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Navigating Screen Time With Your Toddler or Preschooler

October 02, 2020

Encouraging active play over screen time helps ensure preschoolers get the movement, stimulation and social development they need. But implementing limited screen time recommendations can prove difficult, especially as many parents find themselves balancing work and parenting with little support.

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Many parents report feeling guilty over their children’s digital media use and conflicted about their own use. This is especially true for parents of toddler and preschool age children as families struggle with COVID-19 restrictions. Getting a toddler to go from bouncing off the walls or asking for another cookie to sitting still can provide a much needed break for parents and caregivers, at least long enough to cook dinner or get through a virtual work meeting. It’s no wonder the urge to use a tablet or phone can be hard to resist!

Tantrums and whining actually offer critical learning opportunities for young children. It’s through the process of temporarily being uncomfortable or bored — and not always having instant gratification — that they learn about boundaries, respect, emotional regulation and other essential life skills. Unfortunately, the use of screens tends to bypass these precious developmental lessons, which makes for a quieter home in the short term, but much more difficult behavior for the long term. 

Healthy Habits Start Early

While young parents are increasingly aware of the health benefits of ingesting natural and organic foods over highly processed ones, the concept of natural mental stimulation is often overlooked.  However, feeding young minds natural forms of play and human interaction is proven to be far more educational than digital media, especially for younger children. Limited screen time seems to be directly linked to increased physical activity and more mindful eating. 

Guidelines for screen use by young children have been issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics and include: 

  • Less than one hour per day for children two to five years old. 

  • For infants and children under two, screen use should be avoided except for minimal video chatting alongside parents.

  • For children older than two, limit screen use to no more than one hour per day of high-quality (educational) programming, if at all. 

Easier said than done, right? Millennial parents find sticking to these guidelines difficult. Many more believe their young children’s screen use to be problematic and find themselves battling frequently with children and other caregivers over time and content limitations. 

Create a More Screen-Free Family Life

Raising young children can be exhausting, but with planning and patience, you can build healthier habits. Some strategies include: 

  • Plan activities. Most children don't need more toys. They can entertain themselves for hours using household items in a supervised, safe environment. 

  • Talk often. Practice talking with your child throughout daily tasks. As you do so, receptive and expressive language skills tend to develop naturally.

  • Read books. Parents who read to their child often find themselves less likely to need to formally teach colors or ABCs, as children naturally learn both through reading. 

  • Choose simple toys. Offer blocks, dolls, toy cars or balls often and allow your child to figure out how to play with them in their own way.

  • Create a safe space. Arranging “safe play” areas in different rooms can help to keep young children entertained all day. A few toys in your bedroom or in view of the kitchen can easily keep them engaged while you fold laundry or wash dishes. 

  • Call for help. Having a support system greatly improves your ability to manage the tasks of raising children alongside other responsibilities. Grandparents, relatives, close friends or professional childcare can be great reprieves. Allow yourself breaks. Taking care of yourself allows you to best care for your child. 

Unplug and Cherish the Moments

Limiting children’s screen time ultimately means being unplugged for longer stretches while caregiving. This can be challenging, particularly for parents who are heavily reliant on devices themselves. Many report that the moment they unplug from their own devices, young children’s behavior instantly seems to improve with the increased attention and caregiver interaction, and bonding becomes possible. 

Remember that the preschool years are short and can be some of the most cherished times with your child. Breaking from devices for quality time with your child can be one of the most rewarding — albeit difficult — sacrifices you make, and a lifelong gift to them.


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