Growth spurt seen in TV fare for babies

Michelle Koidin Jaffee
San Antonio Express-News

A new channel, BabyFirstTV, is courting San Antonio cable companies and if the wooing is successful, parents will have one more option for infants whose video and television choices seem to be multiplying daily.

Besides the new 24-hour channel aimed specifically at babies, there's that Brainy Baby video you got as a baby shower gift. Baby Einstein DVDs sit on shelves at San Antonio libraries.

Now, BabyFirstTV, currently distributed on the Dish Network and DirecTV, wants to move in, according to co-founder Sharon Rechter, who said she hopes to have the channel available through local cable networks by the end of summer.

Time Warner spokeswoman Melissa Sorola confirmed discussions are ongoing; no date for a launching has been set.

Whether BabyFirstTV penetrates here, what is clear is that babies are being put in front of the tube more than ever, child-development experts say.

The average age at which children now start to watch TV is about 9 months, compared with 4 years in the 1960s, said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, an associate professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

"There are a lot of programs aggressively targeting young babies," said Christakis, adding there is no scientific evidence to support claims that TV programs for babies under age 2 are educational.

Particularly excessive early exposure, in fact, could be harmful, said Christakis, co-author of "The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids."

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV in the first two years.

Nevertheless, the 10-year-old Baby Einstein Co., which makes DVDs marketed for infants along with clothes, books and toys, has exploded into a now-Disney-owned business with sales of $200 million in 2005. This year, President Bush honored Baby Einstein Co. founder Julie Aigner-Clark during his State of the Union address.

Cindi Catlin, director of the University Presbyterian Children's Center in Monte Vista, isn't convinced.

"There are very well-meaning grandparents that will buy this for a grandchild," she said. "I've noticed more and more that technology is taking over care of our young ones. It worries me a lot."

Rechter pointed to a 2006 Kaiser Family Foundation study showing that an estimated 43 percent of babies under age 2 watch TV every day.

"The question should be, what are they watching?" she said, describing BabyFirstTV as a safer option.

Dr. Edward McCabe agrees. The chairman of pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine, McCabe is on the advisory board for BabyFirstTV, a role for which UCLA receives payment.

McCabe said that while he was skeptical when he first heard of the channel, he did a "180-degree turnaround" when he saw the content. Programs are slow-paced, commercial-free and include subtitles to encourage parents to interact with the baby and talk about what's on the screen.

While BabyFirstTV's Web site says the subtitles make "the experience as educational and engaging as reading a book," other child-development experts say there is no proof to support that claim.

"The research indicates there is no learning of any significance (from TV) that occurs under the age of about 30 months," said Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School.

While some Baby Einstein DVDs carry a sticker that says "Bonus Learning! Plays in Spanish, French and English," a company spokeswoman said its products are not developed to be "educational."

"Rather, Baby Einstein products are specifically designed to provide parents with interactive tools they can use with their little ones to help expose them to the world around them in playful and enriching ways stimulating a baby's natural curiosity," Michelle Jacob, senior manager of Disney public relations, said by e-mail after declining a phone interview.

San Antonio mom Christa Harper's boys, ages 4 and 18 months, watch about three hours of TV a day.

When older son Connor was about 8 months old, Harper, who works from home as a customer service agent for a credit card company, started using Baby Einstein videos.

"I would put him in his bouncy seat and turn it on," she said, "and he would just be enthralled."