional child.
As for the kids, they're usually good about telling their caregivers when they need a break from developmental toys and other media, says Leslie Cohen, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Texas in Austin.
The child will often fuss, look away, act bored, or focus attention on other things. In this case, it is important to switch to other activities and not force him or her to be interested.
"Babies are natural learners," says Cohen. "Let them be your guide."