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Baby not-so-Einstein

From a parent’s perspective, educational videos for babies and toddlers are practically a dream product; needing a break perhaps to do chores around the house, parents could plunk baby down in front of the TV thinking it was good for them because it stimulated the learning process. 

The problem is, studies show these videos do nothing of the sort.

“There is no evidence supporting any educational claims of these videos,” says Heather Lavigne, child development researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. “Previous studies show poorer language is associated with TV viewing.”

In 2004, research began to emerge suggesting “Baby Einstein,” and other videos like it, do not improve the development of language. Counter-claims and controversy ensued, lawsuits were threatened, and some refunds were offered. The end result: most of the claims about ‘educational benefits’ were quietly dropped off video jacket covers and other marketing materials. Moreover, around the same time, paediatric societies began recommending parents keep their babies and toddlers away from the TV.

Despite this, these types of videos remain extremely popular with many parent-consumers, at least some probably still believing in their educational power.

They also remain an area of scientific research. “We wanted to know why language suffers when the TV is on,” says Lavigne, on the study she presented on the development of language at the Society for Research in Child Development’s Biennial Meeting. 

Lavigne and her colleagues studied 114 babies, aged between 12 and 21 months, and their parents. These baby/parent dyads were assigned to either watch ‘Baby Einstein’ videos, ‘Sesame Beginnings’ videos, or no videos at all. After two weeks, the baby/parent groups were brought into the lab and observed interacting with the program on, and after without the TV. The groups were then scored on language use. Both the quantity of language, defined as words and utterances per minute, and quality of language, defined as use of new words and the length of the utterances, were measured.

“Parents are decreasing the quantity and quality of language in the presence of television,” says Lavigne. “Eighty-four percent of parents used fewer words per minute in the presence of Baby Einstein than when the TV was not on.”  Moreover, 74% of parents used fewer new words per minute with Baby Einstein than without. The ‘Sesame Beginnings’ group showed similar reductions in quantity and quality of language used.

Worse than useless?

One of the most important ways babies learn language is through listening to, and eventually speaking with, their parents. In general, the more parents speak and the more complex their language, the better the child’s language develops. Part of the skill is figuring out the meaning of new words by using the context of the sentence as a clue. For example, if you say to your toddler ‘the tiger is munching the banana’ he will likely figure out the novel word ‘munching’ means ‘eating’. A child learns to master language over the course of thousands of these parent/child interactions. The more, the better.

“Any moment the TV is on is a moment the parents are providing less input, both in quality and quantity,” says Lavigne, noting that many parents did not increase their language use after the TV was turned off. “We used baby videos [in the study] because they are popular and are designed to encourage parent/child interactions.  For TV not designed for interactions, the results would probably be the same or worse.” For Lavigne, the reduction in parent language is one mechanism by which early exposure to baby videos may hinder development.

Lavigne also noted the results of her study might have been more dramatic if not for the Hawthorne Effect, whereby study subjects modify their behaviour when they are aware they are being monitored, in this case co-viewing the videos and being as interactive as possible. “We suspect the effect would be magnified at home – parents report using these videos to keep a child occupied while they do something else, like take a quick shower.”

Read about milestones for the development of speech and language


Heather J. Lavigne, Katherine G. Hanson, Tiffany A. Pempek, Heather L. Kirkorian, Lindsay B. Demers,  Daniel R. Anderson.  Baby Video Viewing and the Quanity and Quality of Parent Language. Poster presented at: Society for Research in Child Development 2011 Biennial Meeting; 2011 Mar 31-Apr 2, Montreal, QC.

Zimmerman FJ, Christakis DA, Meltzoff AN. Associations between media viewing and language development in children under age 2 years. Journal of Pediatrics. 2007 Oct;151(4):364-8. Epub 2007 Aug 7.