Is Listening to the TV Helpful or Harmful for a Baby?

We know that babies need lots of exposure to speech to help build language skills but does it matter where that talking comes from?

Research has forever changed the way we raise children. For example, we know that from day one, babies benefit from us talking, reading out loud, and even singing to them to help build their language and pre-literacy skills. But modern parenting also means being busier than ever, leaving some parents to wonder if the TV—or other screens—are safe options for babies to listen to more speech. Here's what the experts say.

Background Noise Is Harmful to Learning

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under the age of 2 not watch any television. But let's be real, sometimes it might feel pretty tempting to turn on PBS Kids and let those lovable monsters talk about the ABCs while you try to get some things done. While many parents have some idea that television viewing is not good, most parents are not aware of the negative effects television can have on young children, especially when heard as background noise.

Incredibly, babies will begin to make vowel sounds as young as 2 months, and by the time they reach 4 months, some may even be entering the babbling stage. Babies may be little in size, but they're brains are super powerful (and busy!) soaking up all the language around them as they try to make those first sounds. So, any language that your baby hears goes toward that bank of knowledge that will eventually help them form their first words.

That said, not all language is equal in terms of quality. Background sounds can be more distracting than helpful, so having a TV on in the background may actually be more harmful to your baby's growing language skills. That's largely because language is a social phenomenon and needs to come from human beings in person, not the television.

Having the television on in the background has been shown to reduce language learning. Because infants have a difficult time differentiating between sounds, TV background noise is particularly detrimental to language development.

In the first longitudinal study of its kind, researchers tracked and studied a group of kids at ages 2, 3, 5, and 6. The researchers found that when kids were exposed to TV background noise at the age of 2 during mealtimes, they experienced a statistcally significant drop in verbal IQ by the time they were kindergarten age.

The APA published a study that showed that American kids are exposed to an average of 232.2 minutes of background TV noise every day. Perhaps not so surprising to stay-at-home parents, the study highlighted that the children with the most exposure to background TV sounds were babies and toddlers, who are also the most vulnerable to its negative effects.

Babies Need In-Person Language

So, what is the difference between talking on a TV and having an in-person conversation with your baby who can't even talk yet? Quite a lot, actually.

When babies and young kids engage in question- and comment-type interactions with parents, they are in a focused, thinking mode, and their brains are working hard to learn more about how language and communication work. Communication between two people requires paying attention and picking up—or learning to pick up—cues like body language, vocal tone, facial expressions, and more. Whereas listening to media is a passive activity that doesn't require much attention at all.

For example, when you say to your baby, "I love you!" and you point to yourself for the "I" and then point to your baby when you say "you," you are helping your baby to understand that those words have specific meanings. Whereas if a baby hears the words "I love you" from a TV, it won't mean very much.

Research shows that in-person talking is the most effective way to teach your baby how to talk, and that background sounds (like those from a TV) do little more than distract your child's thinking, potentially leading to poor learning outcomes later on. After all, the number of words spoken to a child is directly proportionate to the size of their vocabulary. The words they overhear from television, videos, radio, or other conversations don't count.

Ways To Incorporate More In-Person Talking

Adding more language to your baby's day doesn't have to mean clearing your schedule and sitting for hours of face-to-face talking. Besides, that would be boring for both of you! Instead, try to find opportunities throughout your day that can add a rich lingual experience for your baby. Here are a few ideas to try.

Read out loud to your baby

Create a reading routine for your whole family. Reading is a fantastic activity to include in bedtime routines, for family bonding, and for relaxing. You can of course read stories to your baby, but you can also read the newspaper, signs, instructions, or anything with words. All types of reading aloud can help your baby hear more language and the context of where it comes from.

Sing to your baby

Singing can be a fun way to be silly and playful with your baby, but it's also a lovely and soothing way to lull your baby to sleep. But singing has some secret powers, too; according to Unicef, singing to your baby can lower their heart rate to calm them down. Singing also activates all areas of your child's brain and helps them absorb language skills.

Narrate your tasks

One sneaky way to get more language in during the day is to narrate what you're doing. If you're doing a load of laundry, you can talk about the steps of washing, drying, and folding clothes. You can even point out colors, textures, and commentary on a favorite shirt or a special baby blanket.

Talk with others in front of your baby

The next time you're talking with a group of other adults, hold your baby and let them eavesdrop. They will hear different voices, expressions, and new words, all of which can help build up those burgeoning language skills.

Take your baby on a guided tour

Can't think of anything to say? Start describing what's around you. Take your baby for a walk around the neighborhood—or even around your home—and point out shapes, colors, objects, people, and other things. They'll love listening to your voice, plus they might pick up some new words.

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