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Mobile Phone Apps for Babies?

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Dr. Laura,
What do you think of mobile apps for newborns? This company says its mobile phone app is designed to soothe newborns and stimulate early brain development in newborns using high contrast shapes and sounds. Are these claims research based? Is screen time, even on interactive mode, safe and/or advisable for newborns?


Looking at this company PR, I can see that it is designed to appeal to every parent's desire to make life with an infant a bit easier. They seem to be promising both that the phone app will soothe the baby and that it will teach the baby. But I can't see how both things could be true at once. The most important need for any organism is safety, and learning systems shut down when the organism is distressed. So a crying baby is likely to find high contrast shapes and sounds annoying, and cry harder.

If a baby DID stop crying in response to a novel sound or sight, it would be because he was startled by it, and worried that maybe he had better pay attention in case it is dangerous. In other words, if it really stops the baby from crying, it is not because the baby has been calmed, and it will only happen once, while the stimulus is novel to the baby. So we can't expect this to calm and soothe the baby, as is claimed by the company website.

SO let's drop the soothing idea, and just consider whether this phone app is a good idea to stimulate brain development. Newborns are primed to survive, which means they're primed to attach. All learning initially comes through that attachment. So what increases IQ is engaging with parents. Even as a newborn, the baby is actually building vocabulary and other components of IQ in every interaction with the parents. If you want to stimulate your baby's brain development, the best way is to engage with her.

All of the brain benefits that the company claims are available without spending a penny, by engaging with a baby. And the baby gets so much more out of it, that she is biologically designed to get -- she is learning about emotion, and forming a secure attachment. The baby's attachment, and the warm emotional interaction we have with the baby, not only determines emotional intelligence. It has a huge impact on intellectual intelligence.

Babies are designed to learn in certain ways, and screens are not one of them. Every expert out there recommends no screen time for babies under the age of 2. There's a reason for that. We don't actually know the effect of screens on babies yet, and the data we do have does not look encouraging.

Are the company's claims research -based? The claims are:

1. "Simultaneously soothe newborns and young babies while stimulating their brains." As I mentioned above, soothing and stimulating don't happen simultaneously.

2. "More than forty years of scientific research on what infants perceive at successive stages of development has revealed that babies who are given appropriate stimulation show sustained developmental advantages over babies in less stimulative environments."

That is true. However, the less stimulating environments included the blank wall when the child was left to lie in a crib. Appropriate stimulation is provided by daily life, when the child is carried around by the parents and engages in life, and it is not just visual or auditory stimulation, it is engagement.

3. "Researchers discovered that newborns prefer to look at high-contrast graphics,"

Yes, babies do like high contrast graphics and find them interesting enough to look at longer. BUT what they find most interesting of all is a live face!

4. "such images can help produce breathtaking results:

> Increase infant concentration skills and attention span

> Focus and develop eyesight, hand-to-eye coordination, visual tracking, and object permanence

> Stimulate creation of synapses (brain cell connections) by speeding up myelination (insulation of nerve pathways)

> Calm and soothe

> Enhance natural curiosity, neck strength and head control."

I've already addressed the unlikelihood of this app calming and soothing a newborn. The other claims are all the natural achievements of babies who live ordinary lives with parents who interact with them. Babies do not need help with these things. There is study that says that if a baby does more visual tracking it will increase his success in life. What's more, TV research shows us that screens DECREASE attention span, so I doubt this app increases it. In fact, babies need to manipulate objects in the real world for many of the skills listed. And ALL learning, including being soothed by a parent, stimulates creation of synapses, so that is a ridiculous claim to include.

This is advertising copy, designed to take advantage of every parent's natural desire to give her baby a good start in life, and it is no more trustworthy than most advertising copy. Bottom line, this is a new app so they have not tracked these babies over time. There is no way they can claim all these results.

I know parents are busy. But parents who want the best for their child need to know that there is nothing their baby needs except them. Technology is a poor substitute for human love.

There is a great book by John Medina, called Brain Rules for Babies, that reviews the research on all this. I would trust the research done independently, which he sites. I would never trust research offered by a company trying to sell something.

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