Fussy babies spend more time in front of the TV, study finds

January 08, 2013
Moms, especially those who are obese, are more likely to use television to entertain and soothe infants who are more fussy and active, according to researchers at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The finding adds to the growing body of knowledge that may help explain the escalating rate of obesity and inactivity in children in the U.S. and has led to behavioral and educational strategies that may help mothers combat these effects.

Dr. Peggy Bentley

Dr. Peggy Bentley

The study, led by Margaret E. (Peggy) Bentley, PhD, is the first to examine the interplay of maternal and infant risk factors that lead to TV watching in infants. The research appears in the Jan. 7 issue of the journal Pediatrics (pdf).

Bentley is Carla Smith Chamblee Distinguished Professor of nutrition and associate dean for global health at the Gillings School and principal investigator for the study.”In the past, studies have focused on maternal factors for obesity and TV watching, but this is the first time anyone has looked at infant factors and the interaction between maternal and infant characteristics in shaping TV behavior across infancy,” said Amanda L. Thompson, PhD, assistant professor of anthropology in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences and first author of the study. “And that’s important,” she added, “because mom and infant behaviors are inextricably linked.”

Bentley’s team looked at 217 first-time, low-income black mothers and babies from central North Carolina who were part of a five-year study looking at obesity risk in infants. The researchers followed the mothers and babies in their homes at 3, 6, 9 12 and 18 months of age, looking at TV exposure, sociodemographic and infant temperament data. They asked how often the TV was on, whether a TV was in the baby’s bedroom, and whether the TV was on during meal times. Researchers also interviewed the mothers about how they perceived their children’s mood, activity levels and fussiness.

The researchers found that mothers who were obese, who watched a lot of TV and whose children were fussy were most likely to put their infants in front of the TV. By 12 months, nearly 40 percent of the infants were exposed to more than three hours of TV daily – a third of their waking hours. Households where infants were perceived as active and whose mothers did not have a high school diploma were more likely to feed their infants in front of the TV.

“Feeding infants in front of the TV can limit a mom’s responsiveness in terms of examining infant cues, such as when an infant is telling mom he is no longer hungry,” Bentley said. “This work has helped us design intervention strategies that will help teach moms how to soothe their babies, without overfeeding them or putting them in front of a TV.”

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In collaboration with several UNC researchers, Bentley will lead a newly funded study from the NIH to develop home-based parenting strategies for infants to achieve healthy growth and development.

Bentley and Thompson, along with co-author Linda S. Adair, PhD, professor of nutrition at the Gillings School, are also fellows at UNC’s Carolina Population Center.



UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu.