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Limiting TV Time for Preschoolers

Exactly how much TV is safe for preschoolers to watch? Learn ways to limit preschoolers' TV time and get activities to take TV's place.

What parent hasn't used the television to occupy their child from time to time? After all, parents have a thousand demands placed on them. Television can keep your preschooler happily absorbed when it's time to get dinner started, sneak in a household chore, or just have a little alone time.

You probably also know, however, that it's important to limit preschoolers' tube time. How important? A 2010 study of 1,314 children showed that the more TV children watched between the ages of 2 1/2 to 4 1/2 years, the less likely they were to exercise at the age of 10. Watching more TV was also linked to a higher body mass index (BMI) -- a measure of weight in relation to height -- as well as lower grades and intake of more snacks and soft drinks.

Once television habits become entrenched, it's more difficult to drag kids away from TV. So the preschool years are a great time to start developing good TV habits in your child. Here are some ways to limit TV and provide better activities for your child.

Good Alternatives to TV for Preschoolers

Of course, your preschooler should spend most of his time playing, learning, and interacting with you and other people. But when you’re busy, try occupying his time with an alternative to TV:

  • When possible, involve your preschooler in chores with you. With a little broom, he can sweep up part of a room you’re sweeping. He can help dust furniture or run a toy vacuum. If he wants to watch you cook, he can learn the names and colors of foods, or give him simple tasks to do, such as adding and stirring ingredients.
  • Make a special kids' activity basket. Fill it with things that will busy your child for a while: books, puzzles, and toys. Keep the basket hidden away in a closet and bring it out only when you really need it. This will keep your child interested for a longer time.
  • Put on a CD. Buy a tape or CD of someone reading great kids’ stories for your preschooler to listen to when you’re occupied. Or record yourself reading your child’s favorite story. This also helps your child develop listening skills.

5 Tips for Curbing Preschooler TV Time

Guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics advise no more than 1 to 2 hours of quality TV a day for children 2 years old and older. These tips can help your child develop healthy TV habits.

  1. Be smart about your preschooler's solo TV time. If you must use TV as a temporary babysitter, be mindful of how long your child is sitting there, says Donald Shifrin, MD, clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle and a member of the committee on communications for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Choose calming, educational shows, such as Dora the Explorer or Blue's Clues, or a video that features singing and dancing.
  2. Avoid the advertising trap. Children see 40,000 commercials each year on TV. And, according to The American Academy of Pediatrics, children under 6 don't know the difference between the ads and the actual show. Avoid the ad exposure by choosing non-commercial TV or educational videos instead of commercial broadcasts. One study found that of more than 12,000 food ads, 67% were for unhealthy food. The majority of those commercials were broadcast during children's programming.
  3. Watch TV with your preschooler. First, find an age-appropriate show or DVD, and then sit down together to enjoy it. That way, watching TV becomes an event, Shifrin tells WebMD. Resist the urge to channel surf when the show ends. Instead, turn off the TV and move on to something more active.
  4. Tell your preschooler why you're turning off the TV. "You might say, 'I'm going to turn off the TV now because I'm not going to [be] distracted by TV all the time,'" Shifrin says. "Tell him, 'We've watched enough shows for now.' Narrating emphasizes your family values and explains your actions." But be sure to give your preschooler a heads-up about how many shows you will watch before you even start watching. Kids need to know what to expect.
  5. Use TV to encourage activity. If you're worried that your preschooler isn't getting enough exercise, consider popping in a children's exercise DVD or switching on a gaming system that encourages players to get up and move while playing. But do the exercises with your children. "At this age, the only way they'll respond is if you're doing the exercises, too," says Michael Brody, MD, chairman of the media committee for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and a professor at the University of Maryland in College Park.
  6. Set the right example. If you don't want your preschooler to watch too much TV, then you shouldn't either. Get the TV out of your bedroom as well as theirs. Avoid turning it on the minute you enter your house or leaving it on when your children aren't watching. "TV becomes background noise that they need to fill a void," Brody says. "Then it becomes a habit."
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