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Turn It Off Now

little kid watching TV

When the TV's on--even in the background--parents don't talk enough to their kids. /istock.com hide caption

itoggle caption /istock.com

Oh, gee. Who hasn't plunked an infant or toddler down in front of the tube every now and again? (Never mind those of you who don't own a TV. You have other vices, we know that you do.) Maybe you sit alongside and bond with little Hillary over an episode of LOST or the ball game, while folding clothes. Or, maybe you're extra virtuous (you're an NPR listener, after all), and you turn on some soothing nature DVD or kid video pabulum.

Here's the good news: A little of that multi-task parenting won't hurt the little tyke, and may even help her if it gives you a minute of downtime that spares your sanity, says Dimitri Christakis, a child development psychologist.

But don't do it too much, Christakis says, and be leery of ads suggesting that infant videos actually help baby's brain. When Christakis and colleagues at the University of Washington wired up parents and babies with sound recorders for a month so, they found that that when the TV's on—whatever the programming—adults talked 75 percent less to their babies. Even when the television was just on in the background.

Baby See, Baby Do

And, as if in lock-step, when the parents talked less, the babies talked (and babbled) less, too.

That's a distressing, Christakis says, "because we know that the more words babies hear, and the more words they say, the faster their language develops."

Watching your wedding or vacation video with Baby is no better.

"Babies learn from live humans much better than they do from videos of a live person," Christakis says. "We don't know exactly why that is."

Anybody have any hunches?

"Motherese" is Music to Baby's Ears

The study brought to mind a cool story Robert Krulwich and the folks at RadioLab produced a couple of years about Stanford psychologist Anne Fernald's cross-cultural study of "motherese," the gootchie-gootchie-goo parenting babble that's as old as time. Babytalk, Fernald says, is a kind of musical duet understood everywhere by infants and the adults who love them. Have a listen:

But enough with the science. Please, turn off the TV (and—gasp—radio) now, and weigh in. We'd love to hear how you and/or your kids have been helped or hindered by the nearly 7 hours a day the television is on in the average home.

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