There is a general agreement that TV is bad for babies, but there is also a general agreement that it's a necessary evil.
We all let our kids watch TV at some point or another. Without grandparents, neighbours and friends sharing the care of our little ones it is inevitable that at some point you will crack and put on the TV. Anthropologists have found that in traditional cultures infants were handed around between 8 adult carers every hour!! So in our modern nuclear families it is little wonder we turn to the digital babysitter when we really need to get dinner cooked.
There is nothing worse for your baby then a super stressed out and grumpy mum. So if a little TV every now and then means you can relax then there are obviously some benefits in it for your baby too.
So the real question becomes how can we limit the damage? Are there any shows that are better or worse than others? What is it about TV that is so bad and how can we counteract it?
The danger of TV for babies is about brain development, in older children it is more to do with replacing physical activity. So we'll focus on the brain for now.
Choosing the TV shows your child watches is the hugely important. Get some DVDs of the shows you like, or watch them online. Don't just switch on the TV and let them watch whatever is on. Not all TV is created equal.
Baby's imitate everything, and they will imitate what they see on TV. Whilst an older child may be able to discriminate between TV and real life, and right and wrong, babies just copy. So avoid anything violent, even if it's supposed to be funny, especially whilst your baby's brain is being hard wired for how to behave socially.
You may have noticed that your baby (or older child) is super grumpy after the TV is turned off. What is is about TV that makes kids irritable and aggressive? This is not just anecdotal, one study found the more TV a child watched the more they to engage in bullying behaviour. The American Association of Peadeatrics estimates that 10-20% of real life violence can be attributed to TV.
This is partly because TV has no consequences. TV does not teach emotional regulation in the same way a human being does. TV does not interact with your child, it's a one way street. Your child can yell or scream at the TV, walk away mid-sentence or even throw something at the TV and the people in the TV will not react.
You can balance this a little by choosing shows with real people in them, who interact, on some superficial level with your children, inviting them to join in or answer a question or sing a song. You can also counteract this with plenty of time interacting with real people.
TV also affects a childs ability to focus and the length of their attention span. The worst type of shows bounce around from one camera angle to another, one scene to another, with flashing images and loud, sudden noises. This type of television is thought to increase the likelihood of attentional problems. In Ayurveda we would consider this a Vata imbalance, so depending on the constitution of your child some will be able to tolerate more TV, or less.
Choosing slower paced TV shows with longer shots can help a little, and favour shows with peaceful, normal speaking.
Finally I want to bust two common myths about TV.
TV is NOT down time. If you could hook your baby's brain up whilst they are watching TV you would see that it is going off! TV makes the brain extremely active, in a completely different state than it would be during meditation, relaxation, massage or sleep.
TV is NOT educational. Not even those education DVDs. For every hour an infant spent watching a certain 'educational dvd', they understood 6-8 fewer words than other babies.
You are a great mum, even if your baby watches TV occasionally. If you feel like it's creeping up too much, instead of eeling guilty try and see it as a symptom that you need to build your village. Start a mamabake group, or a babysitting club, or reach out to your neighbours.
Most of the info in this article is from the brilliant book Brain Rules for Baby, available here.