The latest study finds some temperament traits are more likely to land babies in front of the television.
There is growing evidence that watching hours and hours of TV can prompt kids to eat unhealthy foods and gain more weight. So the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that infants under age 2 not be plunked in front of the set at all.
But for many parents desperate for a relatively simple and quick way to occupy their babies, the television is still a convenient, if not ideal, go-to solution. Hoping to shed light on how to best help parents cut back on such TV time, scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill identified certain characteristics among infants and mothers that tend to promote more hours in front of the screen.
In the study, published in the journal Pediatrics, the researchers analyzed data from 217 African-American mother and infant pairs from the Infant Care and Risk of Obesity Study. At 3, 6, 9, 12, and 18 months after birth, the infants’ mothers reported on their babies’ temperament—how fussy or complacent they were—as well as their own TV viewing habits, including how long the TV was on during the day and how often they fed their babies while watching TV.
Overall, mothers spent a significant amount of time watching television, and reported that they spent quite a bit of time feeding their infants in front of the TV as well. Infants just 3 months old were exposed to an average of nearly three hours of TV or videos daily, and nearly 40% of the youngsters were exposed to three hours of TV every day by the time they were a year old.
More active and fussier infants were more likely to spend extended periods of time in front of the TV. The exposure was also higher among obese mothers, especially those with the fussier kids, leading the researchers to suggest that the television may serve as an easy entertainment strategy.
The scientists were also able to find some factors that contribute to fewer hours in front of the screen, however. Moms with a high school diploma or any additional education were less likely to have TVs in their infants’ room, and less likely to keep the television on during meals.
“In the last decade or so there has been a lot of attention paid to parenting style and care giving. One component has to do with feeding and focus placed on the feeding environment,” says Margaret E. Bentley, Associate Dean of Global Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health and the principal investigator of the study. “Half of the time, infants are being fed with the television on, which is a feeding strategy we do not recommend.”
Eating in front of the television can lead to unhealthy dining habits that linger into childhood and adulthood, Bentley and her colleagues say, since mothers feeding infants while watching TV might be distracted and not as alert to subtle cues babies send when they feel full, which can lead to overfeeding.
So while it’s not surprising that meals and television aren’t a healthy combination, understanding the range of factors that contribute to greater TV exposure may help both parents and health experts to build more effective ways to curb excessive screen time. “It is important to understand the factors contributing to high television exposure in early infancy because the high levels of television exposure we documented persist through early childhood when, as other studies have shown, they are associated with reduced physical activity, increased snack food intake, and developmental delays in language acquisition,” says the study’s lead author Amanda Thompson. Babies are constantly learning, she says, so it’s never too early to introduce them to healthy eating habits and discourage behaviors that promote mindless snacking.