"My 1-Year-Old Loves TV!"

What -- and how much -- to let your child watch.

Q. My 12-month-old already loves TV and throws a fit when I turn it off. I hear so many different opinions about whether television is good or bad for kids. What's the truth, and how much should I let him watch?

A. I recently talked to parents of a 1-year-old who went on a hunger strike one day when they turned off her favorite video! So you're not alone -- it's not surprising that even very young children are fascinated with the colorful, moving images they see on television.

And while babies may learn some concepts, like numbers and letters, from educational programs and enjoy watching these shows, research tells us that children learn best from interactive, hands-on activities with the people they care about. These include looking at and manipulating toys and objects, and problem-solving tasks, such as working on opening and closing a plastic lid.

As far as guidelines go, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television for children younger than 2. But if you decide that a limited amount of TV time works for your family, keep these recommendations in mind.

  • Watch with your child as much as you can. This helps you monitor a show's content and ensure that your child isn't overwhelmed or frightened. Even some programs that are designed for young children might have images that are frightening to your toddler. I remember my then-2-year-old getting terrified by a black cat yowling in a kid's Halloween video. When you watch with your child, you can extend his learning by talking about what he sees. Then make connections to real life. For instance, if a show features dogs, point them out when you take a walk in the neighborhood. If a video teaches about numbers, lead your child in counting shirts when you fold laundry or napkins as he helps you set the table. You can also encourage your child to be active in front of the tube -- dance and sing with him to a kid's music video, for instance.
  • Choose commercial-free programming. Commercials can be very enticing and start children on the path to desiring (and asking for) the toys and junk food advertised. Fortunately, shows for kids without commercials are more common now than ever.
  • Turn off the TV before bedtime. You shouldn't let your child watch television before he goes to sleep. This will make it hard for him to learn to fall asleep on his own. (This advice goes for adults, too -- my friend's husband has to fall asleep with the TV on!) Instead, establish a bedtime routine that involves cuddling, talking about the day, reading or telling stories, and singing songs.
  • Keep the TV out of the nursery. Recent research has found that many 1- to 3-year-olds have TVs in their bedroom. This limits parents' ability to monitor content and be involved in their child's TV watching. It also makes it easier for kids to watch for longer periods of time. Ideally, the family television should be in a central location where you can keep an eye on what your child is watching.
  • Limit viewing. A 30- to 60-minute-a-day limit for screen time (time in front of a TV or computer) is reasonable for children younger than 3.

Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).

Originally published in American Baby magazine, January 2005.

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