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

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February 06, 2024
8 min read

One of the most common questions I get from parents is…
“Is it OK my kid has screen time?”

Closely followed by…
“How much screen time can my child have?”

Most people expect a Paediatrician to have a really militant view on this – but I’m also a dad and a realist! 

I’m not going to tell you to stop all screen exposure. That’s unrealistic in today’s age, and denies all the possible positive effects of screens. Plus, it’s just not necessary. 

In this blog we’ll walk through:

  • The global recommendations on screen time
  • The impact of screen time on sleep
  • The impact of your own screen time
  • Why turning off screens is so challenging for children and
  • Some general tips on managing screen time for your family

The Toddler Toolkit is an online parenting course written by myself and Paediatric Psychologist Amanada Abel.  The program has an entire chapter dedicated to managing screen time. 

Research shows us that two thirds of Australian parents are battling their children on a daily basis about turning off the screens – if screen time meltdowns are common in your house I highly recommend this course.

Global Screen Time Recommendations

The National Guidelines via the Australian Department of Health and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend that:

  1. Children younger than two years: should have no screen time, and 
  2. Those aged 2-5 should be limited to less than one hour per day

… in a brilliant twist of fate this is the average length of a Disney film or approx 6 Bluey episodes! 

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, in particular:

  1. Social interactions and 
  2. Physical activity

Excessive screen time can influence various aspects of a young child’s well-being, including:

  • sleep, 
  • attention, and 
  • learning abilities.

    This time is pivotal for a baby’s brain development and physical development. Their environment needs to be rich and full of:

  • speech, 
  • touch, and 
  • interaction

Screens offer none of these enriching experiences. 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.

No or minimal screen time under 2 isn’t too hard to manage – in my experience kids under 2 show very little interest in screens – if you’ve tried to keep an 18 month old still on a long haul flight you may sympathise! You may find if older siblings are watching something a toddler under 2 will just potter about doing something else …or simply annoy their siblings.

Don’t stress about exposure every now and again – an episode of Bluey or singing along to the Wiggles hear and there isn’t going to ruin them for life …quite the opposite – it can become a wonderful opportunity for you to engage, sing, dance and play with your toddler….which is the aim!

The negative impact of screen time on sleep:

Screen time, particularly before bedtime, can disrupt your baby or child’s sleep patterns.

Screens emit a blue light source that interferes with melatonin production and tells your child’s body that it isn’t ready for sleep. The blue light emitted and sounds can overstimulate them, interfering with the natural winding down process. 

SLEEP TIP: 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. 

If you’re looking to improve toddler sleep at your house I highly recommend the Toddler Bundle Deal

What if my toddler is having too much screen time?

Is your toddler having more than an hour of screen time a day …more than two hours?
Are you using screens to get any form of peace in the house?
Is sleep and winding down a significant challenge at your house?
Is your child’s screen time interfering with social and play opportunities?
Are you seeing an increase in highly challenging behavior?

A 2007 study from an International journal showed that toddlers watching more than 2 hours of TV a day were more likely to have social and behavioural challenges. 

While an infrequent increase in screen time above the recommendations won’t be a huge drama …if any of the above sounds like your family, it may be worth looking into why you need to rely on screens so heavily and what are the fundamental drivers of this are:

  • Do you need to build independent play skills so your toddler can keep themselves entertained when you’re busy? 
  • Do you need more support with childcare if you’re trying to work from home or care for a newborn for example (I get it, this requires budget that not everyone has the luxury of having)?
  • Do you need more structure around your morning, days, evenings that can help your toddler navigate their routines better?

 Whatever it is, our Toddler Toolkit course has all the tricks and tips to helping you navigate these items.

The quality of screen time is important

While the RACP & WHO suggests under an hour, the quality of this screen time is paramount.
This is all about: 

  • online safety,
  • choosing programs that are educational and interactive, and 
  • ideally, enjoying them together. 

As a parent you’ll quickly differentiate the difference between 

  1. A beautiful movie or TV show with character development, a beginning middle and end, combining positive messages or thought provoking ideas you can discuss with your toddler Vs
  2. TV designed to keep toddlers and children in a trance with bright flashy colours/sounds where it’s hard to tell one episode from another – I recommend avoiding all these.

Online learning programs can be incredibly beneficial for developing basic literacy and numeracy skills – screen time doesn’t always have to be a movie or a TV show.  Child computer interaction can be great when used appropriately with clear boundaries.

In the Toddler Toolkit we outline all the top tips for managing screen time but one of the biggest is avoid YOUTUBE scrolling or equivalent!

What about Facetime or Zoom?

While this is technically screen time it’s definitely not passive and for some families it’s the only way they can communicate when they live far away.  The benefits of the interactions with loved ones and the connection this creates will far outweigh any of the costs.   

PRO TIP: Create boundaries on who can hold the screen and invest in a screen holder …this will avoid whomever is on the other end looking at the roof or floor of your house for the entire call as your toddler runs around!

The impact of your own screen time

There’s a lot of emerging research indicating that parental phone use impacts development in our children.

While it’s still early days, there seems to be a link forming between ‘technoference’ (fancy word for how our parent-child interactions are interrupted by technology) and

  1. Gaze following and joint attention: This is about looking at each other and paying attention together. Toddlers need to look at your face, and you need to look back – this helps them learn to pay attention to the same things that you do which in turn is how they learn words and how to use them. If you’re looking at your phone too much, you will both miss out on these moments.
  2. Parental responsiveness: When your toddler tries to communicate with you verbally or nonverbally, it’s a huge deal for their learning if you respond back to them. By showing that you’re listening, you’re encouraging your toddler to keep trying to communicate with you. Phone interruptions make you less responsive, missing these learning opportunities which makes it harder for your toddler to learn to talk. 

For many working from home and technology has allowed parents more time at home with their kids – but it also means we have a heavier reliance on screens when we’re at home. The takeaway message here is to be conscious of your phone use – balance its usefulness with your child’s need for your interactions.

Here are some ideas to get you thinking about how you can put some boundaries around your phone use:

  • Turn off notifications
  • Set specific times for phone use, ideally not during key moments of the day with your toddler (mealtimes etc.)
  • Think about setting up phone-free zones in the house
  • Use a timer to remind you to put the phone down
  • Use an app to monitor your phone use

And here’s a bonus – Leading by example with your phone use now will make it a lot easier to enforce technology boundaries later with your children.

Turning screens off can be really REALLY hard for toddlers:

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 young kids. 

…and the tantrum or meltdown that followed!

So 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)

In the Toddler Toolkit we outline all the top tips for creative boundaries around screen time and transitioning from screen time to the next activity.

My 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

So what’s a Paediatrician’s verdict on screens:

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 child development. 

Let’s embrace technology, but not let it overshadow the joys, interacting and learning that come from the world beyond the screen. 

The Toddler Toolkit is the only parenting course developed by a Paediatrician and Paediatric Psychologist




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