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Babies Are Such Visual Creatures

Parents and television are like Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie, a love-hate, can't-live-with-them yet can't-live-without-them combination. As children, we grew up with television too, like Sesame Street and the Muppet Show, and the odd episode or two of Dallas. But back then, the television station started broadcasting at 3pm and children's programmes lasted an hour or two.

And there was no such thing as a video or DVD! Today, children's shows are beamed 24 hours a day. There are even four dedicated children's cable channels. Walk into any store, and you'll find dozens of affordable children's VCDs and DVDs. Television has become, for many parents, an indispensable part of their parenting routine and a daily staple in their children's lives.

Our televisions are essential household items, on par with our rice-cookers. Michele, 31, a freelance writer, homemaker, and mother of an eight-month-old baby, is one of the rare parents who does not own a television. Her daughter does not watch any television at all. Michele would rather her daughter spends time outdoors or engages in imaginative play, which will help her develop mentally.

"I think its fine to watch the occasional educational programme or video but everyday is a "no no"! Besides, I read a report that says children who watch too much TV are not as intelligent as those who are kept away from it," she says. But she wasn't always anti-television. In fact, when she was single, she watched television in the evenings and during the weekends.

She used it as a form of relaxation. It was only during a pre-marital counselling session with her church that prompted her and her then boyfriend to decide not to have a television set at home for the first year of marriage. The couple who mentored them suggested that not having a television in the first year of marriage would be a great way to enhance communication.

And it did. "For the first year, instead of watching TV, we spent the time talking to each other. We became so comfortable with not having a TV around that after the first year, we decided that the no-TV rule was to be permanent thing for us," she says. "Watching TV can be rather addictive. It's so easy to spend an evening lying in front of the TV and before you know it, the night is gone."

Nowadays, she finds that without a television she spends her time more constructively reading, listening to music or chatting with her husband. Even the arrival of her daughter did not change the arrangement. Instead of TV, they spend time listening to action songs, or reading baby books. "Other times, she will just crawl around the room and play with her toys.

She doesn't have many sophisticated toys. She likes simple toys like a plastic cup or my Tupperware containers. It's weird but she can play for quite a while with those just banging them around." On the other hand, there are some parents who see value in educational television. Joanne, 32, a system engineer and mother of three, aged 13 months to 4, allows her a children to watch television and VCDs for three to four hours a day, mostly during meal times or just before bed.

But she does have a strict criterion: The shows must be educational. "To me, TV is to entertain as well as to educate," she explains. Joanne also acknowledges that television also helps to entertain her children while allowing her (or her maid) to do household chores, work or just give them time to do their own thing.

Watching television is one of the few activities that can hold her children's attention during meal times. "TV does allow us to feed them more easily as it stops them from running all over the place. My maid sometimes uses the TV if she needs time to do a little housework. I myself will use the TV if I need say, an hour to complete certain task."

She also does not impose any age restrictions as she does not think that such young children can get addicted. She allows her youngest child to watch 30 to 60 minutes a day. "When they were younger, from zero to eight months, they would not watch even if you purposely switched on the programme.

At most, they would glance a couple of times or at some catchy advertisements. Only when they were almost one, that they could sit still and understand what the programme was about. They would even demand for their programme by crying if you switched on an adult programme instead.

The Age Of Your Child

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend television for children younger than two years of age. The first two years are crucial for brain development and physical growth. Daniel, a psychologist explains that during the different age groups (zero to two), babies need stimulation in the following:

  • Sensing, for example, using their eyes, ears, touch
  • Exploring, for example, playing with things, touching thing, experiencing different things
  • Learning, for example, interaction, exploration
  • Expression, for example, communication, responding
  • Sound and voices, for example, making baby noises, talking to them
  • Physical, for example, helping with physical development like arm moving

"When he is exposed to TV too early, the child may get used to the fast movement from the TV and this may affect his brain development. If the child gets used to the fast stimulation, then he may act in a way (for example, hyperactively) to keep up with the fast movement," explains Daniel. Other problems the child may develop include attention problems, obesity or inactive problems (because he eats while watching television); diet problems (because he either eats too much or skips meals); aggressiveness; sleep disturbances, sleep delay, anxiety about sleeping, and reaction to negative emotions from watching TV. 

"When the child spends too much time watching television, he spends lesser time mastering skills that he needs for normal development. Thus developing problems at a later stage," he explains. The AAP advises that it is during this time that children need good, positive interaction with other children and adults to develop good language and social skills. In this case, learning to talk and play with others would be far more important than watching television. The AAP also recommends no more than one to two hours per day of quality screen time for older children.

The Content

There is no doubt that television can have both a positive and negative impact on the way kids learn. High quality, non-violent children's shows can have a positive impact on learning, just as TV programmes and commercials which show violence, alcohol, drug use or sexual content can have a negative impact as well.

Studies have shown that watching these may lead to more aggressive behaviour, less physical activity, altered body image, and increased use of drugs and alcohol. Preschool children who watch educational programmes do better on reading and math tests than children who do not watch these programmes ( So, quality of the shows does matter!

With such recommendations from the AAP, some companies like Baby Einstein (, which creates programmes for babies, stresses that these recommendations do not distinguish between television and video viewing, or the content. Baby Einstein Company states that there should be a distinction between television and video.

Videos are a controlled medium that allows parents to choose specifically the content their baby watches, whereas parents cannot control what happens, or be sure of what kind of images will appear, on a television broadcast. Baby Einstein products are designed from a baby's perspective, using baby friendly images, and gentle, deliberate motion. Even the music is specially re-orchestrated for these little people.

Too Watch Or Not To Watch?

Mindy, 27, a mother of two children aged 5 and 4, strikes middle ground by controlling how often they watch the television. Even though she did not allow her children to watch any television when they were younger (less than two years olds, they are allowed to watch now. But she makes sure it is only for short periods of time. For example, her elder son is allowed to watch sport programmes as he is an ardent fan of sports. A self-confessed TV addict in her teens, Mindy hates to see children being "glued" to the television.

So her children are only allowed to watch television during the school holidays or once a week for an hour. She says: "! just don't !et my kids watch TV for too long or too frequently." So it is really up to you as a parent. La! Yee sums it up: "Everything has it pros and cons. We should make use off technology and not be slaves to it."

No TV, How?

Psychologist Daniel offers non-TV based activities parents can do to stimulate their babies:

  • Using mirrors to let baby see themselves
  • Using finger puppets to help baby focus and see
  • Smiley faces or toys as baby likes to see them
  • A bag full of things for the baby to feel and sense
  • Ball games when the baby is able to use his hands and feet
  • Blowing bubbles
  • Rolling bails
  • Baby talk because baby learns to talk by listening, exploring sounds and pitches and responding to sounds
  • Singing or music
  • Building blocks
  • Drawing and painting
  • Finger paintingn

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