Can babies learn from “Ms. Rachel” and other baby TV shows?
Most notably, there was a popular DVD series in the 1990’s and early 2000’s referred to as Baby Einstein, which claimed to be educational and advance the development of infants and toddlers. Interestingly, the Baby Einstein series is oddly similar to Ms. Rachel’s YouTube channel. Just like Ms. Rachel, it was founded by a woman who was a mother and teacher and was hoping to boost her own child’s development. Both shows involve music, a slow pace, labeling of objects, sign language, and puppets. Both have claims of teaching infants and toddlers through their videos, with many endorsements and testimonials from parents on their websites seeming to back up these claims. Finally, just like Ms. Rachel, Baby Einstein was widely popular among parents at the time. The Kaiser Family Foundation even reported in 2003 that 32% of families with babies in the United States owned a Baby Einstein DVD.
In 2007, a research study was published that raised serious doubts about Baby Einstein and other baby media. This study reported that, for every hour of baby media such as Baby Einstein, that an infant from 8 to 16 months watches, the child knows six to eight fewer words. This effect was very significant with each hour of baby media being associated with a 17-point decrease on the language measure they used (for comparison reading to your child every day was associated with a seven-point increase). However, this study was only correlational and a more recent reanalysis of this data questioned the accuracy of these findings.
Several experimental studies also directly examined the impact of Baby Einstein and baby media. First, a study examined learning in 12- to 15-month-old infants after regularly watching Baby Einstein. This study focused on the Baby Einstein “Baby Wordsworth” DVD, which was designed to teach babies language by presenting objects and labeling them with a voice-over as well as showing the word in American Sign Language. This DVD also included live footage of parents and children interacting and short puppet skits. The 12- to 15-month-old children in this study watched the video 15 times over six weeks. The researchers found that the infants who watched the video did not show any language learning from watching the video (that is, no difference was found between the group that was randomly assigned to watch the video and the group that did not watch the video on any of the words presented in the video). A follow-up study combined this sample with a group of older children and examined whether 12- to 25-month-old children can learn from the Baby Wordsworth video. The older children also watched the video 15 times over six weeks. The researchers again found no evidence of learning from the video even for the older children. The researchers also found that the age at which a child first watched a Baby Einstein video was related to lower overall language scores (while the age at which they first watched a DVD more generally was unrelated to language development). However, these findings were correlational, meaning watching Baby Einstein videos was simply associated with lower language scores and we do not have evidence that watching these videos causes lower scores.
A study from a different research group compared learning from Baby Einstein videos to learning from live interactions with parents in 12-to 18-month-old children. The infants in this study watched Baby Einstein videos several times a week for 4 weeks. In this study, the researchers compared three conditions: 1) watching the video alone, 2) watching the video with a parent and 3) not watching the video and the parent being asked to teach the words from the video during normal interactions. They found that children who watched the video (even those who watched it with their parents) did not learn any words from the video (they found no significant differences between children who watched the video and children who did not). However, in the condition where parents were instructed to teach the words over the course of normal interactions, the children did learn the words. Interestingly, parents were not great reporters of their children’s learning. Some parents reported that their children learned a lot of words but in actuality their performance was no better after watching the video. Instead the parents’ belief about how much their children learned was related to their liking of the video — parents who liked the video were more likely to think their children learned a lot from it.
Interestingly, the Walt Disney company (which bought Baby Einstein in 2001) was asked by the Federal Trade Commission to remove the word “educational” from their marketing in 2006. Disney then issued a refund policy for all videos bought between 2004 and 2009 based on this research. To parents at the time, this seemed like an acknowledgement that the videos actually were not educational for babies.
TRANSLATION: Despite the Baby Einstein videos being designed to teach babies language, research consistently finds that children up to 25 months do not seem to learn language from these videos. Instead, babies only seem to learn language when taught by a parent in “real life.” Yet, parents who were fans of Baby Einstein still reported that their children learned language from these videos.
But Can Babies and Toddlers Learn from Any Type of TV Show?
You might be thinking at this point — but Baby Einstein is just one show. How do we know that babies can’t learn from any type of baby media? A long line of research has consistently found that infants and toddlers do not learn as well from video as from “real life” interactions. This phenomenon is referred to as the “video deficit” (Anderson & Pempek, 2005). The video deficit seems to last until about age 3, although it very gradually becomes less severe with age. A classic example of the video deficit is the inability of infants to learn foreign language from video. In one study, researchers exposed English-speaking 9-month-old infants to Mandarin Chinese through one of three methods: 1) a live speaker, 2) the same speaker on a video or 3) an audio recording. The infants show no evidence of learning from either the video or audio recording, but only from the live speaker.
The video deficit occurs for both language learning and other types of learning. For example, a two-year old child cannot find an object in a room after they watch an experimenter hide it on a live video yet they can easily find the object when they watch the experimenter hide it in “real life.”
In terms of language learning, research finds that children younger than 36 months show no evidence of learning new words from video alone. This occurs even when the speaker seems to be responsive to the child, such as saying their name and waiting for the child to pay attention before speaking and pausing if they become distracted.
TRANSLATION: A long line of research shows that babies and toddlers do not learn language from video, even when the speaker seems to be interacting with the child.
But Is Ms. Rachel Different?
Parents at this point who are fans of Ms. Rachel might be thinking “But Ms. Rachel is different than these other ‘baby shows’ — she talks directly to children and uses more interactive strategies to help them learn language.” And I think most experts would agree that Ms. Rachel uses a lot of techniques that we know help to enhance language learning during real-life interactions, such as Parentese (translation: the slightly annoying voice we naturally use to talk to babies), gestures (translation: pointing and using hand movements), pausing to allow responses and social referencing (translation: using eye movements and gestures to show what you are referring to).
However, we do not have sufficient evidence that these strategies work on video, and the research we do have suggests that these strategies may not be enough to help children to overcome the video deficit. For example, research suggests that the strategies Ms. Rachel uses, such as making eye contact with children, smiling at the audience and pausing before speaking, may make children more likely to respond to the video, but not effectively learn from the video.
There is some evidence that children learn more from screen time that is truly interactive and responsive, such as video chat or FaceTime. So, based on this research, parents may assume that young children will be easily “tricked” into thinking that an interactive video like Ms. Rachel is the same as FaceTime. However, young children are actually very sensitive to how responsive and interactive a video is, and even 3-month-old infants can tell when there is even a one-second delay in responding.
In addition, more recent research suggests that there may be a subtle video deficit even with video chat/FaceTime (see here for review). One study involving 30-month-olds found no evidence for word learning when a researcher used a very similar approach to Ms. Rachel (singing songs, asking questions and pausing for response). The video deficit was even present when the researcher was on video chat and thus being more responsive to the toddler than any TV show could be. The toddlers only learned when their parents modeled how to respond to the video. (This research also suggests that you should FaceTime or Zoom with your toddler to help them understand even this more interactive screen time).
Another reason that parents believe that Ms Rachel is a higher quality show is because of the slower pace of her show. Yet, the research is mixed as to whether the pace of a television show really matters. More recent research involving preschoolers (about 3 to 4 years old) finds no impact of fast-paced shows on children’s ability to concentrate or learn from the show or executive functioning.
TRANSLATION: We have no evidence that the techniques that Ms. Rachel uses are enough to overcome the video deficit and allow young children to learn from her videos.
Of course, it is possible that your child has learned new words from Ms. Rachel. Research is always imperfect and, even in the best case scenario, usually only tells us what we can expect for the average child. However, it is also very common for infants and toddlers to experience leaps or “growth spurts” in language development when they seem to learn a lot of words at once. These leaps or growth spots may just happen to coincide with watching a particular show and your child may be experiencing a growth spurt in language that is unrelated to screen time.
In addition, research suggests that, even if children seem to learn a word from a television show, they are also less likely to be able to generalize it to a different situation (see here and here), meaning they may not actually be able to use the word to communicate.
TRANSLATION: Your child’s language growth may be unrelated to screen time and, even if your child is repeating the words that they hear on TV shows, it doesn’t mean that they will be able to use that word to communicate in different situations.
We all live in the real world and occasionally may need to use baby media. So is there anything parents can do to enhance learning? What may matter more than anything for young children may be what parents are doing while their children watch a screen.
First, parents can talk to their child while they are watching (asking questions, labeling items and having back-and forth conversations about what they see). Research finds that infants pay more attention to the screen when parents ask questions and label what they see or have back-and-forth conversations about what they see on the screen.
Another strategy that can help children to overcome the video deficit is modeling responses to the person on the screen, as research suggests that when parents model how to respond to the video, 30-month-olds can learn words from the video. For example, if Ms. Rachel asks a question, respond to it yourself, or when she says “clap,” then model clapping.
However, it is important to remember that simply watching with your child may not be enough to overcome the video deficit. Rather, parents may need to engage in active teaching to help children to overcome it. Research finds that infants and toddlers may only learn words when the parents are actively focused on frequent teaching opportunities during viewing, such as labeling most items on the screen and highlighting the language their child doesn’t know yet.
Of course, this is not a perfect solution and infants will likely learn more from real life interactions. Also, as parents, we often use screens at times when we need our children to be occupied so we can do an important task or simply take a break. Therefore, actively teaching during screen time may not be possible.
TRANSLATION: Interacting with your child and the person on the screen may help your child to learn more from screen time.
Most parents occasionally use baby media and there is no reason to feel guilty about this occasional use. We have no evidence that occasional use of baby media has any negative impacts on your child’s brain development. The real problem with baby media is not this type of occasional use, but when it is marketed as a method for promoting development when we have evidence that babies and toddlers do not learn from video. For example, Ms. Rachel suggesting on the “Today” show that her shows may help a child with a language delay is a serious cause for concern, since parents may choose the easier route of turning on her show over the approaches that are actually effective for addressing a language delay, such as speech-language therapy.
If you need to keep your infant or toddler safe and occupied for a few minutes, such as while you care for another child or make dinner, Ms. Rachel and other baby media might be a good choice for you. I remember turning on “Little Baby Bum” for my children in the car when they were screaming their heads off and I was worried I would get into an accident trying to soothe them. However, it is important to keep in mind that Ms. Rachel or other baby media is unlikely to advance your child’s language or development in any way. In other words, there is nothing wrong with parents seeking occasional distraction or entertainment for their infants, but parents should not view television shows as ways to improve language or teach children new skills.
If you are concerned about your child’s language development, seek out your local early intervention services or speech-language pathologist. These providers should be able to provide an evaluation to determine whether your child’s speech is delayed and, if needed, evidence-based services to improve your child’s language.
Cara Goodwin, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, a mother of three and the founder of Parenting Translator, a nonprofit newsletter that turns scientific research into information that is accurate, relevant and useful for parents.
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