If you watch any amount of children’s cable programming, you’ve seen the “Your Baby Can Read” infomercial about a thousand times. The products are touted as a surefire way to give your baby a head start in life. The video, books and instructions are structured for use in infancy and early toddler-hood so your baby can learn how to read before she learns to use the toilet. There are even home video-style examples of babies in their highchairs showing off their arms or pointing to their clothing in response to words on cards.
Like a lot of parents, you’ve probably thought, “That’s ridiculous,” and then you may have thought, “Should I order those?” You can’t help but fear you may be neglecting your child’s future Harvard education by blowing off the claims of better language skills and early literacy.
Your Baby Can Read and similar early-learning programs like Baby Einstein, Teach Your Baby Math, Brainy Baby, Sparkabilities, Baby Genius and others, all make wonderful claims about what they can do for your child. But do they work? And who’s really benefitting from the use of the programs? According to some experts, it might be the companies who create, market and sell, sell, sell those products to parents.
“I think it takes advantage of parents who really just want to do right by their kids and give them the best,” says Dr. Debora Wisneski, an assistant professor at UW-Milwaukee. “I think it does prey on that natural urge that parents have.”
Dr. Wisneski teaches early childhood education courses. She said Your Baby Can Read makes its argument for success based on research that hasn’t been published anywhere she could find. She also said the claims incorrectly make it seem like language and literacy are the same thing.
Dr. Wisneski isn’t the only one who feels that way. A survey of opinion writings by experts shows little support for the claims made by the Your Baby Can Read company. Other early-learning products face similar criticism.
In September 2009, the Baby Einstein company, owned by Disney, announced it would be refunding money to some of the millions of people who purchased Baby Einstein DVDs and videos. They called it an “enhanced customer satisfaction guarantee.” Later, it became apparent the offer was made in response to threats from lawyers who said Disney had misled consumers. Disney never claimed Baby Einstein products would teach a child to read but did suggest they would stimulate a child’s brain and learning potential in a positive way. Research has subsequently shown there is little benefit to be gained from the DVDs and videos, and in fact, there may be some drawbacks.
A variety of experiences
In 2007, University of Washington professors published a study that showed for every hour infants watch DVDs and videos, they actually learn six to eight fewer new words. Also, several different studies suggest that television (or videos and DVDs) at an early age can lead to shorter attention spans and that could actually be detrimental to learning in the long run. In response, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended for more than ten years that children under age 2 watch no television at all.
Dr. Wisneski says the most important learning tool a child has is her parent or caregiver. Talking to your child and sharing experiences is the best way for developing language.
“It’s really talking with them, not at them or to them, but in a way that you are expecting them to respond back to you,” Dr. Wisneski says. “Even if it’s with coos and giggles, they’re learning how to communicate.”
She says if you want a child to learn colors, music or numbers, then experience those things with your child. Play games, sing, clap hands or just be silly.
“The language experience and the cognitive experience become much richer through interaction than through a video,” Dr. Wisneski says.
That’s how Jam Stewart has tried to teach her own children. The Hartland mother of two says her family spends a lot of time outdoors and uses play to learn numbers, colors and more. Stewart’s son watched Baby Einstein videos as a toddler but she never intended for them to be the only kind of learning experience he was going to have.
“We were looking for something that would be an opportunity to relax and to reinforce what he was learning during the day,” Stewart says.
Her son was a busy toddler and Stewart used the videos as a way to teach him there is also a benefit to settling down for a few minutes every day. She believes they helped him formulate some words and ideas as he gained language skills.
She says some of the videos are making promises she’s really not interested in.
“I think there’s a time and place for everything but if my baby could read, I think I’d be a little freaked out,” Stewart says. “I think there’s a million things you can do with them but I don’t think you have to push them to do that before they’re ready for it.”
Stewart tried Baby Einstein videos with her second child but says her daughter wasn’t interested in them. She tested the Sparkabilities videos for metroparent’s parent review panel to see if those would capture her daughter’s attention, but they didn’t really work either.
Dr. Wisneski and Stewart are working mothers and both were quick to point out they don’t have hours and hours with their children each day. They’re not that interested in videos that divert a child’s attention when they could be interacting together.
“Children learn through all the senses, not just auditory,” Dr. Wisneski says. “That’s why when you give an infant a book, she immediately starts to chew on it. Any of the computer or screen time programs are a little suspect.”
Some of the video learning programs can have a positive benefit. Stewart says she and her husband don’t speak a language other than English so they have watched the Baby Einstein videos in German, which was fun. She also tried the sign language videos and thought her son learned from those as well.
As with any other early-learning television-based program, like “Sesame Street” or “Dora the Explorer,” if you watch with your children, they’ll get a lot more out of it than if you plunk them down and leave. That becomes one of those shared experiences Dr. Wisneski mentioned. The key with the baby learning videos may be like that for a lot of products that make big promises: temper your expectations and use them with care