Babies love the audio and visual simulation of electronic toys—but are these flashy playthings really beneficial for brain development?

By Nicole Harris
Child playing with number puzzle
Credit: Shutterstock

There’s no question that play is tremendously important for babies and children. “It allows them to develop a sensory understanding of the world through things like textures, smells, and shades of color,” says Laura Phillips, PsyD, ABPdN, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute. Play also has tremendous benefits for an infant's fine motor skills, problem solving, critical thinking, coordination, and much more. And although Dr. Phillips says an infant’s brain will develop naturally whether you simulate it or not, certain toys may help the process. But how do blinking, talking, and singing toys—the ones that undoubtedly catch your baby's attention in the store—stack up? 

Toys and Brain Development

At the end of the day, “the toy itself isn’t essential to get the benefits for your baby. It’s the opportunity for play itself that's essential,” says Heidi Feldman, M.D., PhD, the division chief of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Even so, there are certain types of toys that encourage the type of interactive, creative play that’s associated with brain development. Take, for example, wooden blocks. While they seem simple on the surface, blocks encourage a baby to problem solve, think critically, and explore with his senses. Moving and stacking blocks also promotes fine motor skill development. “The less a toy does, the better it is, because there’s more for a child to do,” summarizes Dr. Phillips. 

But while traditional toys like blocks and cups will definitely hold Baby’s attention, he’ll naturally gravitate toward flashing, singing objects that simulate his senses instead. And good news for tired parents: when these electronic toys are used in moderation, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them. In fact, many of these types of toys can similar benefits to old-school playthings.

Consider a keyboard that lights up and plays music whenever Baby touches it. The keyboard will help him learn critical thinking and problem solving, as he figures out that pressing keys releases an audio/visual response (a basic cause/effect relationship). He’ll also develop fine motor skills through the act of pressing keys. What's more, teaching babies using different stimuli—like pictures, songs, or texture—can also boost the odds that they'll grasp the lesson.

The Downsides of Blinking, Flashing Toys

One major issue is that being exposed to electronic toys may make Baby lose interest in less flashy options. For example, your kid might start shunning his brain-boosting blocks in favor of his flashing keyboard. The key to ensuring optimal benefits—and also preventing attention span issues—is switching up the toys you give your kid. “Too much of anything is going to shortchange the experiences your baby needs to develop in a well-rounded way,” says Dr. Phillips.

Another issue involves potential confusion with different stimuli. In a 2015 study involving a group of 8- to 10-month-old babies, University of Hong Kong researchers concluded that if you're using a couple of different stimuli—like sound, sight or touch—to teach your baby basic rules, those stimuli should be congruent, or related. In other words, the picture and the sound should match up, like a giggling sound paired with a smiley face, for example. Otherwise, babies will likely be confused by the mixed message.

"I think one important thing that we have shown is, it is not always true, the more the better," explains Dr. Chia-huei Tseng, director of the Infant Research Lab at The University of Hong Kong and senior author of the study. "You need to find out whether the audio and visual components are related to each other." When picking a toy, then, make sure that the stimuli reinforce the same message—a smiley face goes with laughter, for example, or a frown goes with crying.

The study was published online in Developmental Science. Additional research is needed, and cultural differences will need to be accounted for, Dr. Tseng says. Still, as she points out, "how to match stimulation from visual, audio, tactile and other sensory systems into a unified manner is the key to help our little ones fully benefit from it."

In conclusion, it's perfectly fine to give your child electronic toys, as they're educational and fun. Don't neglect traditional playthings, though, and don't underestimate the importance of parent involvement. Infants often learn best from interactions with their caregivers, says Dr. Feldman.