If you're like most parents with a baby or toddler, chances are the name "Baby Einstein" is part of your everyday vocabulary. Your playroom may, in fact, include copies of "Baby Mozart" and "Baby DaVinci" right alongside your child's building blocks, stacking rings, and other toys.
Owning at least one "Baby Einstein" video is practically a given for today's parents. Right up there with a stroller, high chair, and other baby-gear essentials, DVDs bearing the "Baby Einstein" brand name are topping baby gift registries and wish lists across the country.
In this article, we'll explore just how "Baby Einstein" became a household name and amassed a following with moms and babies across the globe.
In 1997, The Baby Einstein Company was founded by Julie Aigner-Clark, a new mom who, at the time, realized there were no products that would enable her to share her love of classical music, art, poetry, and language with her young daughter. So she set out to create a short video, shot in her own home, without any intricate plotlines or complex characters. The idea was to tell a story from a baby's point of view, plain and simple. Interactive puppets and images of toys, children, and other everyday objects comprise the basic format of these videos, which are set to the sounds of classical music.
Aigner-Clark's idea was a hit. As parents learned of the video, consumer demand for more "Baby Einstein" products grew dramatically, resulting in other videos, followed by books, CDs, and toys. The mission statement of "Baby Einstein" is "to promote discovery and inspire new ways for parents and children to interact."
Dr. Steveanne Auerbach (a.k.a. Dr. Toy), a toy industry pundit, praises "Baby Einstein" videos for their ability to "provide valuable, entertaining, educational stimulation without commercials." In 2002, she named "Baby Beethoven Symphony of Fun" one of the top 100 children's products for its "delightfully unique images and dynamic sound effects to create an engaging and fun learning experience."
In 2001, when Baby Einstein was purchased by The Walt Disney Company, the brand expanded into additional categories. Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find a children's store that doesn't carry product bearing the famous logo. With an established worldwide presence -- in 30 countries and in more than 25 languages -- "Baby Einstein" has clearly garnered a reputation with mass appeal.
We'll take a look at the reasons parents buy "Baby Einstein" videos for their children in the next section.
In a day and age when parents are vying for spots in the top preschools before their children have barely taken their first steps, it's no wonder consumers are looking to jumpstart children's education. Turning to toys and products that fuel the learning process seems to be a natural step in that direction.
Dr. Helen Boehm, a child development specialist and the author of The Official Guide to the Right Toys, said, "In an environment where parents are spending more money on fewer children ... there is a continuing interest in 'building the better baby.'"
According to Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician based in Austin, Texas, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, this perception has become a reality. "Parents today feel the pressure to compete, to have their child succeed in a challenging world. They perceive that DVDs that teach Swahili for toddlers will ... prepare them for this world."
Walter Gilliam of Yale University also recognizes consumers' interest in media that tout educational benefits. "The name 'Baby Einstein' alone implies being intellectual," he said. "All parents would like to help their children have the very best chances for success in education and life. The idea of an easy-to-load video or DVD that would help their children grow into smart, young students can be very enticing."
Besides the idea of helping get their child off on the right foot, educationally speaking, experts note that allowing their children to watch these videos gives parents a short reprieve -- whether that means getting dinner started or throwing in a load of laundry.
Vicky Rideout, vice president and director of The Kaiser Foundation's program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health, has conducted a number of focus groups with parents of young children who watch these videos. Of her findings, she said, "Many of them believe these videos are not only convenient, but they are good for their babies. The main thing seems to be that parents feel they need something to help keep their child safely occupied and they see baby videos as a positive way to do that."
Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources for Zero to Three in Washington, D.C., affirms this notion. "Parents buy them because they need a break. These videos provide the idea that they don't need to feel badly that their child is sitting down and watching these in a secure spot." Enticing packaging that promises to help make your baby smarter is a definite allure as well, she added.
Dr. Brown recognizes the impact of the modern family nucleus on video viewing. With so many households in which both parents work, videos can become what she calls "an electronic babysitter." Even stay-at-home parents are not immune to this trend, she adds, noting their employment of videos as a form of downtime and, in some cases, a peacemaker. "Parents rationalize this time ... as a positive when the programming is 'educational,'" she said.
Considering the tremendous consumer demand for "Baby Einstein" videos/DVDs, the most obvious question is: Do these interactive videos actually help the learning process, or are they purely a form of entertainment? In the next section, experts will weigh in on the role of developmental videos in the learning process.
Whether or not videos for babies and toddlers actually increase a child's learning potential has been a source of much debate among child development specialists.
According to Walter Gilliam of Yale University, there haven't been any credible studies that can tell parents about these videos' positive impact on young children. "Although it is possible that these videos may be of some use for facilitating infant development, it is just as possible that they do nothing at all or are even detrimental," he said. "Without credible data on their effectiveness, marketing these infant and toddler videos as 'educational' or 'cognitively stimulating' is misleading, at best."
Dr. Dorothy Singer, senior research scientist at Yale University, also questioned the value of these videos' developmental content. "Very young children do not have the language capacity to tell us what they learned," she said. "All we can say is that for some babies, the videos may be holding their attention on screen, but as far as actual learning taking place, we do not know for certain."
While the research may be inconclusive, some experts believe that higher-quality videos can serve a purpose -- when viewed along with the child. Claire Lerner noted examples of developmental videos that set themselves apart. "The better videos try to create content on what we do know about child development," she said. "For example ... we know [babies and toddlers] don't understand stories but like to see familiar objects and people. A video depicting these things is something they might relate to."
Dr. Helen Boehm, a child development specialist and the author of The Official Guide to the Right Toys, looks upon developmental videos as useful learning tools -- as long as they are supplemented with other ways of teaching children about the world around them. "Introducing developmental videos, like other age-appropriate toys, engages babies in the learning process," she said. "It's important, however, that this mix include a variety of visual, auditory, tactile, active, and quiet play opportunities. A heavy or steady diet of videos or child-directed media is never advised."
The Downside of Child Development Videos
While some parents feel that these videos expose their child to music, language, and a variety of other mediums, several early-learning specialists are concerned that parents might rely too heavily on them.
Singer notes that infants watching these videos at six months or younger become accustomed to passive viewing at an early age. Instead, she said, "Babies and toddlers should be playing with toys and exploring them -- touching, seeing, smelling, listening -- not just looking at videos."
Learning through viewing is limited, Lerner said, pointing to recent studies that prove a child can imitate an action when it is demonstrated to him or her in real life as opposed to on screen.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under the age of two should have no media exposure whatsoever, while kids ages two and up should be limited to two hours per day. Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician based in Austin, Texas, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the reason for these restrictions is that increased viewing is correlated with a decrease in socialization. "Even if the media is considered 'educational,' it is still a passive form of learning compared to sitting down with a parent doing a one-on-one activity."
This type of interaction is the best way for a child of any age to begin to understand about the world around him. "We know that infants and toddlers learn most, fastest, and best through rich interactions with caring and sensitive adults," Gilliam said.
Dr. Steveanne Auerbach (a.k.a. Dr. Toy), a toy industry pundit, also noted the added benefit of socialization. "There can be too much dependency on mechanical stimulation [with videos]," she said. "Babies still need that live connection with their parents."
Vicky Rideout, vice president and director of The Kaiser Foundation's program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health, points to the widely known idea of a child's early years being critical in terms of the brain's growth and development, and that passive viewing doesn't lend itself to active learning. "What the child does during this period, how she spends her time and uses her brain, is very important. And since most experts say that they don't know what the impact of media use is, they think the safest bet is to avoid it."
For those parents whose children watch videos like "Baby Einstein," child development specialists offer their advice for suitable viewing in the next section.
While young children may appear to enjoy watching video after video in one sitting, experts caution against exceeding the recommended amount. According to Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources for Zero to Three in Washington, D.C., children older than two should watch no more than 30 minutes of videos a day. "You don't want the video to replace the parent," she said.
Children who benefit most from the screen are those who interact with the parent simultaneously. "The more interactive they are, the more of a likelihood that learning will take place," Lerner said.
Watching together is also beneficial for the parent, who might otherwise be hard-pressed to find a creative way to extend the learning process. "Being part of the process will enable them to become part of the solution and better focus their discussions and selections of play materials," said Dr. Helen Boehm, a child development specialist and the author of The Official Guide to the Right Toys.
Dr. Dorothy Singer, senior research scientist at Yale University, also advises that parents talk about the video while viewing it together. "Point out similarities in real life, and ask questions even if you don't get real answers." This is something to keep in mind, especially for parents of babies who might otherwise think that their child won't be able to understand them.
"Whatever the video is doing, repeat it and make it a point that you explain what is happening," she said. That might be anything from singing to dancing along. Don't worry if you're not Ginger Rogers; your child will enjoy the fact that it's you who's doing the fancy footwork.
Dr. Gilliam seconds this notion, stressing how the interaction between parent and child is the best way to helping them learn. "Play with your baby -- and play often," he said. "Use lots of language, age-appropriate books and toys, and share fun and enjoyment."
Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician based in Austin, Texas, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, suggests that parents preview what their child will watch beforehand and then watch it together. "Talking about the show afterwards help the child think about it," she said.
How to Reinforce Learning After the Video Is Over
The experts interviewed for this article agree that post-viewing conversations are essential to aiding the learning process.
For those who have just watched a video about pets and other neighborhood animals, Lerner suggests parents take a walk afterwards with their children and see real animals. "Applying what they have learned to real-life encounters makes the entire experience more meaningful and lasting," she said.
Dr. Steveanne Auerbach (a.k.a. Dr. Toy), a toy industry pundit, says that taking learning "outside the classroom" and into the real world adds context. "Follow up on expanded activities that relate to the videos when going on outings to the park or the store," she said.
Creating a complete sensory experience takes the learning process to a whole other level, said Vicky Rideout, vice president and director of The Kaiser Foundation's program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health. "Hopefully, children are learning more from their parents than they are from the videos."
Aside from a basic chat, she suggests parents touch things, name different objects, and count the things they see with their child. Don't forget to reintroduce what's been learned at another point in time. The opportunities and synchronicities can actually be more than you initially realize.
"Refer back to the content at appropriate times. Even when you shop or go on a trip, there may be content similar to what was shown." Singer said. A trip to the zoo might jog a child's memory to recall the zebra he or she saw while watching "Baby Noah Animal Expedition."
In addition, picture books that recall earlier images seen on tape are a useful tool for extending the learning. Singer suggests telling your own story starring an object or creature that may have appeared in one of the videos.
One Mom's "Baby Einstein" Experience
For Keri Puglisi of Northport, N.Y., her two-and-a-half-year-old son's experience with "Baby Einstein" has been educational right from the start. Instead of letting Michael watch the videos alone, she joins him so they can talk about what he is seeing on screen and where these objects appear in his everyday world.
While watching "Baby Galileo Discovering the Sky," Puglisi points out the moon in the video, repeats that the moon is in the sky, and asks about the location of the moon. "Then we'll go over to the window and look up at the sky," she said. Because this video is a quiet and soothing one, they usually watch it before bedtime.
Watching "Baby Monet Discovering the Seasons" helps prime Michael for a chat about the four seasons. "When they show winter, we talk about what we do then: It's cold, it snows, we build snowmen," Puglisi said.
And even when the "Baby Einstein" video topics are more general, she says they still lend themselves to a discussion. "We may talk about the toys we see on screen, and I'll say something like, 'Look at the top. It's spinning. It's yellow. It's going very fast.'"
Puglisi engages Michael in playtime activities that relate back to some of his favorites. After "Baby Einstein Meet the Orchestra" is over, he "plays" his own instruments using items found around the house. An empty wrapping paper tube becomes a bassoon. "Michael knows every instrument in each section and loves to pretend to play things," she said.
A parent's ability to translate what's been viewed into a real-world experience is a way to engage a child in an interactive experience that makes learning fun. In the final section, we'll provide a rundown of the titles that make up the "Baby Einstein" video collection and include some tips to enhance the viewing experience.
With more than 20 videos in the "Baby Einstein" collection, parents can select from a variety of subject matters, as outlined below. Viewing tips are suggested for enhancing the learning experience either during the showing or afterwards. Download video guide here for easy reference.
"Baby Einstein Baby's Favorite Places." Babies 12 months and up are introduced to first words from around town, both spoken and in sign language.
Parent-child viewing tip: Walk or stroll into your own town and explore all the places -- the park, library, school -- seen in the video. Say the word for each place and sign it with your toddler.
"Baby Einstein Meet the Orchestra -- First Instruments." Infants 12 months and up learn about the instruments that make up an orchestra and the different sounds each produces.
Parent-child viewing tip: Create your own orchestra using things around the house. Pot lids become cymbals, a wooden spoon and plastic bowl can be drums, and an empty paper towel tube can be a trumpet.
"Baby Einstein On the Go -- Riding, Sailing and Soaring." Babies 12 months and up are taught about three different modes of transportation: land, water, and air.
Parent-child viewing tip: When you and your child are outside, point at an airplane flying overhead or, as you play at the beach, a saiboat cruising by.
"Baby Wordsworth." Highlights 25 words for common objects found in five places in or around the house: the kitchen, living room, yard, bedroom, and playroom. Children ages nine months and up will be able to understand each word in three ways: written, said aloud, and via sign language.
: Once the video has ended, bring your baby into a room in the home and try identifying an object by signing it and then saying it.
"Baby Monet Discovering the Seasons." A variety of images associated with fall, winter, spring, and summer are presented to viewers four months and up.
Parent-child viewing tip: When watching this video during a particular season, show your baby things outdoors that are related to it -- for instance, a flower during spring or a colored leaf during fall.
"Baby Noah Animal Expedition." Kids 12 months and older will meet more than 20 animals in five different habitats, from all over the world.
Parent-child viewing tip: When each animal is introduced, make a point of saying its name with your child and calling out the sound it makes.
"Baby da Vinci Head to Toe." A cast of animal puppets teach eight different body parts to little ones nine months and up -- all to the tune of "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes."
Parent-child viewing tip: Point to each body part and say its name.
"Baby MacDonald A Day On the Farm." Children ages nine months and up will get an inside view of all the activities that take place on a farm, including riding a tractor and celebrating the harvest.
Parent-child viewing tip: Sing "Old MacDonald" with your child and encourage her to name the different sounds each animal makes.
"Baby Bach Musical Adventure." For newborns and older children, this title exposes viewers to a variety of colors and classical music.
Parent-child viewing tip: Show your child a toy or a real version of each instrument as it is being played.
"Baby Beethoven Symphony of Fun." Set to the compositions of Beethoven, newborns and older children are shown a series of different sights and sounds via toys, puppets, and classical music.
Parent-child viewing tip: Make a point of listening to music together with your child during the day, while in the car, or during playtime.
"Baby Galileo Discovering the Sky." Babies ages nine months and up will learn what's overhead as they take a journey to the stars, sky, clouds, and the solar system.
Parent-child viewing tip: Before bedtime, use a telescope or binoculars with older toddlers to help them learn about the wonders of the sky.
"Baby Mozart Music Festival." Newborns and older children can view a variety of different objects, set to the music of Mozart.
Parent-child viewing tip: Encourage your baby to point to objects he or she recognizes on the screen by saying, "Where is the train?" or "Can you show me the blocks?"
"Baby Neptune Discovering Water." Children nine months and up will experience the wonders of water on the beach, in the bath, and in puddles. They'll be able to see water's different purposes: for drinking, cleaning, and playing.
Parent-child viewing tip: Incorporate water into playtime by making water handprints and footprints on paper and then exploring the patterns with your child.
"Baby Newton Discovering Shapes." Sights, motion, and sound set the scene for children ages one and up, as they encounter all kinds of shapes in the world around them. Viewers will learn about circles, ovals, squares, rectangles, and triangles.
Parent-child viewing tip: Go on a scavenger hunt to find similarly shaped objects around the house or in the neighborhood.
"Baby Santa's Music Box." Newborns and older babies can celebrate their first holiday by experiencing festivities and songs of the season from different cultures.
Parent-child viewing tip: Once the DVD is over, extend learning into playtime by playing peek-a-boo with holiday-related objects, such as ornaments or dreidels.
"Baby Shakespeare World of Poetry." Designed to help expand a child's growing vocabulary, toddlers 12 months and up will have their first taste of poetry set to music.
Parent-child viewing tip: Start a conversation with your child about what is happening on the screen. For instance, you can say, "They put the puzzle together. What is it a picture of?" or "Someone is throwing snowballs at the puppet. Who could it be?"
"Baby Van Gogh World of Colors." Children 12 months and up will sample six colors -- red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple -- through artwork and music.
Parent-child viewing tip: At 18 months, some children are beginning to sort objects. Help them by counting small groups of similar objects on the screen. For instance, you can say, "There are one, two, three birds. That's three birds total."
"Baby Einstein Language Nursery." Newborns and older can hear their first words in seven different languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Hebrew, Russian, and Japanese.
Parent-child viewing tip: Dance with your child to the music. Encourage her to say and repeat words to you in different languages.
"Baby Einstein Neighborhood Animals." Babies nine months and up will learn about furry friends and other animals that live in and around their homes.
Parent-child viewing tip: As your child begins to understand more words and becomes more verbal, ask her what she is watching: "The dog is eating. What do dogs eat?" or "The cat is looking at the bowl of water. What's swimming in that bowl?"
"Baby Einstein Numbers Nursery." Children 12 months and up can count along, from one to five, with the help of toys and everyday objects, such as apples, hats, and cups.
Parent-child viewing tip: Help your child learn to count as you do laundry. Group shirts, socks, and pants by color and ask your toddler, "How many red shirts are there?" or "How many white socks are in this pile?"
"Baby Einstein World Animals." From the ocean to the jungle, babies nine months and up will be introduced to nine creatures of the wild.
Parent-child viewing tip: Pretend to be different animals. Imitate the sounds that each animal makes and move the way each animal moves.
"Baby's First Move." Little ones ages 6 months and up will be able to move along to the beat, whether it's by clapping, rolling, or dancing.
Parent-child viewing tip: Whatever stage of development your child is in, practice her moves along with her. When she crawls, get down on the floor and join her. If she is sitting and clapping, join in on the fun.
The jury is still out on whether these videos will enhance your child's learning process. If you do choose to watch "Baby Einstein" and other child development videos, be sure to reinforce the learning concepts during one-and-one play.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Pamela Brill, a freelance journalist and mother of a 21/2-year-old, has written parenting articles for Consumers Digest, Fit Pregnancy, and Newsday Parents & Children.