Study: Fussy Kids May Watch More TV

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Harvard Medical School
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Study: Fussy Kids May Watch More TV

News Review From Harvard Medical School

April 14, 2014

News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Study: Fussy Kids May Watch More TV

Kids who are "fussy" as babies may end up watching more TV as parents try to soothe them, a new study suggests. The new research looked at data on nearly 7,500 children from a larger study of child development. When the children were 9 months and 2 years old, parents filled out questionnaires. They were asked whether their children had problems with sleeping, eating, paying attention or controlling mood and behavior. Experts call this "self-regulation." If these skills are poor, parents may say the baby is fussy. When their children were 2, parents also were asked about TV habits. On average, kids watched 2.3 hours of TV or videos each day. Babies who had problems with self-regulation watched more TV than kids who didn't have such problems. This was true even after researchers adjusted their numbers to account for factors known to affect children's TV watching habits. These included the parents' income and education, among other things. Kids with poor self-regulation as babies watched about 9 minutes more TV each day. The difference was small, but researchers said it could build as children get older. The journal Pediatrics published the study April 14. and wrote about it.


By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Harvard Medical School


What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

Parents sometimes use television as a babysitter -- for even babies and toddlers  -- while they get things done around the house. There's something about the TV that mesmerizes children. For some restless and difficult children, TV seems to be the one thing that calms and sits them down.

But for those children, TV may be exactly the wrong babysitter.

That's the message of a study just released in the journal Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Researchers asked parents to fill out questionnaires about their child's ability to self-regulate. For babies, this includes how well they can soothe themselves, settle down to sleep or wait to be fed.

Babies who have trouble with self-regulation can be hard to take care of. They can be unpredictably fussy and have trouble with eating and sleeping. In general, their behavior may be difficult to handle.

Parents in the study answered questions when their babies were 9 months old and again when they were 2 years old. When the children were 2, researchers also asked how much television they watched.

Here are some of the findings of the study:

  • Babies who had more trouble with self-regulation watched more TV when they were 2.
  • Babies who developed trouble with self-regulation, or had problems with it that got worse, watched more TV at 2.
  • Babies who had trouble with self-regulation, but got better, didn't watch more TV when they were 2.

All of this suggests that parents are indeed using TV to entertain their children and keep them happy. And they are more likely to do this when their children are fussy or difficult. This seems very obvious and natural, but it worries pediatricians.

It worries us because we know that watching a lot of TV, especially fast-paced programming, can cause problems. It can harm language development, attention and something called "executive function."  Executive function skills have to do with focus, planning, negotiation and self-control. They are the skills that begin as self-regulation in babies.

So if babies who are already having trouble with self-regulation get put in front of a TV often, they are more likely to have trouble with executive function in the future. Good executive function skills are crucial for academic and social success. So all of this can affect the child for a lifetime.


What Changes Can I Make Now?

If you are a parent, the change you can make is simple: don't use the TV as a way to calm down your fussy baby or toddler. Instead, try some of these tactics:

  • Sing to (or with) them.
  • Wear them, in a sling or baby carrier.
  • Play with them. Find your inner child. Be silly, use voices, dance around and have fun.
  • Involve them in what you are doing. For example, if you are cooking, put them in a high chair or on the floor. Give them pots and pans or wooden spoons to play with. If you are folding laundry, give them socks to play with.
  • Put them in a baby swing or vibrating chair.
  • Go for a walk. This may not help you get things done around the house, but it often does the trick -- and you get some exercise.

If none of this works, ask your doctor for advice.


What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

As media become more and more a part of our daily lives, and the lives of our children, we need to understand their effects on us. This is particularly important for children. Their brains are growing and changing and are very affected by the environment. Studies like this one help us understand some of those effects. And that can help us make better, healthier decisions for ourselves and our children.





Last updated April 14, 2014

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