Q. My 6-month-old daughter is fascinated by the TV. She loves watching the colors and movement and could do it for hours. But could watching TV be bad for her, even at such a young age?
A. It's no surprise that your daughter is transfixed by the television. The colors and movement, as you point out, can be a feast for the eyes, and if she hears music and voices, a treat for the ears as well. But you are right to want to limit her TV time, not necessarily because of the television per se, but because your daughter needs to stimulate and develop her other senses as well, and you want to expose her to a variety of activities.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend television for children under age 2, but this is because there is insufficient research on the effects of TV at this age, not because any bad effects have been documented. The AAP isn't unfounded in its concern, however: They point out that because there is so much brain development happening during infancy and toddlerhood, it's important to ensure that babies get adequate stimulation, and reliance on television does not provide that. Also, TV time is a slippery slope -- the 20 minutes that is acceptable at 6 months may turn into an hour or more, which can be too much.
But that said, you also have to be realistic about the world your child lives in and the demands upon your own time. If you can set some limits on television use and stick with them, there's no harm in allowing your daughter to watch a bit of TV.
First, particularly at such a young age, don't use the TV to babysit your child. If she is fascinated by the colors and movement, sit with her and comment on the action. Name the colors, talk about what the characters are doing, and relate what is happening to events in her own life ("See? Barney is taking a bath. Remember you took a bath last night?"). She may not have the words yet, but by talking about what she sees, you are helping her to develop them.
Second, keep the TV tuned to quality children's programs. Since babies love repetition, she won't complain if you tape a few of your favorite kids' shows and play them again and again.
Third, turn off the TV after about 20 minutes. The best way to do this is to tune in late to a TV program so that you turn it off when it ends. This way, your daughter gets the message that we turn off the television when a show ends.
Finally, make the rest of her life so interesting that the TV is only one of many opportunities to learn. Read her books. Take her to the grocery store, where there's a riot of colors to admire. Play music and let her bang on pots. She may even enjoy watching from her baby seat as you cook dinner just as much as she enjoys the fancy lights of the television.
Anita Sethi, Ph.D., is a research scientist at The Child and Family Policy Center at New York University. She has two sons.