How Not to Make a Baby Einstein

Are baby videos bad for babies? The answer may depend on how interactive the show is.

February 22, 2008
A recent study suggests parents should rethink using videos as an educational tool for their babies. [Credit: Ben Jones]
A recent study suggests parents should rethink using videos as an educational tool for their babies. [Credit: Ben Jones]

In the best-selling Baby Einstein Language Nursery DVD, images of colorful toys and bold patterns dance across the screen over a soundtrack of stimulating music and words spoken in seven languages. The video is part of a growing industry aimed at parents who want their babies to excel intellectually from the very start.

But those parents might actually be better off if their kids didn’t watch any videos at all. According to a recent study, the more baby videos a young child watched, the slower his or her language developed.

Published in August 2007, the study triggered an ongoing debate between its authors at the University of Washington and The Walt Disney Company, owner of the Baby Einstein brand. Other researchers, meanwhile, are still arguing about how powerful and long-lasting the effects of video-watching are on babies, though there is general agreement that parents are better off interacting with their children than planting them in front of the television.

“Those [parents] who use DVDs as baby sitters are hardly ever successful [in parenting],” said Dr. Victor Strasburger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico.

The study, which appeared in The Journal of Pediatrics, was based on telephone interviews of 1,008 parents and a test known as the Communicative Development Inventory, a standard measurement of language development in children 8 to 16 months old.

The parents were asked to report their children’s typical amount of video exposure in each of six content media types, such as children’s movies, television and baby videos. To measure their babies’ language abilities, the parents were also given a list of 80 simple words and asked how many their children could speak.

For babies aged between 8 and 16 months, each hour per day of viewing videos was associated with a test score reduction equivalent to knowing about 10 fewer words on the list of 80, according to Frederick Zimmerman, the lead author and an associate professor of health services at the University of Washington Child Health Institute.

The study independently supported the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation of no television for children under age 2. Strasburger, who was a consultant to the academy, acknowledged that the group had little hard evidence when publicizing its recommendation in 1999. As a result, he added, it was widely ignored.

“Now, thanks to the Zimmerman study, there is finally some strong data that supports the recommendation,” Strasburger said.

Disney was not alone in questioning the quality of the study. Other researchers in the field argued that interviewing parents on the phone would not produce scientifically credible results. It would have been far more convincing for scientists to actually observe the babies, instead of relying merely on parents’ memories, according to Deborah Linebarger, an expert on children’s media at the University of Pennsylvania.

Linebarger, however, thought the academy’s recommendation was too conservative. “There are better ways to proceed,” she said. “Instead of telling parents to avoid the media, wouldn’t it be great if we could teach them to use it as a tool?”

In their own studies, Linebarger and her colleagues have followed babies from 6 to 30 months of age, meeting with them and their families every three months, to study the effect of various types of children’s television programs on early language development. They found that certain educational programs, such as “Arthur and Friends” and “Dora the Explorer,” seemed to spur vocabulary expansion, while others, including “Sesame Street,” had the opposite effect.

“The programs that showed positive influences generally involved high levels of audience participation,” said Linebarger. But that makes the findings for “Sesame Street” puzzling because it is also highly interactive, she said, adding that her research team is still looking for an explanation.

Meanwhile, the University of Washington group is seeking to improve its study by looking to see if infants who watched videos will continue to have language deficits throughout childhood. “We’ll also be looking at the risk of attentional problems and the contribution of television to obesity,” said Zimmerman.

As researchers wait for data from the next round of studies, Baby Einstein’s Web site continues to portray the DVDs as a fun way for parents and infants to interact as they watch them together. In reality, however, parents are more likely to be out of the room and to use the videos as babysitters, according to the University of Wisconsin’s Joanne Cantor, an expert on the effects of mass media on children.

“At the end of the day,” Cantor said, “if you can hold your baby on your lap and read her a story, why leave her on a couch watching videos?”

Related on Scienceline:

Do violent video games make children violent?

How children develop language skills: one scientist’s perspective.

How children develop language skills: a book review.

About the Author

Jessie Jiang

Jessie has a B.S. degree in chemistry from Peking University in China, where she initially did research on molecular magnetic materials but gradually switched her interest to science writing. Before joining SHERP, she held internships as a reporter at the English-language Shanghai Daily, and at Ogilvy Communications’ Beijing office. She loves writing, and hopes to become a science editor someday as her father has been for decades.



baby boy says:

I don’t believe in all the DVD baby sitters. I know it hard, but my baby watch only a hour a day TV, and that it.

rain says:

So let me guess…parents are supposed to be engaging their very young children by getting them outside to explore the world more, sit down with them to read more, give them wooden blocks to interact with and spend more face to face time with Mommy or Daddy so they can learn language faster and better… and what if we already do that? Well you can pat yourself on the back for making us parents so over stressed about these concerns in the first place. And because of this we are stressing out our children. You know how that works. And here i thought my language delayed kids knew a handful of words less then their peers because they were learning multiple languages and that they were preemies. Perhaps now i can sue Baby Einstein. My sister is a shcool teacher and the two kids in her class that do not pick up a book during Free Choice time are the ones that have been reading since 2.5 and are already burned out.

My wife and myself have finally made the smartest decision regarding our children’s upbringing. We know them better then any crack researcher from UW or New Mexico and so we’ve decided to ignore these danger alerts from these white coats and continue using some of the good videos that actually engage our children in active ways. Do i put my children in front of a TV for hours on end…no. Do i do the same with books…absolutely not! children learn in many different ways and its up to us parents to discover those ways and react accordingly. Maybe our doctor friends can help with a particular somebody whose young boy can’t put the books down and is dealing with serious weight problem right now.

Teresa says:

Thank god for reasonable comment. I work at a new production company here in London, England that is looking at new ways to educate and yes – entertain – toddlers and their parents through the DVD medium. We’re conducting a lot of research and would still like to hear from parents who feel strongly that pre-school DVD’s and certain TV shows have helped their young ones develop.

The last comment was spot on – no one in their right minds suggest that TV and DVD’s are any substitute for parental nurture or encouragment.

To use the TV as an electronic baby sitter is just plain wrong. But are we seriously dismissing an entire media because the irresponsible abuse of some parents?

Of course TV and DVD’s used correctly and with parents present can be every bit as stimulating as books – perhaps with parental interaction, even more so.

We here have a dedicated team of young professionals (Head of Features: Jezz Wright & Anime Exec: Rob Walsh) who are constantly evaluating new ideas and putting these concepts to young mums and dads for their consideration.

It’s not all about big business trying to make a fast buck out of over eager parents. There is a responsible industry out there that is genuinely trying to produce useful educative entertainment for ‘the box’

This damning, ill informed and badly produced research just allows the tabloids to print more ‘bad news’ stories and create even more anxiety for praents and their children who might genuinely be benefiting from these DVDs and Videos. Enough.

I think all these educational DVDs do more harm to the child. These days children already spend hours and hours in front of the TV doing nothing. If we start using TV for their education as well then surely the TV hours will add up even further. Watching too much TV and not excercising enough is the main reason why childhood obesity is becoming a major threat for our childrens health.

kitty says:

If the “rain” commentor is doing so much with his children already why does he need to add videos? Seems like he is stressed out because he is caught up in the marketing scheme presented by these baby education manufacturers that always make you feel like you need to do more, more, more. Babies only need consistent love and care and would do just fine by being read to, sung to, and carried with mom or dad.

Lab Lover says:

I feel really sorry for Kitty and Baby Names kids. You are trying to shelter your kid which is only going to make a rebel. Or you are one of those moms who tries to baby her kid and end up with a 30 year old still living at home. Rain took the word right out of my mouth. Stop judging other people because we don’t want to shelter our kid and actually would like them to enjoy them selves. Just because we let our kids watch some educational programs doesn’t mean we neglect. I love watching the history channel, discovery channel, animal planet, baby einstein with my baby talk with him about the show. I don’t know what baby you have but no baby is going to let you sit their and just read to them all day. We do a little of everything, give him variety because they have too short of an attention span. Stop trying to act like you are such a perfect parents because you think you read to your kid all day. I’m sorry your kid is going to hate books because mom FORCED him to read all day. My kid is an angel and mellow all day long but there is no chnace he will sit there past two books if I’m lucky. These educational programs lets your kids see the world around them. Sometimes its ok to let your baby have sometime to himself….he can’t be taught that mom and dad are going to be there to hold him all day long his whole life. Don’t distort my words either. I’m not saying let the TV be your babysitter, but no parent should be told them are wrong for letting their baby have sometime to himself with a great show like baby einsteins. I’m so sorry you are sheltering your kid. Haven’t you ever heard of the bad reps pastors kids have because their parents try to forbid them from the world which only make them that much more curious!!! I do I feel really sorry for your kid. Dad and I are always with our baby and no day care for us. All we do is live our lives for him and HAVE FUN TEACHING him of our world. But shame on you Kitty and Baby Names for trying to say we are bad parents because we let them watch a little bit of educational programs. Your kids are going to be the ones oblivious to this world because you refuse to let them really be a part of it!

Lab Lover says:

Sorry for the typos but that happens when you are typing fast so if that tries to become some of your argument you have nothing so find something else good luck. Or better yet stop being those parents who swear they are professional parents and know all and try to tell everyone how it should be. Get through the teenage years perfectly and then give yourself some credit. Until then everyone is different and some things work better for others. Get over yourself, thank you!

Loving my baby says:

I took all honors classes in High School and graudated at the top of my class. I grew up in a family that watch a lot of TV. Moreover, I am not even close to obese. I weigh 120 and had a baby 4 months ago. I look great and not many moms can say something like that. So just because some families lifestyles are different doesn’t mean it is that for everyone. We LOVE TV, as well as books of othger engaging activities. Some people, like Kitty, are just in denial. I agree with the comment above mine. Good luck trying to shelter your kid, what a joke.

babyninja says:

What an article!!! I just realized that no one has made mention of the legend that Einstein didn’t start speaking until he was 3. Ha! Thanks

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