Can TV help my infant sleep while keeping me awake?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Children’s Hospital Boston’s media expert and director of Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Take a look at his blog archive or follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston

Q: My boyfriend and I just had a beautiful baby boy. He is a month old. I like to leave the TV on even if he is sleeping so that I can stay awake. I was hoping that the noise would be good for him and that it would keep me awake while he sleeps. Is that okay for him?

TV for sleep?, in Washington

A: Dear TV for sleep?,

You are right that TV can help you stay awake—because humans are animals that evolved to be awake in the daytime and asleep at night, we are aroused and activated by light. Television provides that light, as well as moving, changing images and sounds that grab our attention. The same elements that keep you awake will also keep your baby awake and, thus, can interfere with healthy sleep.

The difference between “calming” and “quieting”

You may notice that older children, even very active ones, will sit quietly in front of the tube even when they won’t settle down for much else. That might make it seem like watching TV calms them down. But what’s actually happening is that the bright light and constantly changing image are capturing and holding their attention—which arouses and alerts their brains. They are being constantly stimulated, and their still-developing brains won’t really let them turn away.

So if TV arouses kids, why do they so often fall asleep in front of the TV? Because, ultimately, all of that stimulation wears them down until they simply can’t stay awake anymore. When in front of the TV, they enter sleep by way of exhaustion rather than by calming themselves to sleep.

But once exhaustion has overwhelmed stimulation and he is asleep, he may become dependent on the TV, music, or other accompaniment when he is falling to sleep, not because it is calming, but because it is what he is used to. Then he may find it difficult, perhaps impossible to get to sleep without it—and may wake up the moment it is turned off. Babies have a self-protective reflex to go on alert when there is a change in their environment. If the noise and light of the TV are the environment in which he drifts off, there is a dramatic environmental change when the TV is turned off and he will go on alert.

The importance of self-calming

Children need to learn to calm themselves and get to sleep without the aid of external technology. This will allow them to cope with stressful situations, manage their emotions and impulses, and get to sleep. Not only will he be able to soothe himself and get to sleep in a variety of situations (a real help to you as a busy parent), but he will be calmer when he is awake. The ability to calm himself learned as an infant will serve your son well as an adult.

You may want to consider taking those precious moments when he is asleep to get some rest yourself. But if you are using TV to keep yourself awake, let your baby put himself to sleep in a quiet, dark space and watch TV in another room. Not only are you helping him to self-calm and preparing him for a lifetime of restful, healthy sleep habits, but you are keeping TV out of his bedroom, which will lower his risk of poor sleep, school problems, aggression, and obesity as he grows up.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,

The Mediatrician®