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Research Shows We're Being Dumb About Smart Toys

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Do you ever feel like being a parent is akin to unknowingly participating in a giant psychological study that might or might not work in your favor?

Parents today are surrounded by mixed messages. "Music education for toddlers will help them learn self-control, but wait … what we meant to say is that free play is best!"

You can't sign into Facebook anymore without finding out exactly what you're doing right or wrong. It's exhausting.

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The latest and greatest piece of information to hit the headlines happens to work out in my favor, but not because I somehow saw into the future or because of my excellent parenting skills. No, it was my introversion and sound sensitivity that helped me get this one right.

A new study in JAMA Pediatrics shows that those so-called electronic "educational" toys (you know, the talking, beeping, light up, cheering ones) aren't so educational, after all. In a study of communication during play between 26 parent-infant dyads using three different toys, results showed that play with the electronic toys were associated with fewer adult words, fewer parental responses, fewer conversational turns and fewer productions of content specific words than during play with traditional toys and books.

The study concludes that use of electronic toys should be discouraged in the interest of promoting early language development.

In other words, parents appear to let the electronic toys do the interacting for them.

The study concludes that use of electronic toys should be discouraged in the interest of promoting early language development. Researchers recommend, you guessed it!, reading to your children and playing with "traditional" (make your own sound effects) toys.

Electronic educational toys popped up everywhere when I was pregnant with my daughter. In fact, I received a few of them for shower gifts. I remember one in particular that she seemed to enjoy. It was a ball that lit up and sang the alphabet every time she made it spin. I remember watching her play with it for the very first time and thinking, "Wow, that thing is loud and annoying." I went out and bought a bunch of wooden blocks and shape sorters the very next day.

In fairness, I did let her play with the loud, well-lit alphabet ball at times. But it was never my first choice. I wanted to sit and interact with her, and loud, beeping toys seemed to distract us from our time together.

Here's the thing: While I pushed the loud, light-up things to the back of the closet, because I really didn't like them (actually I couldn't stand them), parents everywhere were being encouraged to use them. Labels on toy boxes promised language development, letter sounds and hours of fun. Why wouldn't a parent buy something so highly recommended by "pediatricians everywhere" (who might or might not be related to 4 out 5 dentists.)

While I love that this new research gives parents concrete information to lean on, I do wish it was available before the infant toy aisles began to overflow with those alleged "educational" electronics. Why must we always learn the important information after the fact?

The fun part of the early years, however, is that you get to regress and be playful with your child.

With that in mind, here are my three best tips for interacting with your babies:

1. Read, read, read

Reading is fun. Reading is calming. Reading is time spent together sharing a laugh over a silly hippopotamus or saying goodnight to every single thing in the bedroom. Reading is soothing and happy making at the same time.

2. Talk when you play

I know it feels a little "Dora the Explorer" in those early days when you talk to your busy little baby only to meet with dead air, but those early conversations are essential. Your baby learns to talk and converse by watching you. Don't just narrate in baby talk, have conversations. Read and respond to your child's nonverbal cues, as this will help her learn to do the same as she grows.

3. Focus

We are all pulled in one million directions, and everyone needs parenting breaks at times. But during that time spent together it is super important to focus on your child. Let the phone go to voicemail, pull yourself away from your daydreams, resist the urge to work through that to-do list in your mind. Just be present.

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4. Regress!

The cruel trick of parenting is that people always tell you it gets easier as they grow. I don't think that's true. It gets different. Each stage has its benefits and challenges, but it's almost never "easy." The fun part of the early years, however, is that you get to regress and be playful with your child. Blow bubbles, scribble chalk on the sidewalk, swing high (or low) together. Tap into your inner child to enjoy those moments and watch your baby thrive.

The next stage will be here before you know it.

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