Have a question?
Message sent Close

Q. I have heard conflicting advice about how much time I should allow my 10 month old to spend watching his favorite show. Can you help clarify this issue?

A. The short answer is, none. The current widely accepted recommendation is no screen time at all before the age of 3. Let’s explore in more depth why.

As parents, most of us have at some point used screen time (television, computer, tablet, phone) to garner ten minutes to prepare dinner, tend to another child, or just have a short breather. While we want the best for our little ones, we are also human so when the experts and research tell us screens have a negative impact on our kids, it’s not surprising that we worry. I hear a lot of questions from concerned parents about the appropriate amount of screen time their little ones, under 3 years, should have. The short answer is, none. The current widely accepted recommendation is no screen time at all before the age of 3.

While the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) uses the guideline of 18 months, the international recommendations widely recommend not before the age of 2, and in France no screen time before 3 years old. This article will help shed some light on why and offer some practical alternatives that can be incorporated into everyday routines.

Research and meta-analysis reviews have repeatedly shown that yes, the excessive use of screens results in a wide range of negative health impacts. Some of these include increased BMI, vision issues, decreased language development, attention issues, anxiety, sleep disorders, etc. However, rather than focusing on the negative impacts, as a speech therapist, it would be more useful to emphasize the important developmental aspects that children are missing out on when in front of a screen.


1. Human to human

Firstly, the importance of human interaction cannot be understated in children under 3 years of age. Newborns come into this world with underdeveloped vision. They are able to focus 8-12 inches (20-30 cm) which consequently is the perfect distance to see the loving faces of their parents as they are cradled.

Baby’s vision continues to develop over the next few years. Initially, they are capable of only seeing fuzzy objects with stark contrast to slowly gaining the ability to see farther and farther with more clarity and nuance in colors and patterns. For this reason, screens are considered off-limits before the age of 3. Simply put their eyes are just not ready to focus on a screen. 

On the other hand, when a baby focuses on others who are actively engaging with them they are exposed to a myriad of facial expressions, diverse language sounds, tones, and varying intonation. Babies are natural imitators; we are their favorite toy to mimic. This playful imitation is not only amusing but fundamental to language development.

Due to the importance of human connection for young children, short video chats with friends and family are generally considered a reasonable exception to the no screens before 3 guideline.


2. Tiny hands at play

baby learning speech-languageAn assortment of well-thought out toys offer endless possibilities for development. Caressing a soft teddy bear feels differently when compared to gumming a hard plastic stacking ring. During play, baby inadvertently discovers that the wheels of the car turn, banging a rattle on the floor makes a loud noise, and a mystery baby is looking at himself from the mirror. Through these seemingly ordinary moments baby is learning essential core skills such as compare and contrast, cause and effect, the exploration of the five senses, and development of fine and gross motor skills.


3. A whole world outside to explore

The great outdoors, whether a trip to the local park, stroll on the beach, or a walk in the woods offer unlimited opportunities for sensory play.


Nature is an absolute treasure trove of sights: the shifting sunlight as the day wears on and shadows make for fun visual games. A simple stroll around the block can offer a rainbow of colors: the green grass, the red and orange autumn leaves, yellow dandelions, the brightly colored jungle gym equipment, the blue sky is the limit.


Whether in a busy city, a nature park or our own back yard if we close our eyes and listen our world is an absolute cacophony of sounds: geese honking overhead, bike bells, tree leaves blowing in the wind, a squeaky swing in the park, the chattering of people walking by, the roaring of an airplane flying over or emergency vehicle sirens. Each of these provide valuable lessons in tone, pitch and volume. All of which are parts of the larger language puzzle.


Anyone with little ones knows that babies and young children love to learn through their sense of touch and the sense of taste is often close behind. For what goes in the hand often finds its way into the mouth. The outdoors makes for golden opportunities to engage these senses: crinkling autumn leaves, prickly pine cones, a smooth pebble, a soft feather, grainy sand filtering through tiny fingers or gooey mud oozing between them.


Of course, there are countless opportunities indoors to test out our sense of smell. However, it’s outdoors where we can find an absolute menagerie of odors. From the fish and chips restaurant on the corner to the smell of flowers lining the park. Or from the unique smell of rain on a warm summer night to the pungent smell of a construction crew putting down fresh asphalt. Certainly not all smells were created equally but they all do stimulate the brain and help to make important connections. Olfactory memories can be some of the most profound and lasting.


Additionally the outdoors offers such a wide-variety of positive health benefits. The outside is a perfect spot to allow our eyes to focus at varying depths of field. This is particularly important in preventing myopia. Being outside allows for children to feel changes of temperature. A simple lesson of how they process the feeling of warmth on their skin. How sitting in a shady spot on the bench feels quite differently than the sunny spot.  Each of these experiences sets their neurons firing away building pathways, memories and working out comparisons.  Let’s not overlook the additional health benefits from physical activity alone and the exposure to fresh air and vitamin D.


4. Nurture your budding bookworm

Baby reading a book. Language developmentJust as babies and young children find human interaction some of the most engaging moments of their day, having their favorite humans read to them can be the absolute best entertainment and way to build language. A good rendition of the Graffalo with lots of intonation and facial expression is certainly far better than anything found on a screen. 

Studies have routinely demonstrated that reading to babies and young children heightens language development, increases memory, and improves listening skills. 

Letting your toddler practice “reading” by turning pages and telling their version of the story are all precursors to actual reading. Additionally, when reading time is enjoyable, you are laying the foundations for your little one to take great pleasure in reading later in life.


5. Using downtime for meaningful learning

For many of us silence elicits a sense of awkward emptiness that needs to be filled with anything and fast. We live in busy, over-stimulated times where family calendars are chalked full of well-meaningful activities. However, sometimes the best activity is doing what seems outwardly as nothing. When we take a moment to simply sit in stillness amazing things can happen. We are capable of making some of our most significant discoveries and working out some of our toughest problems merely thanks to silence. 

Reflection, calm, and quiet time are paramount for their powerful ability in positively shaping the human mind. I know young children come in all varieties; some may relish with independent play or quiet time gazing at their mobile, staring at the clouds in the sky, or watching the shadows dance across the walls. Others, however, are a bit more of the on-the-go variety and stillness may be trickier to achieve. You can try some good books on meditation, relaxation and yoga with kids.

I understand that our lives are extremely screen-orientated and seem nearly impossible to avoid. Add to that programs specifically targeting children under 3 with crafty marketing that claim to have IQ boosting capabilities. It’s hard not to fall into the screen trap.

However, we must remember that while our kids are in front of the screen they miss out on many other experiences.

So, it just makes sense for us to turn off the screens, especially for our tiniest little ones until their senses, minds, and language capacity is ready for them. Besides, the most interesting program your child has is you.


Leave a Reply