Wednesday 21 March 2018

Ask the expert: Is it okay to let my toddler use my iPad for nursery rhymes?

Experts recommend that parents do not allow children under the age of two to have any screen time
Experts recommend that parents do not allow children under the age of two to have any screen time
David Coleman

David Coleman

Parenting expert and clinical psychologist David Coleman on why a toddler should not use a tablet and on how there is no correct age for a child to start school.

Q. I have a 21-month-old and give her my iPad to watch, and listen to, nursery rhymes. She loves it. Then I read your article about Snapchat the other week and was horrified to think that I might be setting up bad habits in her. I limit the tablet to nursery rhymes and I feel she learns so much from it. I also sing them to her, but she really loves listening to them on the iPad. She doesn't seem to like TV at all, so I felt this was a good thing. Please can you clarify that if I keep it just to nursery rhymes on the iPad that it'll be okay for her?

David replies: Even if you limit your daughter's tablet use to watching and listening to nursery rhymes, it is still bad for her. You need to get rid of the tablet and any other screens while she is around.

As far back as 1999, the American Academy of Paediatrics recommended that parents don't let their children have any screen time, under age two, and that after this age, screen time should be limited.

That was 17 years ago. You may argue that technology and the potential benefits of technology have moved on considerably since then. But, the most recent article I came across, from 2015, from the National Center for Health Research, again highlighted all the dangers of screens for small children. The article can be found at

I do urge you to read it. It is a concise gathering of recent literature on the area of young children and screen time. I'll give you some headline stats from it.

For example, the more TV a child under three watches, the more likely he is to have trouble with reading and paying attention later on. The more television a baby eight to 16 months old watches, the fewer words she knows.

Even having screens on in the background makes a difference. Children play less intently and for shorter periods of time if a TV is on in the room with them. Parents are distracted and less attuned to their children's needs, affecting the quality of their interactions when there is a TV on in the room.

Research shows that the more television infants and toddlers are exposed to, the more likely they are to be inactive and obese, have difficulty sleeping, and show aggression.

I am especially disheartened when I hear about activities we can do, very effectively, with our children (like sing nursery rhymes to them) that are being substituted by screens.

John Bowlby, one of the pioneering researchers in the field of attachment theory, made the observation that humans are not machines and it is the intricacy and intimacy of our human relationships that provide the richest context for connection, attachment and healthy development.

From birth until about age three, children are developing and solidifying their attachments. A continuing developmental task, for your daughter, is to negotiate and integrate her relationship with you. She needs to know that you are present, reliable and able to meet her needs. She needs time to play, alone and with you, interacting and exploring her world.

She'll learn far more from being with you, singing with you, rocking in your arms, or on your lap, than she ever will from sitting on the sofa with a tablet in her own lap.

Please don't let your daughter miss out on the critical opportunity to establish and stabilise her relationship with you, by substituting a screen for your own presence and your own willingness to connect with, play with and relate to her. God knows, when she is older you will have little say about her access to screens. You will join the legions of parents who struggle to know how best to limit, regulate, moderate or facilitate their children's access to media.

But for now, you have this wonderful window, and the capacity to let your daughter have you, rather than have a tablet. She isn't even two and so you can easily ensure that she has no access to screens but lots of access to play and to human relationships.

My daughter will be four-and-a-half in September. Should I send her to school this year or wait?

Q. September is looming like a dark cloud. My first-born is due to begin school in a few weeks, but she will only be four years and seven months old. I am in a dilemma as to whether to send her or keep her out for another year. Would I be damaging her by sending her too young, when things like reading and homework are expected in junior infants? Do I leave it for another year and risk damaging her socially, as some friends will be a year ahead of her in school? What if she is too advanced or bored if I leave her for another year?

David replies: The fact that you have your daughter enrolled to start school, but feel like that enrolment "looms like a dark cloud" suggests that, in your heart, you feel this September is too soon for your daughter to begin school.

Your dilemma, however, I could imagine is shared by many parents around the country. In truth, there is no "correct" age at which a child should start school.

However, the primary factors to consider are your child's social, emotional and academic readiness (as best you can judge). It is your child's development in these areas that will give an indication of whether, or how well, she will cope in school.

I do hear your other concerns, about the academic pressure to learn to read and write and do homework, that she may face too soon. I also hear your concern about the potential to miss out, socially, if she waits till next year. But, if we return to a consideration of the "readiness" factors that I suggested, it may help you with your decision making.

So, socially, where do you think your daughter is at? It seems like she already has a social circle (presumably from preschool or the local neighbourhood). How easy does she find it to make friends? How comfortable does she seem to be in groups of her peers? How able is she to stand up for herself with her friends? Does she integrate easily with new children?

All of these questions help to identify if she has the social skills necessary to cope with the cut and thrust of primary school. Socially confident and outgoing children, typically, have little problem settling into the social pressure of school at her age. If she is a little more shy, hesitant or unsure socially, then waiting till she is older may be a good thing.

Don't forget, if she has the skills to make friends then she can make friends, no matter if current friends are with her or not. So, if she is socially capable, then it may not matter that she has no immediate circle of friends to start with, should she wait till next year.

Emotionally, the considerations are primarily about your child's ability to cope with her own strong feelings. So, does your child get anxious or stressed easily? How does she cope if others around her are stressed? Does she cope with direction, rules and limits, without major tantrums?

Naturally, no child, at age four or five, will be entirely emotionally robust, but having a little bit of emotional resilience makes the settling process easier.

Can your daughter sit, avoiding giddiness and distraction? Is she able to focus and concentrate for periods of time?

It may be hard to judge her academic readiness, in terms of the formal learning element, unless she has been in a preschool or Montessori.

If she has, then it is a good idea to get the opinion of her preschool teacher about her. In fact, her teacher may be able to give you a good, independent, opinion about your daughter's readiness across all of the areas above.

The other factor to consider is the dynamic, and age ranges, of the children going into the school this September. If it is possible, go and meet her potential teacher to see if it is going to be a big or small class, populated by mostly five-year-olds, mostly four-year-olds, or a mix.

Knowing that your daughter will have peers that are at the same age and developmental stage may make the decision easier. Similarly, if you know your daughter will always be "young" in the class, that might be the deciding factor.

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