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Study: 'Smart Baby' DVDs Don't Measure Up

The so-called ''smart baby'' DVDs and videos are popular among parents trying to give their children an intellectual head start, but a new study of one such DVD suggests it didn't deliver.

Nov. 5, 2010 -- The so-called ''smart baby'' DVDs and videos are popular among parents trying to give their children an intellectual head start, but a new study of one such DVD suggests it didn't deliver.

Children ages 12 to 18 months  who watched a ''smart baby'' video meant to teach them 25 everyday words did not learn any more new words than did children with no exposure to the video, found researcher Judy DeLoache, PhD, the William R. Kenan Jr. Chair of Psychology at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

"Young babies, 12 to 18 months, don't seem to learn very much from even a substantial amount of exposure to a baby DVD that is made expressly for this age group,"  DeLoache tells WebMD.

Children in a group taught the same words by parents without a video actually learned the most, DeLoache found. She declined to say which DVD she evaluated.

The study is published in Psychological Science.

Smart Baby DVDs: Study Details

Previous studies have found the DVDs lacking, DeLoache says. Other researchers evaluating the smart baby videos ''were pretty skeptical in general," DeLoache says. "I don't think anyone in the field will be surprised by our data."

With her colleagues, DeLoache assigned 72 infants, ages 12 to 18 months, to one of four groups:

  • A video with interaction group, in which the child and a parent watched the DVD together at least five times a week over a four-week period.
  • A video without interaction group, in which the children watched the video alone for the same exposure period as the kids who watched with their parent.
  • A parent-teaching group, in which the parents were given a list of the 25 words featured on the video (common words of everyday objects) and told to try to teach their child as many words as possible in ''whatever way seems natural to you."
  • A comparison group in which the children had no intervention.

Researchers visited the homes of the first three groups three times, giving instructions and checking to see if the protocol was followed. Children were tested after the four weeks to see how many target words they knew.

The parent teaching group did the best, with those children getting nearly  50% of the target words correct, the researchers found.  Bottom line: "Children who had extensive exposure to a popular infant video over a full month, either with a parent or alone, did not learn any more new words than did children with no exposure to the video at all," DeLoache writes in her report.

Smart Baby Videos: Perspective

The new findings don't surprise Frederick J. Zimmerman, PhD, the Fred W. and Pamela K. Wasserman Professor and Department Chair of Health Services, University of California Los Angeles School of Public Health.

"This is a strong and well-designed study that should put the nail in the coffin of claims that baby videos are educational," he says.

 In 2007, Zimmerman studied the effects of viewing television and the ''smart baby'' videos on the language development of children under age 2. He found the baby videos, but not the TV, seem to slow their language development, advising parents to keep viewing to a minimum.

Zimmerman does point out a drawback of the study: They tested learning only of a small set of targeted words. ''Although they found no difference in the acquisition of these target words between parents who had been given videos focusing on these target words and parents who had been given no instruction about the target words at all, it is possible that the time spent on the video would take away learning time from non-targeted words, and that child performance on these other words might have been poorer in the video condition than in the control condition."

That hasn't been tested, however, he says.

But the study does make it clear that no learning takes place with the videos, he says.

Baby Videos: Industry Response

Calls were placed to two companies making the baby videos requesting comment. A spokesperson for Baby Genius said they would have no comment. In a statement, Susan McLain of  the Baby Einstein Company says the new research, in addition to other research they cite, "conclude that infants do learn from DVDs, especially when accompanied by an adult, which is the suggested use of Baby Einstein DVDs."

Smart Baby Videos: To Buy or Not to Buy?

DeLoache says she isn't suggesting parents who like the smart baby videos give them up.  Children will be entertained by them, she says, but adds:  "Don't expect them to learn a lot."

The potential hazard, she says, occurs if watching the videos too much takes the place of interaction with parents and others, which provide learning opportunities.

She points to her finding that parents who simply taught their children the words did well. "The thing that concerns me is people thinking they have to educate their baby in every way possible.  The natural way of doing that has worked very well for a long time and still does," she says.

"The crucial thing is to talk to them."

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