Screen Time for Babies and Toddlers – What You Need to Know

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February 06, 2024
6 min read

In the journey of parenting, many parents grapple with the question of how media use and digital technology fit into the lives of our young kids—our infants and toddlers.

With the digital age upon us, it’s a topic that can’t be tucked away; it demands our attention. 

More media and more screen time has led to many parents asking:

“How much screen time and use of screen devices is too much?”
“Is my child’s screen time a risk?”
“What are the negative effects?”

First, let’s talk about infants and television.

The question isn’t just ‘can babies watch TV?’ but rather ‘what happens when they do?’

 The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) recommends that children under two years should have no screen time, and those aged 2-5 should be limited to less than one hour per day. 

The reason? This time is pivotal for a baby’s brain development and physical development. The environment a baby learns in—full of speech, touch, and interaction—is irreplaceable, and screens offer none of these enriching experiences.

Does Screen Time Affect Babies?

Yes, it most certainly can. 

Screen time, particularly before bedtime, can disrupt babies’ sleep patterns. The blue light emitted and sounds can overstimulate them, thus interfering with the natural winding down process. Watching TV with a newborn in the room, even in the background, can create a restless environment, counterproductive to the calm needed for their development. The current recommendations for children  (which vary slightly by country) are designed to limit the amount of screen use children have, largely because of what they’re missing out on (for example, social interactions and physical activity) when time spent on a device or watching TV is excessive.

toddler with screen

When babies spend time with screens, they’re missing out on what they require most: engaging, hands-on experiences and social interactions that foster growth. Babies watching TV might seem calm and content, but the lack of interaction means they miss out on vital learning opportunities.

The RACP notes that excessive screen time can influence various aspects of a young child’s well-being, including:

  •  sleep, 
  • attention, and 
  • learning abilities. 

We all know the temptation to turn on the TV to steal a moment’s peace, but considering the potential impact, we must be judicious about how we use screen time.

Understanding Screen Time for Toddlers

As our children blossom into toddlers, the question of average screen time and too much screen time for toddlers arises. While the RACP suggests under an hour, the quality of this screen time is paramount. It’s about online safety, and choosing programs that are educational and interactive, and ideally, enjoying them together.

Too much screen time impacts:

  • language development, 
  • Life social skills, 
  • problem solving ability…
  • We also know that screens impact sleep.toddler banner

Screens & bedtime

  • Whether this is with a smartphone, tablet or television, it’s important that there is no screen exposure in the 2 hours prior to bedtime. 
  • Screens emit a blue light source that interferes with melatonin production and tells your child’s body that it isn’t ready for sleep. 
  • It also increases their alertness when we are wanting our children to become calm and more sleepy.  

A general guide to screen time

  • Try to stick to the recommended amount of time spent on digital technologies. 
  • Ensure your children have plenty of opportunities to engage in regular social activities and outdoor activity with friends. 
  • Screen time should always be with an adult. 
  • It’s preferable if screen time is of educational value.
  • Screens in the bedroom are strongly not advised.

Depending on the rules in your family and what you’re comfortable with create clear boundaries for your toddler and their access to devices.

TIP 1: Limits & boundaries 

  • Please be reminded of the screen time limits for your toddler’s age and what they are missing out on by spending long periods of time with their full attention in front of a screen. .
  • Yes, even ‘educational’ games, apps and tv shows are no substitute for playing with toys or getting grubby outside. 
  • Have time limits for video chatting. 

TIP 2: Be aware of Myopia 

  • is a common vision condition similar to short sightedness  in which you can see objects near to you clearly, but objects farther away are blurry.
  • It  is on the increase with handheld device usage.

TIP 3: Use ad and content blockers 

  • This avoids your toddler coming across inappropriate content.

TIP 4: Utilise the Screen Time settings 

  • Set time limits that block access once reached.
  • Restrict content to “clean”, ‘G’ and age appropriate app access to deter violent content and distressing images .
  • Allow safe websites only.
  • Ensure game settings are set safely (multiplayer games, chats etc.)
  • Disable privacy tracking.
  • Disable app store purchases.

TIP 5: Avoid Youtube Scrolling

  • Toddlers should not be watching regular YouTube, if they do have access, it should only be to Kids YouTube – and bear in mind this should still be supervised.

TIP 6: Be mindful of public screens

  • If you’re at a restaurant or public space with screens, be mindful of the content which could be frightening for your toddler.

TIP 7: Share the experience with your toddler

  • Where possible watch the digital content with your toddler.
  • Share the experience, use the content to discuss interesting topics with your toddler. 
  • Stop and pause regularly. 
  • Ask them if they think a character is scary, allow them to describe what makes them scary.

Research shows us that two thirds of Australian parents are battling their children on a daily basis about turning off the screens. 

While devices can be a lifesaver for parents to keep toddlers entertained while we are busy, we’ve all had the battle of trying to remove the phone, ipad or tv remote from the warm little mitts of our darling child.

But why is it so hard to turn off the digital technology off or give back the phone?

Because dopamine is released in the brain when our toddlers are in front of a screen, making them feel great – the pleasure/reward cycle that we all know can encourage us to repeat particular behaviours (a bit like how you keep reaching for the chocolate even when you’re not hungry!).  

Other reasons it’s hard include

  • It’s involved in a transition.
  • It has occurred suddenly.
  • Your toddler has no control over the situation.
  • They don’t want to move on to what’s next (dinner for instance).

Try this formula for ending screen time

  1. Invest in connecting – enter their world and engage in activities like water play or sand play that promote tactile learning.
  2. Explain the plan – set the limits
  3. Give some control – a choice of two about the device or what you’re redirecting them to
  4. Acknowledge the big feelings – it’s okay for your toddler to get upset

These activities not only provide variety but are also crucial for development and can significantly reduce the reliance on screens.

The Bottom Line

As we raise our children in a world where digital devices are as common as nappies in their change tables, it’s essential to create a balance. While screens can open doors to educational content, they should not close the door on the physical, interactive play that is so critical in the early years of development. Child health far outweighs the importance of video chatting or time spent playing on screen media.  

As parents and caregivers, young children learn from us. We must be the compass that guides our little ones through a world peppered with screens, teaching them not just how to use technology, but how to do so mindfully. Let’s raise a generation that uses technology as a bridge to learning and discovery, rather than as a substitute for the rich experiences that come from engaging with the world and the people around them.

In essence, it’s about moderation, about ensuring that our babies and toddlers have a childhood that’s rich with diverse experiences—both digital and real. It’s about preparing them to thrive in a world where technology will inevitably be a part of their everyday lives, but not at the expense of their fundamental development. Let’s embrace technology, but not let it overshadow the joys, interacting and learning that come from the world beyond the screen.


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