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Toddler Tips

The TV Trap

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 20 No. 3, May-June 2003, p. 110

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.


Toward the end of my pregnancy and in the early weeks after my second child was born, my family got into the habit of leaving the television on much too often. At the time it was a convenient way to keep my active toddler occupied, but now I am having trouble cutting back! What have other families done when they've fallen into the trap of too much TV?


We also had times in our lives when we were in the habit of watching too much television due to illness, pregnancy, or other family situations. I also provided home child care for a friend whose child watched television all day (yes, all day) at his house and had to be weaned from that habit slowly at my house. The following are some suggestions that you may find helpful. Remember that not only are you trying to cut back on television, but that your toddler is also adjusting to life with a sibling and a mother who is not as available as she used to be. Adding a second child to a family is often a difficult transition for everyone. This may mean that it could take longer to accomplish your goal, but it is still worthwhile and can be done.

First, in our house, our children are either watching television or playing, not both. If your child is used to the television being on all day, then you may want to start by turning it off during a meal. Second, begin turning it off when you are able to interact with your child. It's probably not the best time to turn off the TV and then leave the room to get the baby or cook dinner. If your child has some favorite shows, you could tell him/her that it will be on soon but that you would like to read books or play first. If possible, get outside and away from the television. Get your toddler involved in an engaging project and don't turn the TV on until you are finished.

What worked with my friend's child is that each day he brought over his favorite two-hour video. I would play that video all day, over and over. Eventually, he grew tired of that. (This worked especially well in our situation because I wanted him to feel comfortable at my house all day, yet I didn't want to turn the TV on for my daughter and the other boy I was watching. They were used to playing and weren't interested in watching the same thing over and over again.) If this is still proving to be too stressful for your toddler, you may want to try putting some music on while the TV is turned off. It may help as a transition and it is generally easier to wean a person from the radio than from the TV. Whether it takes three weeks or three months, what really matters is that you work toward your goal while watching the needs of your child. Those of us who have made the decision to wean a child from the breast know that you can still accomplish your goal and have a happy child while weaning, it just may take a little longer than you originally planned.

Shelly Westrich
Maple Grove MN USA


When my first child was 17 months old, I found I had fallen into a pattern of relying upon the television to get household chores done. We got rid of our television for seven years and have recently brought one back into our lives. I find it requires more management and planning on my part, but we gain more enjoyment from it now more so than ever. Here's what works for us.

If your set is small enough to put away when you are not watching, find a good space-maybe even in the closet-for storage and bring the TV out when there's a show you plan to see, a sick day, or movie night. Then you can officially be "closet" TV watchers!

If your TV is too large to store, move it to a low traffic room of the house if possible, position it behind Japanese-style room dividers, or cover it during nonuse with a colorful fabric throw. I found that when the set was in our main family and living space, even when it was off, it seemed to distract our attention from other activities or games.

If it is part of your living room, surround your television with interesting containers full of toys and books. These distractions might intercept your toddler's attention and you can play with your child as an alternative to viewing.

Store your video or DVD collection separately from the television or in a closet or shelf where they will be out of sight. Instead of having lots of videos laying around, put a few out at a time, rotating them as your child's interest in them wanes.

Schedule TV shows you want to see with the whole family each week or month, and post the schedule on a family calendar or bulletin board space in the house. Making the TV calendar can become a weekly art activity. It also communicates that viewing has a beginning and end, which can make it easier to turn the TV off when the favorite show is over.

Investigate some books that offer fun games or activities geared to your toddler's development. Plan activities for the period right after a favorite show or video. Your child can begin to look forward to both the show and the together time, making a positive expectation associated with turning the TV off.

I found that when TV was on in the background, we developed poor habits of interrupting and tuning out each other's voices, and we weren't even gaining what we could from the programs we did want to see. We've now created a family movie night and made it a special event. We prepare by choosing a few movies or nature shows, setting up the set in the bedroom, baking treats, and popping popcorn. The children love to help with the work. We turn out the lights and wait for everyone to be seated and quiet before we begin, then aside from necessities, we don't interrupt ourselves. It's amazing how much more pleasure we all gain from the movies and my children enjoy discussing, telling stories, and drawing together afterwards.

Sick days are TV treat days for us, so these patterns are relaxed, as real life requires!

Dawn Lamping
Aspen CO USA


I have a two-year-old and a three-month-old. During the last couple months of my recent pregnancy, television really snuck into my daily routine as a way to keep my toddler busy. When I realized that my daughter knew the entire afternoon schedule of her favorite channel, I knew it was time for a change.

The first suggestion that I would make is to wear your baby in a sling or front carrier. Having my newborn snuggled and content in a sling has freed me to have more time (and hands) to play with my older daughter and keep her occupied in ways other than watching television.

Another strategy that has worked for us is to use videos rather than just turning on the television to a children's channel. Videos only last for a finite period of time and are self limiting. When the video is over, you can end the television viewing. Just leaving the television on can lead to hours of viewing without being conscious of what you and your child are doing with your day. We have also incorporated movie watching into our daily routine as a reward for good behavior and as a privilege that can be taken away. The prospect of no more movies has ended many a tantrum.

I feel that the limited use of television or movie watching is acceptable. It can help keep a child entertained long enough to get a quick shower. For example, we allow a 30-minute videotape while I get a shower in the morning, 15 minutes or so to help my daughter wind down for naptime, and maybe another 30 minutes of another video in the evening before bath and bedtime. When this time is balanced with plenty of other outings, games, and activities throughout the day, I think we're avoiding the couch potato trap.

Finally, don't be too hard on yourself-some days are harder than others. As long as you continue to limit your use of television and engage your older child in plenty of other activities each day, you'll do fine.

Charity Travis
Corydon IN USA


We have also been facing the challenge of turning off the television after too much exposure. The exhaustion of pregnancy, having a new baby, and an active toddler can make the television a welcome babysitter-but one that quickly overstays its "welcome."

I have found that the only way to really cut down on television effectively is to make it unavailable either by removing it or disabling it. For most toddlers, out of sight is eventually out of mind and you may find that moving the TV into a closet or into a closed cabinet is your best option. We've discovered many fun kinds of music for a toddler to dance to. I put on the music as soon as possible and that provides the "background noise" my two-year-old seems to need, either to dance to or even just to play with her toys while listening with half an ear. I've also had to be much more creative in providing activities-we use crayons, clay, play dress-up, and even fill cups with water and play in the sink.

Another useful hint might be to tell your toddler that, like junk food, television is a once-in-a-while treat. Eventually they do ask less and less and you may be able to reintroduce it on a limited basis without it turning into a habit again.

Nicole Brackman
Silver Spring MD USA


Kudos to you for trying to cut down on the TV time in your family's life. It can be challenging at first, but the rewards are worth it. Kind of like everything else about parenting!

Rather than having constant discussions about what could be watched and when, we have one simple rule: our daughter can watch one video a day after dinner. On most other issues, I tend to be flexible and willing to negotiate. On this particular issue, however, I have found it is easier on the family to have one simple rule that never changes-this way there is no arguing. My daughter is perfectly happy with this arrangement and looks forward to her video each day, and accepts that this is all the TV time that will be allowed.

You might like to adapt this rule so that TV time coincides with whatever time of day your new baby tends to need the most attention. You could also ask other mothers at an LLL meeting or LLL toddler meeting how they have handled reducing TV time while caring for two young children. Brainstorming with the Group is always a good way to find a solution. Best of luck!

Patti Benson
Northampton MA USA


As an alternative to TV, I have found good quality stories on tape to provide the relaxation time my child wants and the few minutes of down time I need in order to keep my sanity during a long day. In my opinion, these stories are a much more enriching experience than TV because they allow him to visualize the tale and don't over-stimulate him with color and movement as most TV shows do.

We also work hard to include him in the daily household tasks so that he doesn't feel ignored and in need of other entertainment. For example, at dinner preparation time, he loves ripping lettuce, mashing potatoes, washing food and dishes, or even just sitting up on the counter or in a chair in the kitchen while I cook. I also keep a few homemade craft kits on hand so that he can have an instant activity to work on at the dinner table for times when I need a few quiet moments to cook in peace.

Jennifer Harnish
Newton MA USA


Last year I came to realize my three-year-old son was watching an average of six hours per day of television. His viewing was limited to educational shows, so he was nearly TV-free on weekends. On weekdays, however, he was spending 30 hours a week sitting and staring at a box of flickering light. I knew my son needed more play, fresh air, and imaginative activities. He also needed to feel part of the work going on in the home, rather than being exiled to the TV room. But how was I going to get any work done if someone, or something, didn't keep him occupied? I came to rationalize the TV as a "people replacer" that was only "natural" in a modern household where I was the only available caregiver and playmate. But my heart didn't buy the rationale, and I kept my eyes open for TV alternatives. The book, Who's Bringing Them Up? How to Break the TV Habit by Martin Large, activated my motivation to change things.

I set up a table in the living room with crayons and paper, and kept it neat and inviting. I put a children's harp, some gentle chimes, and an egg shaker in easy reach as well. My son started gravitating toward these areas not because I was encouraging him to use them, but simply because they were just sitting there ready to go.

I began to pay more attention to my tasks, and ask "Is there anything about this activity that my child could do with me?" I ordered a child-size broom and mop so he could help with household tasks. More outside toys, garden tools, and a sandbox extended his outside play. I bought a songbook with great children's songs. I can sit on the couch for an hour singing a handful of beautiful yet simple songs over and over as my son creatively acts them out before my eyes. All I have to do is sit, sing, smile, and laugh. I can engage my child in play, spend some time improving my singing, have fun, and get some sit-down time to rest!

I have to admit, I still use the TV when I absolutely need 30 minutes (or more) to myself, but I can now break up my son's viewing with 30 minutes here, or an hour there. One year later, the TV room is now called the reading room. My son's viewing has, so far, been cut down by half. He now often turns the TV off himself when he thinks of something else to do! With my mind open to alternatives, some searching, some motivation, and some patient efforts, I've managed to find a few detours around the TV trap. I wish you luck in your efforts.

Charmane Walker
Norman OK USA

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