Plop a baby in front of a DVD or video and you might buy enough time to take a shower. But don't expect your child to learn anything, researchers say, even if the product line is named for Albert Einstein.
"They imply that it's going to make your baby smarter or more creative," said Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital in Boston. "It's disingenuous. What this is really
about is getting parents to not feel guilty about an electronic babysitter."
Sales of baby-aimed media products such as Baby Einstein and Baby Genius have soared in recent years, and so has the debate about their effects. Rich and other researchers say a growing body of evidence
shows that television-viewing among children younger than 2 has no beneficial effect on language and visual motor skills. He co-wrote the study out of Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School that
appeared in the journal Pediatrics. Additional research was presented last month in Denver at a meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development.
"For particularly young children, these DVD collections do not replace live interaction," said Rebekah Richert of the University of California, Riverside. Richert studied toddlers between the ages of 12 and 24 months
over a period of six weeks to see whether they learned words from a commercial DVD collection. "We're seeing no evidence of learning words from watching video," she said in Denver.
Babies learn one of three ways, Rich said: through face-to-face interaction, by manipulating their physical environment, or through open-ended problem-solving, such as putting a wooden spoon inside a pan. "We
know that electronic screens don't give you any of that," he said. "The risks still outweigh the benefits, all of which remain unproven."
Rich acknowledged that the Harvard study did not find directly harmful effects. But he said early television-watching can do harm by taking time away from activities that are more beneficial, such as listening to a
parent talk or stacking blocks. TV exposure in infants also has been associated with increased risk of attention problems, obesity and poor sleep, he said. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen
media for children younger than 2.
Disney-owned Baby Einstein doesn't claim that the DVDs are educational, said Karen Hill-Scott, a psychologist and consultant to Baby Einstein who was at the Denver conference. The studies, Hill-Scott said, "don't
take away from the quality or the value of the product as a foundation for Mom to use. It's a tool for the family. And babies find them fun." Hill-Scott said the DVDs aren't supposed to be babysitting devices. "Our
expectation is that Mom or Dad or a sibling will have something to say about what's on the screen," she said. "I see the role as one of inspiration -- an adjunct to parent interaction."
Katherine Zunic figures a little is enough. With two sets of twins, the Lewis Center mom said she has on occasion popped in a video so that she can get something done. But she didn't like the way her first set of
twins became "glued" to the images on the screen, so she has limited each child to just one show a day.
Research showing that young children learn better through live interaction doesn't surprise Zunic. While her 5-year-old twins used to love watching the videos, the younger set -- now 1 year old -- clearly prefers to
focus on their older siblings. "I'm excited about that," she said. "I'd rather have them run around and learn by example. But then sometimes I think, 'Oh my gosh. I need a break.'"
Rich understands. But until they're a little older, the doctor recommends letting the kids watch the water trickle down the shower door or bang on pots and pans.