The parent’s guide to screen time for babies and toddlers

When the topic of screen time for babies and toddlers is raised, it usually results in a heated discussion between parents.

It’s well-known that the current Australian and international recommendation is that children don’t have screens before two years of age (except for video-chatting because they’re interacting with another person).

Families who allow their little ones to watch TV or use devices argue that this advice doesn’t take real family life into consideration.

The hectic, overwhelming, isolating, tiring world of trying to juggle everyone’s needs each day on broken sleep. And not to mention, the families who have older children, making it almost impossible to shield younger ones from screen exposure.

Screen time replaces the lost village

In no other time in history have parents, mothers in particular, worked so hard inside the home and outside it simultaneously. And unlike their ancestors who usually had extended family or community to help raise their children, they’re doing it alone with minimal emotional and physical support (whether they have a partner or not).

So, putting the TV on for a baby or giving a toddler a tablet to play with now and then allows the adults a small window of time to get something else done, attend to another child, or to have a well-earned break during a long, exhausting day.

Parenting is beyond hard. Telling parents (who obviously only want the best for their children) of babies and toddlers that screen-use should be avoided makes them feel criticised, misunderstood, and shamed for their choices when in reality it can be the only tool they have to help keep their head above water.

The parent’s guide to screen use for babies and toddlers

So, rather than telling parents to avoid screen use before two years of age, we would rather provide you with the reasons for the significance of off-screen experiences and why not all screens are created equally.

There is no judgement here – we are parents, too! After you’ve read this, you can make an informed decision that works for your family, whilst gaining the tools to manage screen use that continues to promote your little one’s health and development (and keep you sane at the same time!).

What do we know about screen use and child development?

Neuroscientists don’t fully understand the impact of screen use on the brains of babies and toddlers. A child’s brain undergoes massive and crucial development in early life, with one million connections being formed every second between birth and three years of age. Early life matters.

What brain scientists do know after decades of research is the importance of real-world experiences, including:

  • Babies require human interaction to learn (and strong evidence suggests that screens aren’t an effective learning tool for babies and toddlers).
  • The ability to focus and concentrate starts to develop early on, and for that to happen, it needs stimuli from the outside world and time to process those stimuli.
  • Boredom is necessary to help children foster creativity and an imagination, to learn to control their impulses and cope with frustration.
  • Until babies develop language, all communication is non-verbal. They can only learn empathy through face-to-face interaction, as it requires the ability to learn social skills and read non-verbal cues.
  • Play, using all of their senses, is critical to physical, emotional, language, social, and cognitive development.
  • For healthy growth and development, the WHO recommends that babies need to be physically active several times a day, including tummy time, and unstructured outdoor play. They must also not be restrained in a seat, pram, or swing for more than an hour a day. For toddlers, the recommendation is at least three hours of physical activity a day, and not sitting for extended periods.

What is potentially the least harmful way to use screens for child development?

Using phones and tablets isn’t the same as watching television. TV is a passive medium, whereas smart devices are conditioned for users to crave it.

In other words, someone watching TV can’t physically do anything with it except consume it. Not that this is a good thing per se, but the impact is potentially less harmful when compared with a smart phone or tablet, which can become addictive.

When we use these devices, the brain is flooded with dopamine, the ‘feel good’ chemical (the same hormone that’s released when people do cocaine). This then drives and reinforces the habit. It tells our brain that it feels good, and we should do more of it.

We all want that next ‘high’, and as adults we struggle with managing our own screen use, so the risks are very real to a child’s developing brain.

It can leave little ones in a state of hyper-arousal, making it harder for them to focus, sleep, self-regulate, and eat. We won’t go further into the science behind the dopamine feedback loop, so you might like to do some more research into it.

What all of this comes down to really is using screens in moderation – like anything in life. Plus ensuring that children receive an abundance of rich real-world experiences every day.

How to manage screen use that protects your child’s health and development

  • Have clear, confident boundaries around screen time, and accept that your little one may have feelings about those boundaries (such as when you take it away).
  • Aim for short sessions and have time limits (use a timer).
  • Screen time shouldn’t be used as a reward or removed as a punishment.
  • Model healthy screen habits, such as not using it at the meal table or in bed.
  • Try to watch TV with your child sometimes to talk about the program, engaging other important parts of their brain.
  • Ensure the content is age-appropriate, including any ads.


Ask yourself these questions each day, and if you’re satisfied with your answers, then it’s likely you’re handling your child’s screen time well:

  • Has your child spent, or will they spend, at least an hour or two outdoors?
  • Has your baby had several opportunities for tummy time?
  • Have you spent some quality one-on-one time for connection and closeness?
  • Has your child had unstructured play time without being entertained?
  • Is screen time interfering with their sleep or mealtimes?
  • Have you read books with your child?
  • Has your baby spent less than an hour restrained in a seat/pram/bouncer?
  • Has your toddler had at least a few hours of physical play and minimal time sitting down?
  • Does your little one have regular opportunities to interact and socialise with other adults and children?
  • Do they have plenty of opportunities to be bored and play independently?
  • Have they had their sensory needs met?


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