What's the pediatric view on electronic toys for infants?
January 5, 2015 10:06 AM   Subscribe

For Christmas this year, my 7-month-old daughter received a few electronic toys that beep or bloop, light up, and move. A couple purport to have educational value, and they're all relatively annoying (to dad). What's the view of the pediatric establishment of these toys?

The least offensive is this Baby Einstein piano, which plays classical music, recites numbers in three languages, and is a simple musical instrument. Slightly more annoying is this Fisher Price train, which does, admittedly, recite different colors, shapes, and numbers in three stepped levels of complexity, but mostly just sings squawky songs. Most annoying so far is this elephant, which ostensibly will teach the baby to crawl by chasing after a toy that scoots around the floor while playing awful circus music.

Needless to say, my daughter, who previously had only plush and wooden toys, loves each of them.

We don't watch TV / play on the iPad with her in the room, and we expect to avoid any screen time for her as long as possible. I'm half inclined to leave the toys off and ask that she not be given any others, but I'd like to know what the pediatric establishment says (and have had little success googling it). If the APA says they're fine (or beneficial even!), I guess I won't fight the grandparents over these kinds of toys. But if they are disfavored, that would give us some leverage with the grandparents (who are reasonable people and will heed the APA, or similarly esteemed bodies).

Again, hoping to find a research-based verdict one way or the other, similar to the strong recommendations against screen time; I'm sure each parent has their own personal view. To the extent the recommendations vary by age, I'd be curious to hear that, as well.
posted by Admiral Haddock to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
According to my pediatrician (who worked in academic medicine), there was no established research that would indicate any harm circa 2012. I know you are looking for more than heresay, but hope that this is helpful to you in the absence of better evidence.

You're also close to the 9 month checkup and can ask then, although I suspect that the answer will be a shrug.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:22 AM on January 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

As you said you're daughter loves them.

Is she sitting up on her own yet? remember that she's been either laying down, strapped in a car seat or being held by someone the majority of the time since she was born, so you can imagine why these things are enjoyable to her.

They will at the minimum teach her the concept of cause and effect. "If I press this button, the thing will make a funny noise."
posted by eatcake at 10:41 AM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

Something we found helpful for electronic toys was to put a piece of clear tape over the speakers whenever possible. It cut down the volume by a large enough amount so that the kid could play with it without driving us completely crazy.
posted by mogget at 10:43 AM on January 5, 2015 [11 favorites]

Here is toy selection tips. This is an article on the importance of play.

I am not aware of any policy statements about electronic toys.

Retro Baby may be up your alley. (I have only looked at the preview, but know that it emphasizes activities with simple toys and was published by the AAP.)

Personally, I have found a balance of the two is the best. Our two year old still loves his musical school bus, but also gets a lot out of of playing with blocks. Not a Box is a book about creative play I'd recommend for 1+.
posted by typecloud at 10:45 AM on January 5, 2015

I'm a parent with an interest in this stuff, but definitely not a developmental psychologist or a pediatrician.

The primary criticisms of media exposure for infants are that 1) babies require in-person interactions for learning and 2) they are sufficiently distracted by the screens that their parent or caregiver may not interact with them enough to actually engage in real learning.

A 7-month-old is still developmentally pretty far from learning numbers as anything other than a memorized list of words, names of colors in the abstract, and the names of shapes. The baby will learn to crawl regardless of whether she has a rolling elephant (ours crawled for the first time in determined pursuit of the cat). And all of that stuff is better learned by ongoing face to face interaction with a caregiver anyway, so you're unlikely to realize a ton of benefit from the "educational" aspects of those toys. On the other hand, since those toys are concrete and played with manually with a certain amount of cause and effect, and because there's a certain amount of cognitive benefit to being exposed to novelty, they are probably not actively bad for her. My oldest child got a singing train like the one you linked from his day-care provider for his first birthday and my second kid got a little car that sings this Christmas. They loved them extravagantly, and we gritted our teeth and bought more blocks. Eldest lost interest in his train eventually and Youngest will too. In the meantime it's sort of fun watching him learn to push it around to make the car sing. I think as long as they have lots of parental or caregiver interaction and have other toys to play with, the singing plastic ones are unlikely to cause actual harm.

So you can probably safely tell the grandparents that the singing, colors, etc., are unlikely to provide any real educational benefit, and that they drive you, the parents, bananas. If they must buy something that makes noise, ask them for some percussion instruments or a glockenspiel, which will also drive you guys bananas but at least involve creative free play.

Also, removal of batteries for certain toys can have a wonderfully calming effect.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 10:46 AM on January 5, 2015 [7 favorites]

This policy statement from the AAP on media use summarizes a lot of the studies I'm sure you've heard about and states their recommendations. Specifically:

This updated policy statement provides further evidence that media— both foreground and background— have potentially negative effects and no known positive effects for children younger than 2 years. Thus, the AAP reaffirms its recommendation to discourage media use in this age group. This statement also discourages the use of background television intended for adults when a young child is in the room. Although infant/toddler programming might be entertaining, it should not be marketed as or presumed by parents to be educational.

For this purpose, "media" means "television programs, prerecorded videos, Web-based programming, and DVDs viewed on either traditional or new screen technologies."

With respect to toys, this AAP report states that "Pediatricians should emphasize the benefits of “true toys” such as blocks and dolls, with which children use their imagination fully, over passive toys that require limited imagination."

I'd personally stay away from these talking-bleep-blorping toys and gently request that my parents not purchase them (an Amazon wish list for baby is a good way to direct them to parent-approved toys/books). My opinion is partially based on the above-referenced studies and partially due to my own observations of the differing language development between friends' kids who watched TV (and had all the bells n whistles toys) before age 2 and those who didn't.
posted by melissasaurus at 11:01 AM on January 5, 2015 [7 favorites]

Anecdotally, three of those sound a bit overwhelming all at once. To you and also, maybe, to the baby. I suggest picking her current favorite and leaving that out while putting the others away. When she gets bored with the current favorite and when you need a break that only a new toy can bring, pull out a different one and put the first away. Educational value of nearly all toys seems somewhat nil to me. Blocks can teach spatial awareness, blah, blah, blah but only if the baby is interested in blocks. And, often only if the parent is interested in playing blocks as well. Enthusiasm from the parent goes so far in learning anything at that age and well into elementary school.

My friend has a kid who is 4 and plays the drums pretty good. They got him a drum set. Nature vs nurture -- is the kid good at drums because he has natural ability and the access to the drums? Maybe. Is the kid good at drums because his Dad plays drums and his Mom is also very musical? Overwhelmingly so, in my opinion. If the kid hated the drums what is the liklihood he would get good at them? Pretty low, I think.

I have put a wide variety of "educational" toys in front of my kid and some stuff she is just not interested in. I often put things away and then try them at another time. She was not interested in wooden blocks initially (even though I was -- "yay, let's build giant towers!"). I put them away then pulled them out at another time when she needed something "new." Now we regularly play with blocks and she gets encouragement from me because I like blocks, too.
posted by amanda at 11:37 AM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

In our house - this is so weird - noisy electronic toys never come with replaceable batteries!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:36 PM on January 5, 2015 [10 favorites]

+1 Eyebrows McGee. It turns out a lot of these toys are really low-quality, and they break in totally irreparable ways with astonishing reliability. Poor quality control at the loud, annoying toy factory or something like that.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 12:54 PM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't be surprised if some of these toys don't even teach cause and effect. We have a v tech walker which we call the baby slot machine because it goes off randomly and without reason. I'm sure this intermittent reward keeps babies staring at it but that doesn't mean it's good.

I keep such toys stored away until I really need my baby distracted. Small light up doodads are useful for pediatrician visits and preferable to letting kiddo play with disease covered communal toys.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:14 PM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

My mindset is that these "educational" toys are just being marketed as educational. "Small motor skills!" "Large motor skills!" Really, someone thought "Let's make an elephant that moves!" and then someone else said, "Quick, Marketing! Figure out how we can market this as 'educational'!" If you read more and more of the packaging of the toys, you really can see the buzzwords popping out every where.
posted by jillithd at 1:25 PM on January 5, 2015

Even "Baby Einstein" is owned by Disney. They just want to sell you stuff.
posted by jillithd at 1:26 PM on January 5, 2015

You've got your great electronic bleep-bloop "educational" toys, and then you've got kids with hardly anything but their imaginations, so they wrap a stick in a scrap of rag, and presto, a dolly.

I'm a big believer in the basics, non-fancy types of simple classic stuff: blocks, dolls, a wagon, a ball, a truck. Later on the love a doll house, a set of plastic animals, crayons, a trike or bike, dress up items (especially your stuff--hat, shoes, old dresses, shirts, etc.) And always there must be books.

A baby is happy with a piece of paper or a set of car keys, and it will occupy the total 10 minutes of their attention span (or however long the individual babe can focus.)

I spent two weeks visiting my youngest grandbaby, age 22 mos. She has a royal metric butt-ton of electronic toys (yes, one of which I gave her.) What did she want to play with the majority of the time? A cardboard box. Push it, get in and be pushed, put toys in, take toys out, turn it over and hide. When her interest flagged about a week in, I cut various sized "windows" and "doors" and what fun all over again. See which toys fit, and which didn't. Take turns sticking hands in or out and grabbing people/things.

Three things we used to do for HOURS back in the day, both girls and boys--jacks, marbles, and jump rope. Last fall, I bought a 15' jump rope for my 10 yo granddaughter and we had a great time taking turns on the weekend. When she took it to school, they told her take it back home; it was dangerous. W.T.F?

I really think the classics are the best. That said, the world they have to grow up in is absolutely chock-full of these damn noisy distractions. Get some. Get a bunch. Hopefully they can learn to ignore the chaos. As mentioned above, for your sanity put several layers of scotch or duct tape over the speakers. When it gets to be too much, take out the battery. They may or may not continue to play with it. If not, make it go away.
posted by BlueHorse at 5:28 PM on January 5, 2015

I'm chiming back in to say that with all due respect to all who are of the opinion that these toys are basically waste of money noise machines, as a parent of a child with developmental delays any toy or doodad that will get and keep your child's attention long enough to motivate them to put forth the effort to interact with the thing is considered an "educational" tool.

If that annoying piece of plastic will make my baby chase it and learn gross motor skills in the process then I'm getting her that annoying elephant.

I also find it interesting all the sentiment about how annoying the toys are to the adults. Let's keep in mind that they are not made for adults. What I've made sure to tell friends and family who want to give toys as gifts is that they have the capacity to be turned off. The child doesn't always need to be playing with it fully powered on.
posted by eatcake at 6:20 PM on January 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

My older children bought my younger children an electronic toy. I never could figure out how to put the batteries in because PacMan was annoying to me. I just sold that thing 30 years later for a butt load of money. Who knew that Atari would remain so popular?

Seriously, moderation in all will make the world work out. If my kids had a Kindle though, I would have been thrilled because there are still books in my cars under the seats and the kids have been gone for years.
posted by OhSusannah at 11:03 AM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

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