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Can you build a brainier baby?

Experts doubt that books, videos, DVDs, CDs, toys and exercise devices can turn your newborn into a mini-Mensa member.
Can you make your baby brainier?
/ Source: contributor

Since July and August are traditionally the most popular birth months, there are many people out there who are just now discovering a little bundle of joy is headed their way. If you're one of them, after you exhaust the pregnancy books and Web sites, you'll inevitably stumble across the books, videos, DVDs, CDs, toys and exercise devices that promise they can turn your newborn into a mini Mensa member. Undoubtedly, many tots will be getting these gifts from Santa this year.

Some products claim they teach babies to read in several languages, play the violin and do advanced math or computer programming before they're even out of diapers. Others make more vague (and, thus, slightly more reasonable) claims such as “creates engaging learning opportunities” or “specially designed for your baby’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical development.”

The market for infant “developmental” videos and DVDs alone was more than $100 million in the United States in 2004. Nobody knows just how many books, CDs, television shows, toys or activity classes are sold based on the premise that smart kids are made by exposing babies to the proper brain and body stimulation from the minute they open their eyes.

The premise behind this “smarter baby” craze isn’t a bad one, says Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources for Zero to Three, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the healthy development of babies and young children.

“The attention to brain development lately has really elevated people’s awareness and understanding of how important the early years are socially, emotionally and intellectually,” says Lerner. “That’s a good thing. But, unfortunately, there’s also been a downside. Now it’s causing many parents a tremendous amount of anxiety and pressure.”

Bad parents?
Savvy marketers, says Lerner, have convinced parents that if they don’t use certain products and programs, they’re being negligent. It’s not only not true, but some of the products could actually be counterproductive, experts say.

“As far as infant videos, DVDs and computer programs, for example, a lot of developmental or educational claims are made implicitly or explicitly in terms of testimonials but most of the claims are outlandish and completely false,” says Dimitri A. Christakis, director of the Child Health Institute at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time, in fact, in the first two years of life.

Studies have found that even programming such as "Sesame Street" that may be beneficial to older children could be ill advised for babies, says Christakis. “Heavy television and computer usage for children under 2 has been associated with attention problems, as well as cognitive and linguistic delays — no matter what the packaging claims,” he says.

There’s no reason to think toys, classes or exercise programs are harmful, but Lerner warns there’s little evidence either that they’re extremely helpful or worth an enormous amount of time, stress or money.

In response, a spokesperson for Baby Einstein, which makes toys and videos, pointed to a statement on the company's Web site that says: "Baby Einstein products are not designed to make babies smarter. Rather, Baby Einstein products are specifically designed to engage babies and provide parents with tools to help expose their little ones to the world around them in playful and enriching ways, stimulating a baby's natural curiosity."

And in a written statement sent to, the company disputed the notion that TV is harmful for young children: "The Baby Einstein Company believes that when used appropriately, television can be a useful learning tool that parents and little ones can enjoy together."

But Lerner contends that what's simplest and cheapest is often best for a baby’s development. “Babies don’t need expensive toys or intricate programs," she says. "They certainly don’t need videos or computers. What they really need is interaction in a loving relationship with people they’re close to.”  

Exposing a baby to a lot of different stimulus in the first year of life is, indeed, healthy, says Janet Doman, co-author of "How Smart is Your Baby? Develop and Nurture Your Newborn’s Full Potential."

Doman explains that far too many generations of past treated the first year of life like a benign illness. “A ‘good infant’ traditionally was one who slept a lot, kept quite and wasn’t disruptive or inconvenient,” she says.

Now we know more about the brain. We know it’s changing and growing more rapidly during the first year than at any other time. We want babies to move, make noise and interact with their environments.

There’s no guarantee you’ll have an Einstein on your hands, but here are some simple and cheap strategies to help give your baby the best start:

  • Let your baby move and explore. The car carrier, high chair, bouncy seat, swing and stroller should not be in heavy and constant rotation. It’s best for development if babies are able to move freely and eventually explore. When possible, sit with your baby on the floor in a safe area rather than put her in a device. “What we’ve found is that what’s best for the baby developmentally, unfortunately, has little to do with parent convenience,” says Doman, who is also director of The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization that works with brain-injured and well children.
  • Talk right from the start. You’ll drive non-parents crazy talking to your 3-month-old in the supermarket but, hey, at least you’re not talking politics. “If you’re taking a walk, talk about houses and what color they are, talk about the different animals or point out rocks and leaves,” says Lerner. Conversation lets babies know early on that you want to communicate with them, plus it builds a future vocabulary and helps children learn the way the world works.
  • Minimize screen time. “Computers are not as passive as television but infant computer games still have no proven developmental benefits,” says Christakis. “They’re just another electronic toy.” Research published in the journal American Behavioral Scientist found that watching a screen is far less developmentally beneficial than watching real life. So let your babe see and feel a real apple or tree whenever possible.

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.