Whole Parenting Family

Screen-free household, or how we survive without the boobtube babysitter

bucket kids

Big fatty mcfat disclaimer: I don’t think you are a bad person if you let your kids watch TV. So whew. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about alternatives to screen time. We all learned last year (the year before? mommy memory) that screen time for kids under two years of age should not exist. No no. A big no no. And after two should be limited. The average kid watches like 2-4 hours of TV a day. Not a good stat. Why? It affects their brain development, it inhibits imaginative play, it pacifies them, it gives them lots of images and ideas you may not want in there, it curtails their communication with siblings/you/care provider, and the list goes on.

But why do we think we cannot live without it? Why does everyone have these HuffPo articles being like “hey, it’s okay if your infant watch TV so you can just breathe a little” or “I’m a guilty parent too, but my kids are just fine”? Because our kids are clamoring constantly? Don’t play by themselves? Can’t be left unwatched so we can shower/screentime ourselves/poop? Because you can’t fry anything on the stove while holding your babe in the sling? Because we need them to zone out so we can have a break?

I get it! I have two kids under three (now three) as well. Maybe it’s their personalities, or maybe it’s because they don’t know any different, but we don’t use screen time. Period. And they self-entertain, they read lots of books, they play lots of I-don’t-know-what-he’s-shouting-but-it-sounds-like-O-Sacred-Head-Surrounded games. They also tantrum and freak out too so maybe when I have more I’ll do less. Why knows.

When my kids are too little to be left along, I put them in the bathroom with me so I can shower. In a pack & play, or strapped in bouncy. I make little nests for them on the floor in the kitchen so I can cook. I freely use babyjail (said pack & play). Little ones nap twice a day (or protest nap, or sling nurse nap depending on age), bigger ones have quiet time once a day and a nap. I set up a babysitter at least once a week (thank you, family members) so I can run errands that I can’t do with two (or simply don’t want to). I still shower (sometimes), blog (lots), socialize (some), sleep (kinda), and sew (yes!). You can too.

My list of how I survive without the electronic babysitter screeny thingy.

1) Play with them to jump start the game, and then leave them on their own so you can do your thing.

Yes, you have to prime the pump. So when SuperBoy’s got a new board game (thanks, Tia Momo for the penguin game. He loves it.), I sit there and play a few rounds, showing him the basics. If he goes off and changes the rules in subsequent play, that’s fine, but at least he has a baseline of how it could go. The sandbox in the back? I will sit for a few minutes and show him how he could dump all the sand inside the bucket and then dump the bucket on his toes. SweetPea loves stacking her Melissa & Doug hand-me-down block stackers. But sometimes she needs reminders on where her stackers are, or a little direction toward the bookshelf in the kitchen so I fry something. Or stand in the corner eating ice cream. You know.

2) Books on CD or tape from the library. Ahmazing for long car rides, quiet time inducements to stay in the bedroom, and that 4pm horror hour when I need to start dinner and everyone’s crabby.

Lately it’s all Curious George Goes to the Doctor. That’s almost 20 minutes. And if you show your kiddo how to turn the page when they hear the chime, you’re golden! SweetPea isn’t that into it, obviously at 15 months, but she hums along and makes her version of a solo breakout when we’re listening to Vered or Scythian.

3) Reading books–even when they’re tiny–to them, at them, with them.

Books books books. SuperBoy started a quiet time when he was probably 18 or 20 months in his crib with his books. He can self-entertain for a very very long time. Throw some baseball cards in there, and it’s hours. SweetPea isn’t as into books, so I’m not sure how this will pan out as a self-entertainment mechanism, but am hoping for the best!

4) Busy baskets set throughout the house in strategic places.

In my sewing studio, I have one basket for each kiddo so in a pinch I can work and they can run around playing with their busy basket contents. For him? Baseball cards & musical instruments. For her, stacking blocks and an array of teething toys. They run like wild turkeys around the room, adjacent room, and hallway, strewing stuff everywhere. It’s fair game. So long as I can still do a little work. Ditto to the kitchen.

5) Knowing I get time off when AA gets home–arranging a true break at the end of the day.

We swap off. Man. Love him. He’s my break.


  1. Andrea on July 24, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    We never have the tv on around L (Well, almost never. Sometimes during golf tournaments or football games on the weekends… but she doesn’t sit and watch those…). We used to have the tv on A LOT before she was born so I’ve been surprised how easy it’s been. I actually don’t really understand the argument about needing the tv to entertain them for mom’s sanity or whatever else, yet some of my very good friends started using it pretty early on so I try not to judge – maybe it’s just L’s temperament? Not that she’s been “easy” but maybe because I don’t even think of the tv as an option, it isn’t? I’ve certainly been impressed with how her focus and attention span has developed.

    • Natural Mama Nell on July 24, 2013 at 3:12 pm

      I too didn’t know if it was their temperaments, but am increasingly confident it’s the level of exposure in the first place. If it’s not an option, we come up with other, more classic ways of keeping a baby from screaming while we shower, or keeping a toddler from destroying the kitchen while we cook. I do know in comparison to other little ones, my kids’ attentions span appears to be longer.

  2. Elizabeth @ Coppertop Kitchen on August 18, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    Thank you for this post! These are great ideas. Honestly, I’m not sure I can completely cut TV (I don’t get a break at the end of the day, since my husband often works late and is in grad school a couple nights a week), but at least now I have a few tools to help me drastically decrease!

    • Natural Mama Nell on August 18, 2014 at 4:03 pm

      I’m so glad it can be of some help, Elizabeth. There are no absolutes in parenting (well, few) and if a little show gets you through those long nights–then you gotta do what you gotta do!

  3. Mandi Richards on August 26, 2014 at 8:29 am

    Nell, would you mind sharing what you do when you are sick? I’ve been ill so much of this year that. I feel like half the time, I haven’t been able to get off the couch. Lucia is almost three and I don’t know how else to keep her entertained when I can’t do anything but lay there and sleep. I hate to have her watch so much TV, especially when it’s hard to break her of the habit when I’m finally feeling well again. It was particularly difficult when I was extremely ill and weak for six weeks following my miscarriage in Feb. Obviously, I’m not expecting THAT to happen again, but I would like some ideas for any kind of illness.

    • Natural Mama Nell on August 26, 2014 at 4:50 pm

      Not at all. For a little background, I’m sick through at least 25 weeks of pregnancy. Violent throwing up. Every day, multiple times. Even with meds. So sadly I’m no stranger to illness & little kids mingling. Literally at times. (I’m so sorry about your loss!!!).

      I save special workbooks and stickers for when I’m totally a zombie for whatever reason. I bribe. I threaten. I just lay on the ground near the kid(s) and then throw up, or run to the bathroom, and then come back. I may or may not sometimes fall a little asleep. If it’s really bad, I resort to earlier quiet times or earlier naps. Does that help??

  4. Teresa on July 23, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    I needed this encouragement today. Thanks! I work part time from home and have been letting my 2.5 year old watch waaay too much Netflix after nap time while I finish up projects. I’m 99% sure he is more grumpy when I let him watch TV on a daily basis and our TV has become a habit I need to break.

    On another note, I just started reading your blog recently and really appreciate it. You remind me so much of one of my older sisters – her kids are even the same ages and genders as yours!

    • Natural Mama Nell on July 23, 2015 at 10:29 pm

      You’re so loving! I love it–having only a little brother, I loooooooove being an older sister-in-law 🙂 It’s hard being a mama and you sound like you’re doing a great job.

  5. Natasha on August 3, 2016 at 2:36 pm

    We are a screen free family too and I happen to follow all your tips exactly, lol! They must just be natural because we just fell into them because they were what worked. My girl is still too young for books on tape, but I will keep that in mind. Right now if she is crabby and having a day where she is shrieking I will play fun kids music and she will stop. I am pregnant with number 2 and sometimes get very tired (thankfully nowhere as sick as you), but in the first trimester I probably took a half-awake nap on the nursery floor nearly every morning. I too have wondered if she is just great at entertaining herself or if she has just gotten used to it because that is how we work. She just LOVES books and will sit forever on her own flipping through them. We use books in the car as well. It really helps me that our laundry is in the kitchen and we have a cutout into our living room which I can keep an eye on her through.

    • Natural Mama Nell on August 5, 2016 at 7:31 am

      I love it!