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August 07, 2007

Baby Einsteins

Turns out that plopping your kids in front of the television for hours on end with only an intelligence-enhancing DVD to care for them does not, in fact, raise geniuses. Quite the opposite, in fact. A new study shows that for every hour a day an infant spends in front of a Baby Einstein video, they know, on average, six-to-eight fewer words.

On the other hand, the study did nothing to test their understanding of special relativity...

August 7, 2007 | Permalink


Interesting piece. We fight this battle with our 20 month old all the time. She loves videos like Curious George, Einstein’s, Diego and Dora, but we try to limit her time with them. It’s tough though, because when she’s in front of the TV, we have a chance to get some things done. This was especially true when she was younger and required 100% attention.

It’s a balancing act: we’ll sacrifice a word or 2 for the small snippets of time it gives my wife and me; but we try to keep the videos to a minimum.

Posted by: DM | Aug 7, 2007 10:45:31 AM

Heh... well, my older nephew loved the BE videos (the rest of us loved the fact that his mom got to shower semi-regularly, actually), and he was a slow talker, but pretty much on the same curve his father had been. He also knew his letters & recognized a few written words before his second birthday, more like me-- not because of the videos, but his blocks & other toys-- and he's well ahead of the curve on every academic/language measure heading into first grade. His younger brother never liked any television until he could understand narratives (which left most BE content out) and spoke in complex sentences quite early, but at three he has zero interest in learning the visual representations of the letters & numbers he can easily recite. He's somewhere in between his mom & her brother in his interests, and has managed to convince a few adults that he can 'read' because he quickly memorizes the books others read to him.

Anyway, I don't know that I have any point other than kids seem pretty hardwired to me, and that there's no substitute for not only interaction with them, but also a fair amount of attention to their interests & preferred activities. Videos don't seem as harmful in themselves IMO as their use can reveal some serious weaknesses in parenting.

Confession: I bought a full set of the BE videos for a friend's baby this past year... on the one hand, it's a bit worrisome, but given some of her other childrearing preferences I don't feel all that bad.

Posted by: latts | Aug 7, 2007 10:55:35 AM

I suspect the culprit here is the passivity built into parking a child in front of a predetermined, predigested format that allows no initiative or interaction, not even something as minimal as changing the channel. Contrary to what such "educational" materials seem to assume, children aren't simply empty containers and education consists of a great deal more than pumping them full of the requisite materials.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Aug 7, 2007 11:06:13 AM

Didn't you link to some piece that was skeptical of all of this early childhood education, and not just the hyper early stuff like Baby einstein, but even Head Start?

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Aug 7, 2007 11:09:59 AM

heh. six-to-eight fewer words, Ezra.

Posted by: Drew | Aug 7, 2007 11:11:20 AM

It's all those Baby Einstein videos.

Posted by: Ezra | Aug 7, 2007 11:15:33 AM

why do we need studies to tell us things like this?
if anyone ever spends a day with an infant, they can tell exactly where they want to be.
.....even children under two, when they are planted in front of a video, become magnetized, like little zombies. it is very weird to watch. perhaps they do become magnetized.
also, when the video ends, they transition back to their reality in a strange way, needing to amp down.
.....infants under twenty-four months need touching, talking and titties...they recognize and respond to the voices and intonation of their caretakers, and they respond greatly to deep and loving visual contact and being held close to the heart.
.....there is no substitute for the bonding that occurs in those early months.
...the best way to create a baby einstein is to give them love. the best way to teach them about music and rhythm, is to let them be in your arms, nestled by your heart, feeling the stride of your walk, instead of at arm's length in a bulky portable carseat that is plopped down next to clothing racks in target.
...the intonation in voices, teaches them about human emotion...that is how they discern the sweetness in sound...the magic of language...that is the first music lesson.
....and what they need to know of themselves, they see reflected back at them in the eyes of someone who loves and delights in them.
.....a mouse inside of a monet painting at the age of one year old is nothing compared to seeing the world with big eyes over a shoulder, safe with warm and musky, familiar smells and a cheek nestled in a safe place and a warm, milky place to take a sip when the journey gets to be too tiring.
....the first lesson in teaching the theory of relativity to infants.

Posted by: jacqueline | Aug 7, 2007 11:17:42 AM

Someone gave us one of those videos after our son was born. We took at a look at it first and, basically, it seemed like a bunch of stoners taping their trip toys (um ... but maybe I attended one too many Dead shows).

Good to see that we're not the only ones who thought videos of toys with classical music in the background wouldn't make any kid smarter. Besides, wouldn't, like, actually playing with the toys while listening to classical music be better (not to mention interactive)?

I guess some parents just wanted to feel good about plopping their kid down in front of the TV so they could do whatever it was they wanted to do.

Posted by: Mark D | Aug 7, 2007 11:22:58 AM

It's all those Baby Einstein videos.

Posted by: Ezra

If you were that young, I'd say the videos worked pretty well.

Posted by: latts | Aug 7, 2007 11:36:37 AM

Just for the record, I did watch a lot of TV as a child but I got to switch the channels. That's how I came to see Eisenhour's last speech as President as well as JFK's inaugural. However, I probably wouldn't remember the former instance if I hadn't been able to ask who the old guy on the tube was and therefore learned that he was the President. I'd of thought he was a preacher if not for that.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Aug 7, 2007 11:44:09 AM

Not to knock the study, but the article only discusses vocabulary. I'm assuming the study tested other aspects of intelligence?

I know several adult geniuses who, if judged by their speech and social interaction, would seem kind of dumb.

Posted by: PapaJijo | Aug 7, 2007 11:47:05 AM


i think television for older children is another window on the world and can be a very good thing... but under twenty-four months, i dont think robert frost's poem at the inaugural would have improved the language skills or inspired an infant more interested in squishing jello in his fingers and eating large quantities of blueberry scented playdough.
...actually, i nannied for one little girl last year who did love a baby einstein book.
but for different reasons!
she was teething and for some reason, she just loved to gnaw on the corner of that book!
she has lovely teeth now, like a little string of seed-pearls... so perhaps baby einstein does have some good effect after all!

Posted by: jacqueline | Aug 7, 2007 11:57:28 AM

Not to knock the study, but the article only discusses vocabulary. I'm assuming the study tested other aspects of intelligence?

Exposure to video can increase certain aspects of intelligence, IF it is interactive. For instance, playing 1st-person shooters increases spatial awareness (up to a point, with rapidly diminishing utility after a few hours).

However, this is not true for infants, who simply shouldn't watch TV. It increases the risk of ADD and (probably) autism, and stunts development.

It also should be noted that among young children, language development is really the marker for intelligence, and is required for other aspects of personality / smarts to develop.

Posted by: rb | Aug 7, 2007 12:01:32 PM

This study confirms what my wife, a pediatric speech-language pathologist, has been saying for years.

Posted by: James F. Elliott | Aug 7, 2007 12:19:54 PM

I agree with the study author's TV recommendations (none until 24 months), but just a note of caution on the differences between prospective and retrospective trials:

There is very likely a big confounding factor here. For every hour of television watched, they found a 6 to 8 word decease in vocabulary. I would suspect that there is a good correlation between TV baby-watching and less parental interaction/reading/etc. The lack of vocabulary may be more due to the latter correlation than the former. If they did a prospective, randomized study we'd know, but that's pretty much not possible. (They could improve their retrospective study by asking about time spent on other baby activities and control for these factors as well.)

Posted by: wisewon | Aug 7, 2007 12:26:25 PM

We try to minimize the time our 21-month-old watches 2-d images, because his 3-d vision is still developing. There are some disturbing links to autism; in particular "research has shown that autistic children exhibit abnormal activity in the visual-processing areas of their brains".

The study linked to in the Slate article is pretty cool; it's based on the fact that TV appeared in the 50 states at different times, so one has 50 independent experiments.

Posted by: Allen Knutson | Aug 7, 2007 12:46:27 PM

However, this is not true for infants, who simply shouldn't watch TV. It increases the risk of ADD and (probably) autism, and stunts development.

Autism? Autism?!

... naaaah.

Posted by: twig | Aug 7, 2007 1:13:51 PM

That TV-autism link study is indeed interesting, and it certainly sounds plausible. What's really interesting is how much more quickly and eagerly people were willing to glom onto vaccines as the source of autism rather than TV watching. Could it be the unwillingness of parents to believe that they contributed to their kids' autism by dumping them in front of the TV set?

Posted by: Glenn | Aug 7, 2007 1:15:39 PM

I've got a BE video; I think it's Baby Beethoven or something. I let my son watch it sometimes, but not because I think it's going to make him smart. That's just magical thinking, and I have no tolerance for magical thinking.

I put my son down in front of that from time to time so I can take a shower, give my full attention to my daughter or, I don't know, write comments on blogs. I love my kids and try to be a devoted father, but if I don't spend some time doing stuff I like I'll just go crazy.

At least a BE video doesn't have any commercials, isn't teaching him the words "stupid" or "shut-up," focuses on one image for longer than 1.5 seconds and lets him listen to high-quality music instead of whatever Hannah Montana just belched out.

Posted by: Stephen | Aug 7, 2007 1:34:54 PM

For the record, I have my son in front of Baby Beethoven at this very moment! Ha ha ha ha ha! He's getting dumber by the second!

Now I get to pick up the damn house.

Posted by: Stephen | Aug 7, 2007 1:46:28 PM

Let me preface by saying this is NOT a criticism of your parenting skills. It's your child, and I'm sure he's a great kid.

However ... we found that a Leap Pad can keep our son (who turns three on Friday) entertained for quite a long time while actually encouraging interaction, teaching him numbers and letters, and how to follow a process (i.e. turn it on, turn the page, push the green "Go" circle). He's been able to do most of that since before he was two.

It's a much better alternative to television, IMHO.

Although we have been known to throw in a Thomas the Crack Engine video on those nights neither of us have the energy to really deal with him/have stuff we need done that he can't help with (he digs the vacuum, dusting, and feeding the dogs).

Again, not a criticism ... just a suggestion.


Posted by: Mark D | Aug 7, 2007 2:00:46 PM

Yeah, Stephen pretty much describes my concern, here. Once or twice a day, 20 minutes of free time was a sanity-saver. Baby Einstein videos were the most common method to create that free time.

I also read to my kids many, many times throughout the day, so if the only downside to these videos ivolves vocabulary, then I'm not too worried. Especially if the videos are shown to help even a little in other areas -- spatial, object recognition, math and logic, etc.

If it turns out there are problems across the board, then I'm going to be pissed off. But until I see the actual study (which I can't find online, yet) then right now all I've got to go on is an article that says "slight decrease in vocabulary" == "stupid kid"

Posted by: PapaJijo | Aug 7, 2007 2:02:33 PM

Mark D,

Oh, I agree. My son is only 10 months old, so it's hard for him to interact with leappad stuff. I really try to not have either of my kids just watch TV (my daughter is 5), but it's like sugary breakfast cereal. Sugarless shredded hay bales might be best, but as part of a well-rounded diet, some Trix isn't going to kill anyone.

Posted by: Stephen | Aug 7, 2007 2:43:54 PM

I don't think there's any need to take this post or the article personally, as a criticism of letting your child have any time in front of Baby Einstein or any other video. The point, as far as I can tell, is that Baby Einstein, which purports to be "educational" (and whose founders, FYI, are big Republican donors), is *not* educational. You'd probably do better having your kid watch something with a narrative to follow. And the problem isn't 20 minutes a couple of times a day so you can get the house tidied; it's hours a day because you have to work and can't afford child care.

My daughter's main TV experience is with the Food Network, since that's the only thing I'm likely to want to watch during the hours she's awake. I have no idea whether this is related to the fact that she'll eat anything we give her, except eggplant and, weirdly, peaches or nectarines.

Posted by: janet | Aug 7, 2007 2:50:00 PM

Oh, I agree. My son is only 10 months old, so it's hard for him to interact with leappad stuff. I really try to not have either of my kids just watch TV (my daughter is 5), but it's like sugary breakfast cereal. Sugarless shredded hay bales might be best, but as part of a well-rounded diet, some Trix isn't going to kill anyone.

That is perhaps the most awesomest comment about kids and TV I've ever read. Honestly. That's a great way to frame it.

**golf clap**

Posted by: Mark D | Aug 7, 2007 2:50:18 PM

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