How Much TV Should I REALLY Let my Toddler Watch?

Though my husband and I are both avid TV watchers who can binge a favorite Netflix title with the best of them, it wasn’t until recently that my daughter showed any interest at all in the series of flashing colors and chirpy songs from the kid shows we played for her. 

toddlers and tv

It was actually a little frustrating. I’ve seen parents collectively salivate over the ten minutes of free time “Sophia the First” affords them, and I wanted a piece of that action. But before about 15 months she simply didn’t care.

And then she did care. All of a sudden, and a LOT.

Now, she would happily watch “Octonauts” all day if I let her, and will often become upset when the episode is over, pointing at the remote and shrieking for me to play the next episode. It’s just one of the many disturbing ways that she is growing to resemble her hot mess of a mother (though I’m more of a “Dateline” girl myself). 

Like I said, I love me some TV. But I often try to stick by the official recommendations for things like this —simply because as a first-time parent, I don’t know any better. So when I read that the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages ANY screen time AT ALL for children under the age of 18 months (one hour per day for ages 2 to 5), I was a little concerned. The Angel of Mommy Guilt materialized over my shoulder and began whispering to me that my daughter would develop sociopathic tendencies because the constant Creature Reports had made her unable to empathize with her fellow human beings.

But to be honest, I was also conflicted. Zero screen time for my child just didn’t seem feasible to me, especially since I’m a work-from-home freelancer and am often on my phone and laptop in front of my daughter. My job is how we buy groceries. If she likes to eat, she’s going to see me in front of a screen.

So I took this issue to some of the realest ladies I know, my fellow MKE Moms Blog contributors. Their responses were all great food for thought and reminded me that many times, there are lots of right answers to a single question.

For lots of the families, sanity > all the other things.

“I try not to worry about it,” said Laurie. “My sanity trumps everything, plus my kids always would choose to play if they have something to play with or a place to play. Some days we watch TV all day long, other days none at all.”

Dolores said that, while she usually encourages the kids to spend most of their time outside, the family does have TV-heavy days. “Most days when the kids are watching a lot of TV, it’s probably a pizza or popcorn night for dinner and a Midol or Ibprofen night for mama.”

“Some days they just seem to need it more than others (or rather I need it for them!)” Tara said. “I usually don’t worry so much as long as they are reading and playing nicely.”

“I try to get us out of the house in the mornings (my kids are better behaved in public) but when we stay home, sometimes the TV is on in the background,” Kate said. “If kids are sick or things really hit the fan, sometimes we have a movie day.”

Some moms try a sneaky alternative to TV.

Tara and Heather both recommended playing music instead of turning the TV on, since kids will tend to tune any media out as “background noise” anyway.  

I actually loved this suggestion and immediately tried it with my little girl as soon as she started pointing at the remote. We chose a fun Pandora channel instead and she had just as much fun dancing and spinning to the tunes as she did watching a show. Now, according to the AAP, this would probably count as “screen time” just the same. But honestly, I’m not sure how exactly I’m supposed to get my child completely away from screens in this world, especially since I work from home on a freelance basis and am often on my phone and laptop in front of her. I would rather concern myself with what exactly is on the screens that she is coming in contact with.

TV rules aren’t one-size-fits-all

“We will do a movie night once or twice a week,” Melania said. “Yara will also be a hot mess when it’s time to turn off the TV so I don’t even turn it on for her most of the time.”

“My kids are monsters when we watch too much TV,” Heather said. “There’s a notable difference in days when they watch television and says they don’t in their behavior. I feel like if they zone out they just get cranky. So we try to watch as little television as possible.”

“I think this is an important distinction – what does TV DO to your child? What’s the effect?” Laurie pointed out. “Some kids don’t really even care about it, others are entranced, others have negative reactions.”

toddlers and tv

Going forward, I’m going to try not to stress too much about my little girl’s screen time, but will simply be mindful of the settings in which she is consuming this particular media.

I’m also looking to my own childhood experience for guidance in this situation. I watched a LOT of TV as a kid, and I happen to think my mother is the paragon of excellent parenting.  The important thing for me to keep in mind, though, is that my mother never let the television “parent” us. She was always in the room or at least nearby; she always knew exactly what we were watching, we often talked about it with her, and it was usually something vaguely educational. 

Kristen had a similar experience to me. “During most of the day, I have something on in the background (HGTV, Nick Jr, podcasts, music),” she said. “It was the same in our house growing up and I’m (almost) 32. I feel like I’m pretty well adjusted! But my parents taught us to love books, crafting, music, etc. Which is what I try to do with him too.”

In that vein, I’ve decided that if my girl likes TV so much, I might as well turn it into a fun way to expose her to different things that I hope we’ll enjoy together. Growing up, watching old musicals and comedies with my grandfather was what helped inspire my passion for history. We watched movies and sitcoms from the 1940s, 50s and 60s together and I would ask him questions about life during that time.

So I’ve begun experimenting with classic movies, and I’m happy to report that she’s becoming quite a Cary Grant fan.


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