Are 'Brainy' Toys for Babies a Waste of Money?

You see them everywhere: harried parents hauling their little ones off to classes in Mandarin, gymnastics or classical violin. At home, they're filling nurseries with "educational" rattles and mobiles. It's all for a worthy goal: making the most of the first three years of life, when critical changes in brain structure determine whether little Madison or Matthew will one day enter the Ivy League. At least that is what a growing number of parents have been led to believe. Sadly, it may all be a waste of time and money.

Thanks to what journalist Susan Gregory Thomas calls the "toddler-industrial complex," parents have become suckers for toys with "Einstein" or "genius" in their names. In her new book, "Buy Buy Baby," Thomas explains how a well-meaning 1994 report by the Carnegie Corporation led to the creation of a vast marketing effort aimed at parents of young children. The report, called "Starting Points," used neuroscience to make the case for more federally funded services for infants and toddlers by proclaiming that brain development in the womb and during the first year of life "is more rapid and extensive than we previously realized." Although the science was actually quite limited—and there was certainly no proof that toys or videos could make babies smarter—the report helped focus national attention on the early years.

It also inspired an unlikely player, actor-director Rob Reiner, who launched a campaign to convince parents and policymakers that more money should go to nurturing development during the early years. Reiner argued that focusing on "the prism of zero to 3" could solve a vast range of societal ills: teen pregnancy, drug abuse, crime. He found an eager ally in Hillary Clinton, who convened the 1997 White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning. Before the conference, both Time and NEWSWEEK published major stories on the topic and ABC ran a prime-time special. The highly publicized conference, Thomas writes, played a major role in popularizing the idea of a critical "window" that would slam shut on the third birthday. And it persuaded states and the federal government to spend millions on new programs for babies and toddlers.

By this time, eager entrepreneurs had also spotted a unique opportunity. Companies with names like Baby Einstein, Brainy Baby, Baby Prodigy and Baby Genius became part of an industry that Thomas estimates now represents about $20 billion a year. Sara Mead, a senior policy analyst at Education Sector, a nonprofit think tank, argues that these companies cleverly tapped into "parental angst." In her new report on "Million Dollar Babies: Why Infants Can't Be Hardwired for Success," Mead contends that parents began to believe that if you skip baby water aerobics, "you can say goodbye to college." "This threat leads parents to waste billions of dollars every year," Mead writes. "The money spent on these educational toys might be better off in a college savings account." Mead points out that recent neuroscience research indicates that the brain continues to grow and develop "well into old age"—debunking the notion of a rigid zero-to-3 window. The most compelling science concerns the negative effects of early deprivation on very young children. On the other hand, overstimulation makes babies (and adults) anxious.

Instead of Mandarin lessons, researchers say parents would be better off spending more time talking, singing, reading and playing with their babies and toddlers. No special equipment is required. Affectionate interaction helps kids develop language and social skills. And here's some encouraging news. A University of Maryland study found that today's mothers actually spend more hours focused on their children than their own mothers did 40 years ago. Fathers are also spending more time with their children. It may not be a ticket to Harvard, but it's certainly a great start.