I have always taken a “digital minimalist” approach to parentIng. I am pro-technology, love my iPhone, and am grateful to the Internet for enabling my online writIng career for the past decade. But I am also deeply cautious about putting that same technology into the hands of my three children in the form of tablets, smartphones, video games, and even TV shows.
Children have so few years to be little and innocent. Handing them a device that dominates their attention and disconnects them from the surrounding world always troubled me, so I avoided doing it. My husband and I never bought tablets, never gave them our phones to play with, didn’t have a TV in the house. The kids, even as babies and toddlers, were forced to entertain themselves the way that kids did in the past—by playing with toys or each other, going outside, reading books, doing crafts and puzzles, helping with chores, rummaging through the Tupperware drawer, playing with cardboard boxes and learning that it’s OK to be bored.
Despite the American Academy of Pediatrics saying that children should have no screen time until the age of 18 to 24 months, our family’s choice seems uncommon. It worked for us—and I think more parents would embrace this screen-free approach knowing just how manageable and rewarding it can be. I’d like to offer some practical tips on limiting babies’ and toddlers’ screen time, based on personal experience and years of research into this topic for my new book, “Childhood Unplugged: Practical Advice to Get Kids Off Screens and Find Balance”.
5 strategies to reduce screen time for babies and toddlers
1. Keep devices out of sight
If your child cannot see a tablet, phone or laptop, they will be less inclined to ask for it. Kids are incredibly smart, and as soon as they learn to associate a device with a pleasurable, dopamine-induced experience such as viewing a stimulating show, they will crave it and ask for it. Think of the device as a trigger that must be made as inaccessible as possible, and over time the urge will lessen. The same goes for using a phone in front of your baby; they imitate behaviors from a young age.
2. Keep toys simple and open-ended
One of the great beauties of childhood is how little it takes to engage and delight a young child’s curiosity. If a baby or toddler is not accustomed to the hyperstimulation provided by screens, it won’t take much to captivate their attention. Some jangling keys, a set of measuring cups, a rubber spatula, a ball, a board book, or a bagel to gnaw on in the grocery store can keep them happy. Give them toys that can be manipulated in a variety of ways, that aren’t locked into a single use, that grow with their motor skills and mental capacity.
3. Spend time outside
Try to take your baby outside every day, no matter where you live. Whenever my babies were fussy, nature worked like a miracle cure. As soon as we stepped outside, they settled down, whether we were on a walk, sitting in the snow, or just lying on the grass under a tree while they stared, mesmerized, at the green leaves overhead. Nature strikes the perfect balance for babies—just stimulating enough, but not too much—and it has the added benefit of tiring them out (and likely calming you, too). Scandinavian parents let their babies nap outside because they believe that nature’s sounds are inherently soothing; they decrease the body’s fight-or-flight response and promote deeper sleep.
4. Stick to a routine
Having a predictable routine for a young child goes a long way toward avoiding the meltdowns that tablets and phones are often used to avert. By sticking to a daily cycle of napping, eating, and playing, you can eliminate many of those swaths of “empty” time that make pulling out a device so tempting. Both of you know what comes next in the day, and it’s easier to navigate.
5. Carry your baby
When my babies were small, a friend showed me how to “wear” them in a sling or a wrap. This was a life-changing technique because it meant the child was with me all the time, watching what I did, feeling the movement of my body, hearing my voice. Most crucially, they were able to withdraw into the sling’s cozy cocoon if they felt overstimulated. This is the opposite of what screens do: A baby watching a propped-up iPad in a crib or car seat cannot physically pull away if they’ve had too much. They are helpless, reliant on the parent to decide when it’s time to turn the show off, which can result in overstimulation and consequent let-down.
A note on reducing baby screen time
A wise phrase I once heard is, “Begin as you mean to go on.” Babies are smarter than we give them credit for and quick to pick up habits. Trust yours to learn whatever patterns you establish at home. Young children won’t miss what they never knew existed, but it’s also never too late to have a “digital reset” to reduce use if it feels like too much.
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