There’s no doubt that being a parent is the toughest job you’ll ever have in life. Keeping a little one entertained 24/7 can wear on even the most creative moms and dads. So, it’s no surprise that many of us use the TV for an occasional break — like to take a shower or send a few work emails.

But while experts say a certain amount of screen time for toddlers and older kids is okay, putting a baby under the age of 18 months in front of the TV, or any other screen is not.

According to a survey quoted by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), by the time a child is 1 year old, 92.2 percent of them have already used a mobile device. And, some of those surveyed started using screens as young as 4 months old.

Studies on TV viewing and screen time generally involve older children, not infants. That said, we can look to research on toddlers, preschool, and school-age kids as a reference point to how screen time may impact babies.

Here’s why early TV viewing and screen time is a problem for babies:

It may impact a baby’s brain development

Research from a 2019 study looked at 47 healthy children, ages 3 to 5 years old, who viewed screens more than the AAP-recommended guideline of 1 hour a day.

The study found that these preschool-age children had “lower measures of microstructural organization and myelination of brain white matter tracts that support language and emergent literacy skills and corresponding cognitive assessments.”

The authors say that given the results of this study, they can speculate that before age 5 years — when brain networks are developing rapidly — caution with screen time is warranted.

It may cause speech and expressive language delays

Placing a baby in front of a screen is enough to delay language development, according to 2017 research. That’s in part because babies who listen to what is coming from a screen are passively receiving information rather than actively participating with a parent or caregiver.

Even if your home TV is on in the background, parents may tend to talk less to their infant, which negatively impacts language development.

It may impact sleep

The AAP says increased use of media exposure in early childhood is associated with fewer minutes of sleep per night.

Moreover, they point out that infants exposed to screen media in the evening have shorter sleep durations than infants with no evening screen exposure.

The consensus among experts is that limited screens and TV viewing are safer to introduce around the age of 18 months.

That said, the AAP guidelines state that parents who want to introduce their 18- to 24-month-old to screens should do so together, and with high-quality programming and apps. Children this age should not view screens alone.

They also stress the importance of not allowing young children under 18 months of age to view screens — other than supervised video chatting.

Often, parents put babies in front of the TV when they need some uninterrupted time to get something done. Usually, they don’t realize that even very young babies can learn to entertain themselves without adult supervision for short periods of time.

Around 4 months of age, it’s a good idea to let your child begin learning how to entertain themselves with toys, books, and other activities. Doing so will encourage their development!

Place a blanket on the floor or set up a play yard with some toys, blocks, or books and let them explore on their own for a bit. Or, try an activity chair. Make sure that there are no possible safety concerns or choking hazards in your designated play space, and that you can easily hear and see them.

If your baby doesn’t want to be left alone, baby wearing can be a great solution, and helps your child feel involved in what you are doing.

Activities to do with your baby

In need of some new activities to do with your baby? No problem. There are countless organizations that develop activity guidelines for infants, including the advocacy group Zero to Three. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Read books together, including board books, picture books, and texture/tactile stories.
  • Fill a lower cupboard with safe kitchen tools like a plastic bowl and spoon and encourage them to play while making dinner.
  • Play peekaboo with a mirror.
  • Go for a walk and point out different vehicles and call them by name. Ask your baby to point to them too.
  • Dance and sing while wearing your baby.
  • Explore outside textures like grass.
  • Start teaching sign language.
  • Play hide-and-go-seek with an object like a stuffed animal.
  • Touch and feel a set of different textured fabrics like a silk scarf, cotton handkerchief, and a piece of flannel.
  • Go outdoors and look for animals. Name the different creatures while pointing them out.

To encourage physical activity and a healthy lifestyle, the World Health Organization recommends that infants less than 1 year old should:

  • Be physically active several times a day. This includes interactive floor-based play and at least 30 minutes of tummy time.
  • Not be restrained more than 1 hour at a time. This includes in high chairs, strollers, or being worn in a carrier.

When your child is old enough for screens, the AAP recommends parents adhere to the safe viewing guidelines. These include:

  • Watch television together. Whenever possible, view screens with your child and talk about what you are watching.
  • Eliminate screens in bedrooms. Children should not sleep with any screen in their bedroom, whether TV, cellphone, iPad, or laptop.
  • Enforce daily screen time rules. For example, per AAP recommendations, parents use media with children between the ages of 18 to 24 months. Limit screen time to 1 hour or less per day for children ages 2 to 5.
  • Create screen-free zones in the home. Consider no TVs in the kitchen and playroom, for example.
  • Model responsible media use. Put electronics away and interact with the family after work and throughout your weekend as much as possible.
  • Choose educational content. Opt for programming that encourages interaction, creativity, and problem solving.
  • No eating while viewing the TV or other screens. Doing so just encourages mindless eating — and unnecessary extra calories. Enjoy family dinner conversation instead!

Television viewing in babies under 18 months of age should be avoided, other than video chatting. To help encourage brain, language, and social development, spend more time playing, reading, and being physically active with your baby.

Start letting your baby learn to entertain themselves early on — around 4 months of age — for short periods at a time.

As they get older, learn to balance screen time with “unplugged time,” allowing older children some time with television and other screens, but also encouraging more time engaged in play.