Is it okay to use cartoons to keep my baby busy while I clean the house?

Michael RichMedia expert Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston answers your questions about media use. Last week, he discussed why different kids respond to media violence differently.

Here’s this week’s question:

Q: I have a question about my five month old daughter and TV. She likes to watch E/I cartoons. Is it ok for me to let her watch them when I have things I need to do around the house? If allowing her to watch cartoons is not good for her, what are other activities I can do to keep her occupied so I can get things done?

Curious about Cartoons in Hibbing, MN

A: Dear Curious about Cartoons,

First, know that watching cartoons is not toxic to your child. The issue is that even educational and information (E/I) cartoons don’t provide enough stimulation to build healthy, strong, and creative brains. Cartoons are just filler, especially for kids this young, taking up precious awake time that could be used for activities that make her stronger and smarter. In addition, recent research by CMCH scientist Dr. Marie Schmidt also shows that when the TV is on, parents and babies interact less with each other, when interaction with you is most important for her.

Here are the kinds of things we know help to build kids’ minds and keep them healthy:

  • interacting with other people
  • manipulating the physical environment (like stacking blocks or playing with mud)
  • taking part in open-ended creative problem-solving play

So where I’m coming from in saying that cartoons are just filler is that they don’t get at any of those three kinds of activities.  Depending on what you’re doing, there’s almost always something that your five month old can do alongside you that involves one of those three things.

Having 2 kids myself, here are some things I’m betting you need to get done and some examples of what your daughter could be doing at the same time:

  • If you need to make dinner, pull out pots and pans and a wooden spoon and let her go at it. It might be noisy, but she’ll be with you and she’ll be manipulating her environment—and you’ll be getting dinner made.
  • If you need to take a shower, put her in a bouncy chair and let her watch the water run down the shower door. Babies are fascinated by things like this, even though we adults have lived in the world long enough to take them for granted.
  • If you’re doing taxes or something else boring to an insatiably curious five month old (and likely boring for you too!), you can always put her in an exersaucer or on a blanket with some favorite toys, like blocks or baby gym toys with mobiles.

You can also play music for her, or give her a stack of toys that she can manipulate to see what happens—rattles and mirrors are great for this age. Pushing her to interact with her world in this way will both give her activities that are useful for her growth and give you the time you need to get things done.
>>Related question: How will TV affect our 3 month old?

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician