Pinwheels, Puppets, and Mozart
Lynn W.'s son Colin doesn't know his ABCs yet. He can't add or subtract, or find the capital of Bolivia on a map. But at 9 months, his education in classical music is already underway. Colin's mom received a "Baby Mozart" video as a baby gift, and has been delighted by her son's enthusiastic response to the images and sounds on the tape.
"He absolutely loves it," she says. "I put him in his swing and he's mesmerized. Nothing else on TV holds his attention."
Baby Mozart and Baby Bach are just two of the award-winning video titles available from the Disney-owned Baby Einstein Company (the developer of the music video series did not respond to an interview request.) In just a few years, the tapes and accompanying catalogue of developmental toys have become hot baby shower gifts, part of a growing genre of products intended to stimulate an infant's brain development. But whether or not they really work is yet to be determined.
Teaching Tool or Electronic Babysitter?
"We believe babies learn best when interacting with a loving parent or caregiver," reads a company statement on the Baby Einstein web site. "We strive to create products that encourage and support such dynamic interaction."
But fan mail from parents posted on the site, in addition to interviews with parents, gives little reason to believe that moms and dads are using the tapes as the company intended them to.
"His eyes wouldn't leave the TV screen," wrote one mother from Hayward, California in a letter to the Baby Einstein Company. "I could go take a shower, drink my coffee in peace while getting ready for work. I was so thrilled with Baby Mozart I went out and bought Baby Bach."
How Babies Learn Best
Some parents credit the tapes for fostering early language development, but Laurie L., a family day care provider and former teacher from Brookline, Massachusetts, questions the need for products to teach babies pre-literacy skills.
"Any child-video interaction is extremely passive," she observes. "A child can talk to a video, but a video can't talk back to a child. There's no touch, no eye contact, and that's how babies learn best."
While no one would argue that an occasional video screening is harmful, many early childhood educators believe that daily use of videos as "electronic babysitters," -- while cheaper and far easier to procure than real babysitters -- are a sorry substitute for direct human interaction. There's also concern that a new parent's confidence may be undercut by skillful marketing campaigns that convince them that video products incorporating classical music may offer more than a mother's own lullabies.
"These products send the message to new parents that they are somehow incompetent or not capable of being effective parents," fears Laurie L. "The marketing targets a vulnerability in new parents that's totally normal."
Despite the criticism, many parents have a good feeling about a product with the name Bach or Beethoven attached. And in homes where the television is frequently on, they reason, it's better for baby to watch a well-produced, child-oriented product than a celebrity-wrestling match.
"I'm sure he gets something out of it," says Judy S., mother of 8 month-old Jared. "I don't think it hurts, but I don't think it's going to make him a genius either!"
Videos for Babies: Questions to Ask Yourself
Don't spend too much time wondering if Baby Mozart tapes are "good" or "bad." The real questions are:
What's my motive?
Do I think the tapes will make my child smarter, or better prepared for learning? If so, know that the research on this is questionable at best.
Am I exhausted and in need of a break?
Watching a short video once in a while won't ruin your baby's childhood, but be honest about how much time your baby is spending in front of the television. Research does show that babies learn best from interaction with other people. In other words, a simple game of "peek-a-boo" can teach your baby more than a video can, because the baby can interact with you, touch you, and learn from your verbal and non-verbal cues!
Rather than regularly use videos as an electronic babysitter, explore other options. Two inexpensive ones: arrange a childcare swap with a neighbor or hire a local teen as a "mother's helper" after school.
What can I do to help my baby learn?
The answer is....anything and everything! You are your baby's first and best teacher. Human interaction and touch are best for babe. And if you want to expose your son or daughter to classical music, consider audiotapes or CDs in addition to, or instead of a video.
Should I watch videos with my baby, as suggested?
Yes, but not because you need to help an infant "understand" what's on the screen! Many of us have a tough time "letting go" of the dirty dishes in the sink and just relaxing with children. If a video helps you settle down and spend time with your baby, then by all means use it for that purpose. Ease into a rocking chair and baby and blanket, draw your child close and simply enjoy being together. That human contact is what matters most, not the flickering images on a screen.