Does this sound familiar?
Your toddler is, well, a handful. He gets fussy all the time, doesn't want to eat or sleep or do anything else when you want him to, and needs constant attention. it's exhausting. The one thing that does work, though, is the TV; when you stick him in front of it he calms down and is entertained. So you stick him in front of it. He's happy, you're happy. It's a win-win, right?
Not so much.
In a study recently published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that babies who have more trouble with self-regulation (are fussier, more unpredictable, have more trouble with eating and sleeping) end up watching more TV by the time they are 2 years old. In the study, it really did appear that parents were using the TV to entertain and soothe the child.
They weren't watching a lot more at age 2--it was only a few minutes. Which doesn't seem like such a big deal--and for some kids, it may not be a big deal. But here's the problem. We know that early TV viewing (babies through preschool) can lead to problems with learning, attention and behavior. If a 2-year-old is already having trouble with his behavior, adding more TV isn't going to help--and can make things worse.
I see this so much in my practice--I see so many children, including very little children, being entertained or soothed by screens. To be fair, the doctor's office is a stressful place and one's entertainment and soothing options are limited. But still, I wish I were seeing more holding, talking, singing or playing. I wish I were seeing more interactions with people rather than screens.
Because interactions can make a huge difference. Many of those really tough babies and toddlers can learn to self-regulate with enough help and nurturing. Turning on the TV or some other screen may be a great quick fix, but ultimately it's letting your kid down. Those self-regulation skills--focus, attention, planning, self-control--are pretty darn crucial for life success.
I'm not saying you should never use screens to entertain or soothe. Hey, I'm a parent too. I know that sometimes we all need a moment (if only to pee). Being able to take those moments gives us time to retreat and regroup and do things like pour out the hot spaghetti. But we shouldn't start to rely on screens. That will backfire on us, or worse.
So, if you have one of those tough kids, work on finding other ways to entertain and soothe. Read or tell stories (with your best theatrical voices). Sing songs. Act silly (channel your inner child). Wear your baby in a sling or other carrier. Dance together. Take a walk.
Think of it as an investment in your child's future.