Babies’ brains do NOT need Baby Einstein… but moms might

Many of you must have heard by now about the big kerfuffle regarding Disney's offer to compensate parents' for the price of their Baby Einstein DVDs. Turns out that the claims made on these products were WRONG. The claims I'm primarily talking about, of course, is that these videos are "educational" or "help cognitive development" or "Help your baby learn language." Oops, that last one is really, really wrong. Not just wrong, but the precise opposite seems to be the case. In a study that came out originally a couple of years ago, researchers from the University of Washington found that for every extra hour of DVDs or videos that babies watched (specifically, 8 – 16 month olds), they learned 6-8 words LESS than kids who were not watching. I find the age-span particularly interesting, since that period is JUST BEFORE the stage that the vast majority of children get a HUGE spurt in language development at around 18-21 months. A recent study out of Thailand also found that early (before 12 months of age) intense t.v. exposure (defined as 2 hours or more per day) was associated with a six-fold increase in the probability of language delays.Baby tv gif

I have two main responses to the whole Baby Einstein thing. The first goes something like: The bastards SHOULD pay. There has NEVER been any research to back up the "educational" claims made by Baby Einstein inc. and all the videos associated with the brand. And there have been plenty of studies that have, for years, debunked myths like playing (Baby) Mozart to your child (in or out of the womb) has anything to do with the development of intellect,musicality, etc. (links to come, I can't find them now). I can kind of deal with every leggo box having a blurb on its packaging about "promoting fine-motor skills" and every wooden castle "enhancing children's imagination skills." These are sort of no-brainers (pun intended) without as much baggage associated with the claims. But what gets me all fired up is the massive industry that's been built up to prey on parents' fears, particularly the fear of not providing enough for their children's intellectual growth. The sales of videos geared at children under the age of two are estimated at over a BILLION dollars. Check out the Kaiser Family Foundation report for many more details. I remember the guy who painted our house 2 years ago urging me to start playing these Baby Einstein videos for my boys otherwise they'll fall behind and not be ready for school — he was seriously and sweetly concerned for my boys and their clueless mother. Then I went and looked at one of the videos and did a bit of my own research and proceeded to be HORRIFIED by the subtle and not-so-subtle marketing ploys made by these DVD companies (it's not JUST Baby Einstein, they're just the most popular). But my painter was not alone in his concerns: In that same Kaiser report (which is way out of date by now, given it was published in 2003),  27 percent of young children were found to own Baby Einstein videos and 49 percent of parents thought that educational videos were “very important” in the intellectual development of children.

Let me put it as clearly as possible: Scientific evidence strongly suggests that children learn language  better from native speakers in person or even from audiotapes (or whatever the cool kids are calling audiofiles and such lately) compared to learning from screens (TV or computers). For a review of these findings (and a very clear description of the state of the science in this area), just google this fellow's name: Dimitri A Christakis and the year 2009. There's a PDF document of his review article that I can't link to, but it's available for free for anyone who wants it.

So, yeah, in sum, I think Disney and that self-promoting, money-grubbing founder of Baby Einstein should pay back all the parents they lied to. It may be a tad harsh, but I think setting a precedent that stipulates that toy companies and media developers need to back up their claims with REAL SCIENCE (or just SHUT UP about any scientific claims) is a good precedent to set.

<end rant>

But I said I had two main responses and here's my (blessedly more brief) second point: Baby Einstein videos are well-designed attention-catchers (albeit VERY creepy, IMO) that can save a parent's sanity. I don't think they're evil, I just don't think they teach language or anything else particularly valuable for that matter. But they DO entertain babies. And there are so FEW things that entertain babies for more than .003 seconds. If your baby loves these DVDs (and not all babies do, btw), I'd say use them in moderation without fear of screwing up your child. If I had had one of these DVDs when I had my infant twins, it may have allowed me to, oh… I don't know, maybe SHOWER more than once per week. So many of us know that feeling of having a needy infant and desperately needing to pee, cook dinner, brush our teeth, put a load of laundry in, answer the phone, engage our older son/daughter in some playful game without the baby interfering, or just stare out the window for 5 min of uninterrupted peace. Seriously… if a DVD can give us that little bit of time we need to take care of ourselves or the gazillion things we need to do around the house, I am ALL for it. OF COURSE it's important to limit the viewing time (most babies won't sit still for more than 15 min or so anyway) and OF COURSE we should continue to do lots of cooing and gooing and talking and cuddling and singing with our babies throughout the day. It's not a good idea to use these DVDs in place of quality time spent face-to-face with parents and other loved ones… but once in a while, for mom's sake, I wouldn't fret too much over it. Since Disney's taking it on the chin anyway over all this "false advertising," maybe I should suggest to them a change in the name from Baby Einstein to Baby Hypnotics or Mama Valium (ok, shutting up now, we already know how bad at funny I am).

So… what do you think about Baby Einstein? Have you played them for your baby? Were you suprised by the "quasi-recall"?

– Isabela

17 thoughts on “Babies’ brains do NOT need Baby Einstein… but moms might

  1. I always thought the slow-moving shapes/colours in Baby Einstein were really similar to the psychadellic screensaver on my husband’s iMac! Also, I never saw the appeal of Teletubbies but those were attention grabbers too (we saw it in our neighbour’s child). Luckily we don’t own a TV so the odd chance of my son watching anything at all ends up being a 2 minute clip on PBS kids of Curious George. However, we are considering getting one of those portable DVD players and some Baby Einstein or Sesame Street DVDs for things travelling (e.g., plane rides, train rides) or the odd occasion when I have to take the baby to a meeting and he needs to be entertained not by me for little while.
    One of the things I would love to hear more about is how day care affects learning/cog development. I have mild guilt about putting my son in day care 3 days a week, and slightly more guilt about the desire to increase that to 4 days a week, so I’d love to hear more about research on effects of day care. My son _has_ gotten simultaneously more shy and more social since starting at day care, _and_ at 11.5 months he finally learned to crawl there (we thought he would never crawl).

  2. We don’t have cable anymore so tv is not an issue in our house–and for years we didn’t keep a television on the main level of the house so that it wouldn’t become a focus of attention. But a friend of mine sent me a bunch of toddler/kid DVDs, including some Baby Einstein and my toddler was captivated for a little while by a Baby Einstein DVD about space. But we haven’t shown it to him again — for one thing we have to play them on the laptop and he starts bashing the keyboard.
    For another, he’s now becoming quite adept at the iPhone and we stuck a couple of toddler apps on that to serve as the distraction tool that Isabela mentions. Also: fine motor skills! ;-) ;-)
    I share Bonnie’s question about daycare. My kid’s been in it since 5 months. We try to keep it to just 8 hours a day if at all possible. I am terribly torn but I know I just could not keep him entertained if I were home all day with him. I also see that he’s much like I was in a lot of ways (reserved, wary to engage in new activities, cautious, likes to watch the action for awhile rather than immediately participate) and I know that it took me YEARS to get over my social cluelessness. In a way, I think/hope that his daycare experiences will help his social skills. (Put another way, it may let him observe and learn to act like an extravert, even though he’s an introvert.) He’s not *unhappy* there – he’s just a serious, quiet kid.
    But, I also recognize the rationalizing nature of the above argument.

  3. We got a Baby Einstein video as a gift and I put it on once…thought it was completely inane and didn’t really hold my son’s attention so we never watched it after that. I’m not totally anti-tv though, I’ve certainly put on other short videos (mostly old sesame street or animal stuff on youtube) to buy myself a few minutes!
    I find the timing of the Baby Einstein video refunds curiously timed with all of the press the book Nurture Shock (which discusses the research about these videos and their effect on language) has been getting, and wonder whether it’s related at all. Would also love to hear your opinion on the book if you’ve read it at all…there were certainly some interesting points in it.

  4. We called it Baby Crack in our household. We got one as a gift, so we put it in to watch. The child was *mesmerized* and the scary thing was that my HUSBAND had trouble looking away, too. We used it maybe three times in two years, and each of those were times I just needed 15 minutes away from the baby.
    But yeah, we never believed the claims – it was just crack for babies

  5. I love the rant!
    I loathe evolutionary psychology but have used a layman’s version in thinking about parenting on a basic social level–did the cave people do this? If so, it’s probably good for my babies–like, lots of physical contact, lots of eye contact, lots of carrying around, lots of talk, social time spent in small groups. TV, not so much. On the other hand, I agree, parental health is always important and, if we’re talking about the cavepeople, they probably had someone around to watch their baby when they washed in the stream or whatever the neolithic equivalent of showering was. I’m no perfectionist, we definitely use TV. I just don’t fool myself that it has any value beyond entertainment. I do try to keep it to a real minimum for children under 2. That was not so hard when I just had one child; we’ll see how it works with my second, though!
    It does make me sad when people fasten on electronic stuff and think it’s going to educate an infant or very young toddler. I think our culture is so much focused on ways that we can *buy things* that will, supposedly, improve our lives. When, sadly, most of the time what’s needed is our time and effort–just what’s shortest to hand.
    My son loves the Touch/iPhone too! He’s 2.5 and it’s really quite amazing how well he understands its workings.

  6. LOL! love the rant! Also love ‘Mama Valium’
    But seriously? Did anyone really buy these for educational reasons? That does surprise me. I was given one, and use a different DVD series very occasionally for the exact reasons you mention… but I have never believed it to be anything other than electronic hypnosis .
    So yes, I am surprised by the recall and by all the ‘news’ (media feeding frenzy) it’s generated. I thought the news was out a loooong time ago to parents about limiting screen time for babies.
    OT: daycare post – yes please! A huge topic for most parents – everyone I’ve ever met has an opinion on this and every so often, there’s a study reported in the media which ‘proves’ this or that or the other for daycare… but what’s the real story? Especially for under 12-month-olds?
    Also OT: my 5.5yo son’s teacher has told me recently that he’s extremely distractible in class. She is very experienced, and says that he’s NOT ‘just a boy’ which was my first reaction. I then got scared and started Googling ADD/ADHD. Which got me even more scared :-( Would love your take on this whole area (yes, I know it’s huge!).

  7. Great post, spot on. Yes, I played those stupid DVDs over and over again (yup I had them all) because my first child was colicky and the only way I could eat dinner and stop twitching was to plunk him into the swing and park him in front of the tube. I wish I hadn’t, but with PPD and all, it was the best I could do. Thanks for the real scoop!

  8. We received some 2nd hand DVDs and I graciously accepted them, but never really intended to use them. The thought of sitting him in front of the TV wasn’t really what I wanted. We did try them a couple times, just to see if he was interested, but no (Thank goodness!), he could have cared less. We also received Brainy Baby DVDs, but I think they’re in the same boat as the BE. Some friends loved them and even called them “baby crack”, which I found horrifying. I’m glad that this info is out there now, so parents won’t think these are going to make their kids A+ students.
    On a side note about language…our guy was a preemie and received Early Intervention (loved it!), and he’s always been a little behind with language. He’s 17 months now and seems to be in a phase where he’s really picking up individual words. I can see the gears working as he pays attention to us talking. Last night as we were cuddling pre-bedtime, he started saying waffle and was so INTENTLY watching my mouth as I said it back. It was so amazing to watch him learning!!!

  9. Thanks for all the great feedback! First off, yes, daycare is DEFINITELY on the list of topics to cover. I’ve been collecting loads of information on the topic — both for my own experience with my kids and for general research purposes. But this is not a quickie to write; there are lots of nuanced arguments for and against. My short take so that people can at least feel a little less guilty: QUALITY not quantity of daycare is important (great daycares can be better for children than staying home with a Mama like me who never could seem to get on the floor and play for hours with rattles and crayons… ). As one large data point that I happen to be researching: most kids in the Netherlands go into full-time daycare (8 hours/day, 5 days/week) from the age of 3 months. A recent international survey found that Dutch children are the “happiest” in Europe (better adjusted, lower mortality rates, etc.). Go figure.
    @Shannon: yes, the timing of the book and controversy is interesting. I haven’t read the book, but it’s on my list.
    @Fahmi: For us, what we call baby crack was/is Thomas the &*#^#%# Tank Engine. I can’t STAND it… They can’t get enough of it.
    @L: Evolutionary Psych. gets a bad rap, IMO. There’s really, REALLY bad stuff out there, but some VERY cool stuff too. But more to your point, I see where you’re coming from with the “cave man” argument, and I agree with much of the gist. But on the other hand, there are some pretty convincing arguments suggesting that our social and cultural and “symbolic” (like text, images, videos, etc) world is changing so dramatically and so quickly that we may be doing a disservice to our children if we socialize them for a “natural/wild/whatever” world only. If we don’t teach them to be critical thinkers in a world of mass-produced information and if we don’t give them computer skills (including navigation skills, but also programming and more “social” online skills), then they won’t be prepared for, or excel in, a the world they’re inheriting.
    @Penny: yes, ADHD/ADD is also on the list of things to post. LOTS there and it’s also (as usual) not a straightforward story. My very short take: work with this “experienced” teacher to get a sense of how you can help your son focus better: is it the material? Is he bored? Is he more advanced than the rest of the class in some domain? Is he falling behind and giving up? Is he overtired? Is he anxious? If she knows that you’re willing to work with her to help, then maybe you guys can come up with a good game plan together. LOADS of distractable kids grow up to be CEOs. My boss, for one, is diagnosable ADD (in a very good way).
    @Bettina: DUDE! Cut yourself some slack. You coped with PPD! And got through it the best way you could. And now it’s onward and upward (and it’s NOT a minor point that the study I cited about less words in kids DID NOT HOLD for children over 16 months, which COULD mean that kids catch up easily later on…The jury is really out on the long-term effects).

  10. We received a ton of these second hand from my sister-in-law. I’ve never been thrilled with her policies on TV and video games in her home so I was certainly not surprised that she had so many.
    Anyway after seeing the AAP’s recommendation of no TV before age 2, we decided to go with our gut and keep Baby Einstein in the box in the closet where it has remained.
    We don’t avoid TV with our 14 month old son but we have never, ever put something on with the intent of him watching. He glances at the TV and maybe pays attention at most for a minute (if there is a game show on or something with similar exciting sounds) but we have not noticed any sort of interest at this point.
    I’m glad that Disney got busted. I can’t believe how many times I’ve had people tell me how much their kid learned from a dvd or that I should really be playing “Signing Times” daily so my son will learn how to sign. Thanks but no thanks. We do fine on our own.

  11. I’m with K. I read an Australian study that linked television viewing in under 2′s and failure to go to university (sorry the details I can not remember, but we are talking hours in front of the televison and not 15 minutes here and there). I vowed to not expose my then 16 month old to any telvevision at all, but that went out the window the moment I was couch-bound in the last trimester of my pregnancy with no. 2. Still I considered Thomas the £%$/&% Engine, as Isabella calls him, a language aid ( my kids are bilingual Italian/English)and one of the few moments of exposure to English other than me. BTW at 3.5 my son impressed the pants off his Aussie cousins and aunt when he was able to identify a ‘coupling rod’ on Pufing Billy!
    I ‘heart’ Thomas!

  12. Speaking of early ‘education’, could we also talk about things like flash cards as learning aids? Are they any good? (I’m thinking of that book sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read, called “Einstein Never Used Flash Cards” or something similar, but then there are also these expensive special ‘flash card curriculum’ that apparently teach really small children (like, < 18 months) how to read. Is that possible?

  13. Also, re: day care, any chance we could talk about what makes for a ‘good’ day care and what doesn’t? (besides the obvious, like hygiene.) Also, is ‘good day care’ for the different age groups?

  14. everything should be given in moderation. it’s not harmful to put watching dvds in your baby’s daily schedule. my 19 month old son watches barney in the morning for some time.. he sings, dances and laughs with barney or dora. he also has books, toys and when i come home from the office, we play and talk.. i have a 7 month old baby girl also and she enjoys the same routine with his brother.. DVDs are not harmful, parents should just learn how to make them helpful. i just bought a baby einstein collection, barney and dora need a rest..=)

  15. Wow! Pushed a hot button with that post. Nice one Is! I do think it’s worth remembering that the Harvard study did not suggest any DETRIMENTAL effects of early TV exposure,just no benefits. Everything in moderation folks! I can’t believe this idea is really new to many parents.
    My son was a very demanding baby. Baby Einstein allowed me to sit down and eat something, check that I had on matching socks, appropriate undergarments etc. Ditto Thomas. Without them, I might not have gotten out of the house! But the duration of exposure was kept very low and he had an otherwise very stimulating and socially rich life. If anything, and I hate to say it, his vocabulary EXPLODED around the time he became interested – no obsessed – with Thomas (more collecting the toys and books but also some DVD’s). Of course, that could just have been his developmental timeline anyway, it fits (roughly) with the data.
    As many of you pointed out, a little here and there to help us all out is okay.
    I was surprised as well by the Disney media thing because it just would never occur to me that a video could boost IQ (granted I have some advantages here, but still). But it’s worth remembering that the creator of Einstein – Julie Aigner-Clark probably named it “Baby Einstein” for a good reason.
    Finally, daycare, ADHD/ADD and yes even flashcards can DEFINITELY be covered. Stay tuned to this channel. :-)

  16. To this point I’ve avoided putting my kid down in front of the tv for him to watch at any point. (He’s only 8 months.) But, there is often TV on that I’m watching while I hang out with him – I’ll usually watch some tv while I’m nursing him, or rocking him to sleep, or in the background while I play with him when we get home and have an hour to kill before Dad gets home. Even with all that added up, it certainly averages out to being less than an hour or two a day of time when he’s awake, and he usually ignores it other than looking up to see what’s going one when something loud happens or I first turn it on. Or, if he’s really sleepy he’ll sometimes be mesmerized by the colbert report. But I end up feeling guilty about even that much TV exposure, given the “NO TV AT ALL BEFORE TWO” APA stance, and recent studies about incidental tv exposure affecting language development. But I haven’t had time to go find those studies, just heard the summaries on NPR, so I’d be curious to see what your perspective on those studies is.

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