It’s probably not surprising that a new study supports the idea that fussy infants and toddlers watch more television. What parent hasn’t been tempted to turn on the tube when they’ve exhausted all other forms of unplugged entertainment and/or nothing makes their child stop fussing other than an episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse? What is more interesting was that the researchers actually acknowledged the “chicken or the egg” aspect of this issue: are these kids fussy because they are watching too much television or are they watching higher than average amounts of television because parents are at their wit’s end for finding ways to help them chill out? Researchers also acknowledged how little this likely multi-directional topic has been studied, despite the fact that media usage in children has been extensively covered (and generally discouraged).

Published in Pediatrics, the study looked at the media habits of more than 7,000 children in infancy and early childhood and found that those who had “self-regulation problems” (as identified by a parent) such as difficulty self-soothing or falling asleep, consumed more media. While the amount of extra media watched doesn’t seem that extreme (about 9 extra minutes a day), researchers caution that using TV as a soothing mechanism can set up bad habits and take kids away from the physical activity, socialization, and active exploration that little brains crave and need to develop.

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As a parent of two children, one of whom was extremely fussy as an infant (fussy, whiny, terrible sleeper, desiring constant motion and attention, etc.), I can certainly relate to the desire to plop my little one in front of the television. I didn’t expose my son (now almost 6) to media until he was over a year old, but watching TV has since become a small but beloved part of his daily routine. For some kids, chilling out is natural. My daughter is the type of kid who, as a young toddler, could find joy in ripping up pieces of paper for hours — and who knows to seek solace in her favorite pink blankie or to ask Mommy or Daddy to read to her when she needs a break. My son is intrinsically much more intense and needs a little help in the relaxation department. TV doesn’t turn him into a zombie (we don’t allow him to watch it for long enough to have that effect), but personally I don’t have a problem with a short mid-afternoon or early evening media “pause” after a full day at the playground/on the beach/at the zoo/at school.

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What is clear in previous research is that too much TV early on can set up lingering bad media habits and is associated with language and development delays and issues in school, so limiting television and media and choosing educational, age-appropriate programs is essential. Kids learn best from interacting with parents, caregivers, and environment.

Here are a few of our tried and true suggestions for fussy infants and toddlers instead of turning on the tube:

*Taking a walk or a stroller ride to do errands or window-shop. Fresh air does everyone good and nature often has a calming effect on even the fussiest child. If you live near some green space, pack a blanket and enjoy exploring the great outdoors.
*Water play. As long as you can keep an eye on your little one, set him up with a small, shallow container of water and a big towel and let him splash away. For some parents, taking a bath with baby helps keep them calm (and clean!)
*Texture games. Put lots of different textures within reach (a nubby sweater, a silky pillowcase, a newspaper, even strands of cooked spaghetti). Encourage him or her to feel them and explore the differences. Most toddlers love pouring things, like grains or cereal.
*Wearing your baby. Even if it seems like he or she wants to be held ALL the time, you will at least get a few things done if you are hands-free and your tot will likely love hanging out so close.
*Reading. My son’s favorite. I can still remember almost every single word to all the books in the Sandra Boynton library of board books because I read them about a million times.
*Make your tot a part of the action. If you’re cooking, set her up with an empty bowl and spoon (or add a little flour to the bottom). If you’re planting a garden, give her a container with a little dirt and a plastic shovel.

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