Are iPads turning babies into insomniacs? How touch screens are costing infants sleep

  • Aug. 21, 2017 2:15 p.m.

Whoever coined the phrase “sleeping like a baby” certainly didn’t live in the high-tech age. Indeed, new studies show that babies are losing sleep and touch screens are to blame.

A Scientific Reports study published last year revealed that there is a significant link between the use of touch screens with sleep problems in infants and toddlers. Traditional screen time, such as television and video games, also affects sleep, but it’s a less omnipresent force in our lives. On the other hand, touch screen devices (phones, tablets, cameras) are everywhere at all times and that means the correlation between use of media and loss of shuteye is more dire than ever. For babies in particular, the lack of sleep in those early months and years can impair brain development.

Using data from 715 parents, the researchers explored the relationship between media use and sleep patterns (sleep duration, frequencies of night waking, ease of getting to sleep). They found that 75 percent of toddlers between 6 months and three years use a touch screen on a daily basis. Fifty-one percent of babies between 6 and 11 months use a screen. And virtually all of those babies, a staggering 90 percent, are still engaging in the same level of media use when they are 25 to 36 months of age. The trouble is that every additional hour of tablet use by these is associated with 15.6 minutes less total sleep per night, which adds up to 95 hours of less sleep a year.

While the facts are sobering and pediatricians have long warned about curbing screen time, it can still be hard to pull off in the real world, especially at a time when kindergarteners attend computer labs and many kids are expected to do school assignments on a computer.

For the record, the American Academy of Pediatrics has set firm guidelines for media use. For children younger than 18 months, they recommend avoiding all screens, except video-chatting. They add that parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming and watch it with their children. Ages 2 to 5 years should be limited to 1 hour per day. For all children, they advise holding the line on media free zones, such as the dinner table and the bedroom, and making sure that the screens are not keeping kids from sleeping, eating and playing.

Sadly, although tech moguls, such as Steve Jobs, famously limited his own children’s access to technology, the rest of us often fall under the thrall of the screen.

“I do think it can be hard to limit screen time, especially when they need to do homework on the computer,” says Bethany Cardwell, a mother of two who lives in Discovery Bay, Calif., “but we put them away so they aren’t in view and don’t offer them often. So, if she’s supposed to work on her Chromebook, I’ll give it to her for just long enough to do the work, and do something fun, but early enough that it won’t interfere with her sleep.”

Still it’s hard to keep kids from longing for more screen time and using the devices as a way to keep kids quiet and distracted when you have to run errands. Sometimes handing a kid your phone is the easiest way to avoid a tantrum.

“I am guilty of the pacifier thing, though,” says Cardwell, who is the mother of Maddie, 7, and Lauren, 18-month-old. “I swore I never would, but sometimes you need a distraction while you’re out and all you have left is your phone.”

Another East Bay mom admits she started letting her little girl take the iPad to bed with her for 15 minutes a night because it was the only way to get her to stay in bed.

It’s also important to note that different children react differently to stimulation. One child may nod off amid an episode of “Peppa Pig,” while others need a solid time buffer with no tech of any kind before they can power down enough to drift off.

“The girls react differently to electronics,” notes Cardwell. “It doesn’t seem to bother Lauren. She’ll fall asleep watching TV, while Maddie is more sensitive and will never sleep if anything is on. We have to shut down everything two hours before bed (even music) or she can’t sleep”

“I definitely think it throws off the clock, but I think some people are more sensitive,” Cardwell adds. “Even though Lauren’s not as sensitive, I still limit it the same because it just seems like a good idea to not overload them. They need downtime, too, but I don’t think that should come from vegging out watching TV or YouTube kids or something like that.”

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