From DVDs promising to increase the newborn IQ, to toys claiming to educate your mini Einstein, the baby brain business is in overdrive. In fact, it’s the largest growing toy sector in Canada, with parents plunking down billions of dollars in hopes of a bouncing baby genius.

But do these products really work?

Baby Einstein is one of Disney’s hottest selling products. The name alone is enough to make parents assume that these videos will make their baby brilliant—like Einstein. As it turns out, the DVDs do no such thing. In 2006 the Federal Trade Commission in the United States forced Disney to stop claiming that Baby Einstein has any educational value.

But recent studies have shown that videos for babies not only carry no educational value, they are actually bad for baby brains.    

“The more television babies are exposed to the more likely they are to have attention problems at school age,” says Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician and lead researcher at the Children’s Hospital in Seattle. He conducted a long-term study on nearly 1,300 children and found that television is too much for growing brains to handle.

The problem with these videos is in the editing. Videos marketed for babies jump from one image to the next and are actually very difficult for adults to follow. Babies seem completely engaged, almost mesmerized, by the images. And that’s precisely the problem - constant exposure to fast-moving images can make real life seem pretty boring by comparison. Christakis found that for every hour of television babies watch, their risk of attention problems goes up ten percent by the age of seven. But the problems don’t end there.

In North America, the average child under the age of two will watch between two and three hours of TV a day. Considering that children at that age are only awake for about 10 to 12 hours they’re spending 20-30 percent of their waking hours in front of a television screen. So what are they not getting as a result?  

They are missing out on language. Christakis and his team discovered that for every hour of baby DVDs children watch, they learn six to eight fewer words compared to their TV-less peers. “So again in contrast to the claims that are made both implicitly and explicitly by these products, there’s no evidence of benefit and there’s a very real suggestion of harm,” says Christakis.

If videos are bad, what about the educational toys that claim to make your child smarter? Toy stores are full of them and they don’t come cheap.

Christakis says you’re better off with good old blocks. “In the block study we did, we found that a traditional toy like blocks, which makes no educational claims whatsoever, is exactly the type of toy that really does make a difference as far as a child’s cognitive development.”

If you don’t have blocks, try a walk in the park. “The best thing for kids is to have the human interaction,” says Janette Pelletier, an expert on child development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. “That is the very best way that kids learn and you don’t need to have any kind of toys in order to have an engaging interaction.”

But letting go of the parental guilt which feeds this industry can be hard, especially since most parents have been told that these early years are crucial to their child’s development.

“Frankly, those of us in the scientific community have ourselves to blame,” says Christakis. “We’ve succeeded in convincing people that this zero to three age is a really critical period for brain development without recognizing that we were creating this build a brainier baby juggernaut.”

The need to take advantage of those crucial years coupled with the competitive nature of parenting today leads a lot of parents to give in to the pressure. “It’s what the other mothers are doing,” says Pelletier. “They see other kids doing it and their children see the toys that the other kids have and the parents feel pressured to provide that.”

But before you give in to the pressure and buy the latest high-tech toy, remember that your baby would be just as happy with pots and pans. They’ll learn more from banging on those than they will from anything at the toy store. “Babies have a tremendous capacity to get from us what they need,” says Christakis. “As they bang on that pot and look at you, you’ll give them exactly the kind of feedback that will help them develop.”