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My toddler’s speech was delayed. Did I go wrong by letting him watch TV?

SINGAPORE: Danial Shahrin and his wife were scrolling through Instagram when they stumbled upon some videos of a friend’s child.

They remember being impressed that, at 18 months, the child was able to hold conversations with his mother and identify objects like traffic cones. But it also made them realise their own son, Adam, who was around the same age, could be lagging developmentally.

“I told my wife, maybe he needs more time, and maybe he’s a late bloomer,” Danial said. 

But during Adam’s routine checkup at a polyclinic a few weeks later, they learnt their concerns were valid.

At 18 months, Adam should have been able to say at least 50 words, but he was only able to speak about 12 or 15 words. “That was a huge red flag for us,” recalled Danial, 29. 

“Where did we go wrong?” he wondered. After all, both he and his wife talked for a living: He’s a former radio presenter while his wife, Athifah, is a teacher. 

It made them wonder if it had anything to do with allowing Adam to watch television since he was about eight months old. 

According to guidelines by the American Academy of Pediatrics, there should be no screen time, except for video chatting, for children until they are 18 to 24 months old. Children aged two to five years should get an hour or less of screen time a day. 

In the sixth episode of the podcast Imperfect by CNA Insider, Danial talks about his journey with screen time, what he’s learnt about using it beneficially and the sacrifices he’s made.

LISTEN: Am I a bad parent … if I give my toddler screen time? 

AN ‘OKAY’ OPTION OR A MISTAKE?

When Danial and Athifah first had Adam, they had decided not to give him any screen time. Hoping he would develop a love for reading, they had stocked up on storybooks even before he was born.

But with the couple working full-time, it became harder for them to keep him entertained. At the time, Danial was a paramedic and had to pull overnight shifts at times.

He remembers returning home one day exhausted from a 13-hour overnight shift when Adam was about eight months old. His wife was at work and there were still a few hours to go before his mother-in-law would be free to help with Adam. 

“(Adam) didn’t want to sleep and would scream whenever I tried to put him down,” Danial recounted. “I just couldn’t take it because that same night, I would have to work another night shift.”

Out of desperation, he turned on the TV and found a children’s programme. Adam stopped crying and lay down quietly.

“He was entranced,” recalled Danial. 

“It felt like an ‘okay’ option back then.” But it became a habit.

Related:

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The TV became a useful distraction when Adam fussed for his mum, or when Danial returned home after working overnight. Each time, they would limit viewing to half an hour. They curated what he watched and made sure he was never unsupervised. 

But these rules became tougher to observe and, by the time he was a year old, Adam was watching TV every day. 

The guilt nagged at Danial. “I know of mothers and fathers who come up with activities for their kids … and sometimes it makes me feel like less of a good parent for him,” he said.

“Because instead of watching all this stuff, I should be the one coming up with activities to let him learn.” 

The guilt only worsened when they realised Adam was lagging behind his peers in speech. 

“That was when we decided we needed to do something about it before it was too late,” said Danial. The couple sought professional help for Adam and found out he had a very slight speech delay. 

Was screen time really the culprit? 

Listen to the sixth episode of the podcast Imperfect by CNA Insider, in which speech and language therapists also share some best practices. 

Imperfect by CNA Insider is a podcast on which young mother Lianne Chia talks to other parents grappling with dilemmas that cause them to question whether they are doing things right. New episodes every Saturday, for a limited time.

Read this story in Bahasa Melayu here.

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