It's a Mann's World: The digital babysitter
For a year I resisted it. I pretended it didn’t exist. I promised my mother I wouldn’t succumb. But here I am—watching children’s TV with my one-year-old.
The current advice from the American Academy of Paediatrics is that no child under 18 months should be exposed to any screen time—and, when my son Harvey was born last year, that’s the advice I intended to observe. I don’t especially value the wisdom of Yankee child-experts over their European counterparts, but that US advice was quoted in dozens of terrifying news articles that emerged during our pregnancy, and so burned its way into my subconscious.
Their primary concern is that whilst a baby’s neural pathways are being formed, he or she can’t contextualise bright colours and sounds, and so the merest glimpse of the gogglebox may overstimulate them to oblivion.
The other reason for the advice is to encourage eye contact between parents and baby during crucial bonding moments such as breastfeeding.
So for the first six months, whenever I was in charge of giving Harvey a bottle, I’d suppress the temptation to watch Good Morning Britain, and would instead flick on the radio—in so doing, I’d keep looking at him and not the telly, yet still receive entertainment in audio form.
This sufficed for a couple of months, but then Harvey stopped looking back at me, and became more interested in other sitting-room activities, such as eating wood chips from the fire grate, banging fists on the windowpane, or slapping the cat in the face with Lego. Before I knew it, I found myself whipping my smartphone from my pocket to check in with social media—which of course was more isolating than occasionally glancing up at the TV, as it’s something
Harvey couldn’t share in at all. So to keep Facebook at bay, I began turning on Good Morning Britain, after all—and Harvey didn’t seem to notice. (To him, hitting the cat remained more interesting. Susannah Reid is an adult taste.)
From 9am, though, the TV remained firmly off, and Harvey’s days were filled with Stickle Bricks, songs and soft play. But then 6pm would come along. 6pm was a nightmare: a tad too early to initiate the pre-bedtime bath-story-milk ritual; a tad too late to expend more energy on playtime. 6pm brought daily tantrums, despite the fact my son is, typically, a delightful chap (in my view. Obviously the cat has a different perspective). We tried strapping him into a fun bouncy seat—he rolled over and cried hysterically. We experimented with a trip to the adventure playground: he rubbed mud in his eyes and face-planted some concrete. We started referring to 6pm as “The Witching Hour”.
"Such is the hypnotic power of the nightly shows during Bedtime Hour that, even at the age of 36, I find myself relaxing."
I mentioned this to a mate of mine, also father to a one-year-old, who was astounded—genuinely, completely flabbergasted—that we hadn’t even attempted to cure
Harvey’s daily tantrums using the most obvious intervention: the digital babysitter.
“Ah, but no!” I proudly (smugly) explained. “The American Academy of Pediatrics says no screen time before 18 months.”
My friend was incredulous. “Have you seen kids’ TV in America?”, he said. “It’s full of bright neon and ads for theme parks and rock soundtracks and precocious children. No-one should have to endure that at any age! But try CBeebies. It’s totally different. It’ll chill him out. It’s the only thing that works.”
So that night, at 6pm, I put the Duplo down, and turned on the magic rectangle. Harvey was transfixed. As it turns out, The Witching Hour is “Bedtime Hour” on CBeebies—a strand of programmes specifically designed to send little ones off to sleep. There’s a particularly unsubtle song that airs at six sharp, in which all the participants enthusiastically don pyjamas, and then follows a slew of shows that revolve around resting, dreaming, sleeping and DO YOU GET THE IDEA NOW KIDS? GO TO BED AND GIVE YOUR PARENTS A BREAK. But these are enchanting programmes, evidently made by experts who understand the needs of their audience—even the section of that audience that’s under 18 months old.
Harvey now goes to bed with a smile on his face. Indeed, such is the hypnotic power of the repetition and familiarity of the nightly shows during Bedtime Hour that, even at the age of 36, I feel myself physically relaxing when the theme tune to the Clangerscomes on. The end sequence of In The Night Garden virtually has me in a state of narcolepsy. It’s true public service: in a few short months I’ve become as passionate about CBeebies as an ardent Archers fan is about Radio 4.
My friend was dead right about the American stuff, too—one evening we accidentally scrolled a few channels down to the Disney Channel and, after just a few seconds of watching three computer-generated princesses racing each other in go-karts, Harvey started jumping up and down and destroying the furniture as if he’d been injected with Red Bull.
CBeebies, though, is a triumph of which the nation should be proud, and, in moderation, now seems to me a legitimate, actively helpful parenting technique. Goodnight parents, everywhere.
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