Damning interview with Baby Einstein founder


Boing Boing guestblogger Connie Choe is a health and culture writer by day and a professional kimchimonger by night.

As a young entrepreneur years ago, I found this interview with Julie Aigner-Clark (founder of Baby Einstein, who sold her $20 million enterprise to Disney in 2001) to be pretty inspiring, but it's turned funny in light of last week's news about the big Baby Einstein refund -- what The New York Times says is "a tacit admission that [Baby Einstein products] did not increase infant intellect." No kidding. Here's a bit of that old Aigner-Clark interview:

"I didn't have a video background, but my husband and I borrowed video equipment and started to shoot scenes on a tabletop in my basement. I put a puppet on my hand and plopped my cat down in front of the camera. My husband and I used our home computer to edit our first video... Everything I did in the first videos was based on my experience as a mom. I didn't do any research. I knew my baby. I knew what she liked to look at. I assumed that what my baby liked to look at, most other babies would, too."

It's pretty clear that Baby Einstein was not rooted in cognitive research as they had boldly claimed and many parents believed. Worse yet, scientists at the University of Washington concluded that these videos actually hindered language development in infants. Lucky for me, I came across the interview before I my daughter was born so every time a friend offered us hand-me-down Baby Einstein products, I would immediately picture this woman wagging puppets in front of a Handycam in her basement and would politely decline.


    1. Bush supporter or not, she is someone who wanted to bring something special to babies. Clearly it’s not in lieu of parenting, but there is nothing wrong with letting your kid watch a few episodes of the show. Jeez.

  1. Hmmmm I don’t know if I would go as far as saying that the Baby Einstein DVDs are actively harmful.

    It seems the University of Washington folks are warning parents that plunking kids in front of DVDs takes away from the human-to-human interaction required to acquire language.

    It also seems that if you’re going to show your kids DVDs, you may as well watch normal stuff with them, because the Baby Einstein stuff is too simple. Kids don’t really need things to be dumbed down to figure out the rules of language, and the dumbing down actually seems to be hindering them from deducing those rules.

    In a linguistics class at some point, I remember a case of hearing children being raised in deaf families. It was suggested that the families keep the TV on for a certain number hours a day to expose the hearing children to language. Guess what? They didn’t pick up much from the TV at all, since interaction is essential for language acquisition… not just raw input.

    1. Hmmmm I don’t know if I would go as far as saying that the Baby Einstein DVDs are actively harmful.

      Actually, it says just that. From the article:

      Rather than helping babies, the over-use of such productions actually may slow down infants eight to 16 months of age when it comes to acquiring vocabulary, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute. The scientists found that for every hour per day spent watching baby DVDs and videos, infants understood an average of six to eight fewer words than infants who did not watch them.

      As for watching “normal stuff with them,” the researchers have found that ALL TV for very young babies is developmentally harmful. Showing them Gray’s Anatomy instead isn’t going to hep.

      1. This actually doesn’t say Baby Einstein is harmful. It says all DVDs are harmful. For Baby Einstein to count as specifically harmful, they would have to be worse than the controls.

        1. This actually doesn’t say Baby Einstein is harmful. It says all DVDs are harmful. For Baby Einstein to count as specifically harmful, they would have to be worse than the controls.

          If you put in a DVD of a popular movie then there’s a chance that the parents might plop down to watch for a while and maybe get some interaction with the kid in on the side. Watching Baby Einstein together? Not so much.

  2. Politely decline? I think it would be better to accept the used Einstein merch, then throw it out, to make sure it doesn’t end up getting used by someone else.

  3. These Videos are perfect for a deveolping brain, they are simple, and keep baby’s focused in ONE thing at a time.

    I am sure that the University of Washington will have something to say about the whole Classical music doesn’t help developing the brain.

    Everything stimulates a brain at that age.

    Connie… Do you drive a Prius?

    1. Maybe everything *does* stimulate the brain at that age. That being the case, why the hell would you want to make somebody else rich doing something that you could, nay should, do yourself for free?

    2. Connie… Do you drive a Prius?

      I assume that this is some snide way of saying that only a tree-hugging hippy like Connie would follow scientific research, whereas smart people like you just read the marketing claims on the box?

  4. Really? Passively staring at the TV doesn’t build infants’ intellect? You have to actually hold them, play with them, talk to them, sing to them, read to them, respond to their cries, noises, laughter, attempts at verbalization and facial expressions?


    1. You have to actually hold them, play with them, talk to them, sing to them, read to them, respond to their cries, noises, laughter, attempts at verbalization and facial expressions?

      I was with a friend of mine, visiting one of her friends who had a three month old. The baby was sitting in his seat in the middle of the kitchen table, crying. The mother was standing at the other end of the room saying, “He cries all the time. I just don’t get it.” In two hours, she never once picked him up. It creeped us out.

      1. Sounds like it might have been post-natal depression …

        Yeah, all the baby videos are rubbish. They do, however, serve to distract the kid long enough that you can take a crap in peace.


        1. Sounds like it might have been post-natal depression …

          Unfortunately, I think that it was post-natal “I used to be a model and the baby might mess up my hair”.

        2. The best statement yet! Perfect advertising point. If it weren’t for videos like baby Einstein, my house would be a mess, I would never shower, cook and I’d have to keep a pan close by to do my business in. Baby Einstein is a lifesaver

      2. @Antinous

        We see this all the time.

        There seems to be a widely accepted view that infant behaviour other than placid compliance is some kind of purposeful malice, and the most basic human parenting instincts are fought with rules designed to maintain work day routines. Many parents we know run their households like boot camp.

        I mean, people parent in different ways. But it saddens me to see people spending some of the most precious moments of their lives as if they were a trial to be endured.

        My wife and I pulled out of high stress jobs to enjoy this time, and it is without question the best thing we’ve ever done.

  5. “… keep baby’s focused in ONE thing at a time.”

    From what I’ve seen, the Baby Einstein videos don’t focus on one thing at a time. They bounce from thing to thing every 10-20 seconds or so. And while I know baby’s can only focus for short periods, the way these videos are shot — much like the way Sesame Street does it as well, moving from thing to thing to thing quickly — do nothing to build up a child’s ability to focus for long periods. In fact, they sometimes have the opposite effect.

    We were given the Baby Mozart video and, after watching it one time (with our son not really paying any attention to it) decided not to play it again. In fact, we came away thinking it’d be great for college kids who’ve dropped a tab or two — they could sit for hours just watching toys on the screen. :-)

    But good for our kid? Not so much.

  6. My son watched one of those dang things every day, and he wasn’t able to read whole words until he was almost three. It saddens me to think how normal he could have been if we had only kept those away from him. What is it they tag on slashdot? Correlationisnotcausation. shrug.

  7. Aw, thanks Mark. I don’t have kids, but when I do I certainly hope to be worthy of the good mom title. (My own mom set a great example. She started reading, talking, and singing to her kids when they were still in utero.)

  8. They might not be good for babies, but both the Baby Einstein and the Teletubbies are great to watch when you’re high.

  9. @#3 don’t you hate it when scientists test stuff that seems to make sense? Shouldn’t seeming to make sense be enough?

  10. My son has pragmatic language disorder and communication issues, and when he was a baby I would put him in the “saucer” to watch this while I showered or ran laundry to the basement, or cooked dinner.

    I knew they were shite, I told my brother that he was under no circumstances to let his new baby watch it.

    BUT, I think the study at UW probably reveals that parents who had their kids watch a lot of these shows were also less likely to interact with them then parents who did not, and thus the language delays.

  11. @boynas Harharhar, I drive a non-hybrid Honda. That being said, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at a hand-me-down Prius :)

    PS: The “Mozart Effect” is not a proven intelligence/thought process booster for infants.

  12. I wouldn’t really call that “damning”, except in the context of Disney’s later over-hyping of the benefits of the videos. It’s not as if Sesame Street is all that more sophisticated. Anyway I don’t really know why anyone would think that a kid would actually learn anything from the videos. My oldest (who’s now four) watched them as a child, but they were never a substitute for interaction with mom and dad, or other play activities. They were just another facet of his growing up and, as such, neither harmful nor greatly beneficial. As to the part you excerpt SamSam, they also say this: “We don’t know for sure that baby DVDs and videos are harmful, but the best policy is safety first.” I think it’s safe to say a household wherein infants are watching TV for an hour or more each day, is also likely one where they are also being denied much of the stimulus necessary to acquire language skills. A parent who puts their child in front of the TV for two hours, is not a parent who is likely to sit down and read with that child every night before bed. It could just as easily be said that bad parenting, not the DVDs, are harmful to the children’s cognitive development.

  13. @ SamSam:

    “Hmmmm I don’t know if I would go as far as saying that the Baby Einstein DVDs are actively harmful.”

    “>>Actually, it says just that.”
    UW says that… I’m not sure I agree. DVDs only seem to be harmful in that they take away from human interaction. So, rather than say that the DVDs are harmful, let’s just say that bad parenting is harmful and leave it at that.

    And, since we’re busting out the quotes:

    “>>As for watching “normal stuff with them,” the researchers have found that ALL TV for very young babies is developmentally harmful. Showing them Gray’s Anatomy instead isn’t going to hep.”

    I’m not advocating plunking kids in front of Gray’s Anatomy.. I was going more for, if you’re going to watch TV with your kid, you may as well watch something you like since it’s not helping the kid either way.

    Although the report DOES make a distinction between baby DVDs and regular educational programming:

    “The researchers believe the content of baby DVDs and videos is different from the other types of programming because it tends to have little dialogue, short scenes, disconnected pictures and shows linguistically indescribable images such as a lava lamp.”

    1. DVDs only seem to be harmful in that they take away from human interaction.

      This may be semantics, but to me it sounds like you just said that the DVDs are indeed harmful.

      Babies need all the human stimulation they can get. Every hour that they are in front of a DVD is an hour that they aren’t getting human stimulation. On that we agree.

      Would you consider covering a baby’s ears for a few hours a day to be harmful? Without being able to hear, of course they aren’t going to learn language. Sure, you can say “It’s not the covering of the ears per se that is harmful, it’s just that they’re missing out on hearing things.

      Well… yes. So covering their ears for hours a day would be harmful.

      More to the point, and semantics aside, Baby Einstein DVDs were sold with the explicit (and then eventually only implicit) marketing promise that they would help your child’s development. So, through this, the brand actively encouraged parents to plonk their tots down for a few hours in front of the TV, believing that it would do them good, whereas we agree those hours in front of the TV would do them harm. Therefore Baby Einstein’s claims may be directly responsible for increased numbers of hours in front of the TV by babies.

  14. Hell’s Bells! She made some cute videos and now she’s accused of mass child abuse?! Obviously, all logical arguments have all failed this story and its resulting comments.

    An equally logical argument would be: “I never watched Baby Einstein videos as a baby and now I read internet comments. This means I now accept dumbification as my general reading material because I didn’t watch froggy puppets on TV.”

    Bad chicken littles! Bad!

      1. So the point is: 1) there was a product, 2) there was an outrageous claim about its benefit, 3) some people fell for it hook-line-and-sinker, and 4) now those people look like clowns. Sounds about right.

        Maybe the “roots in important cognitive research” she refers to is actually the “Barnum Effect.”

        1. Yes I think you do have the points there, but I think that if someone does make such claims they do need to back them up. The public at large who are not familiar with “important cognitive research” need some protection regarding such claims, much like nutritional supplements are not able to claim health benefits that there is no evidence to support exist (at least in New Zealand).

          I also doubt that this woman knows much about the Barnum effect, but she certainly took advantage of it.

        2. If I decided to market ice cream as a low-calorie health food it would probably only fool the gullible, but that doesn’t mean I should get off the hook for consumer fraud.

  15. Ahem, taken from a (deliciously painful) CBC interview with a Disney producer of the videos:

    RASHMI TURNER: What’s really important about Baby Einstein is giving the parent and a child a chance to interact with one another… We chose the Einstein name, actually, because many people don’t know he was a fabulous humanitarian and really passionate about the world we live in.

    NARRATOR: Wait a second… They chose the name Baby Einstein because Einstein was a humanitarian?


  16. That she is being vilified and Disney is paying out is absolutely INSANE. There a thousands of products on the market making dubious and/or hyperbolic claims – Our son watched these videos, about half an hour a day, as an infant. He is five now and reads entire books aloud with the inflection of a would-be narrator. I don’t credit the Baby Einstein video for that, but I certainly wouldn’t blame them were he not reading as well now.

    Good for this woman she devised a cute idea that made lots of people happy and made her millions of dollars. The people lining up to get their refunds are in my opinion of the same class as the folks who gleefully collected on Microsoft’s typo thing years ago (forgot the details, sorry.)

  17. Such a complicated issue – morality and parenting and comments from those who don’t have children yet – is interesting to read. I wanted to share one thing that I read as I was trying to understand what it is about TV that can cause ADHD later: it is the fact that tv programs have cuts between scenes that are unnaturally rapid which can be problematic later because children will learn to think that rapid transitions are normal. Real life unfolds more slowly (and in 3D). That said, there are a lot of societal reasons why kids end up watching that much TV and none of us are innocent. Luckily there is a non-supermom movement out there these days.

    1. I’ve never heard of TV watching causing ADHD, and I have been lectured several times by an ADHD and child and adolescent disorders expert and read many articles and book chapters on the subject.

      ADHD is generally believed to be a neuro-developmental disorder, much like Aspergers and Autism, and I would be incredibly surprised if anyone ever received a proper and carefully considered diagnosis of ADHD due to TV watching. And by a proper diagnosis I mean interviews with the child, parents, teachers, self-report scales and objective testing of IQ and school performance, not a 10 minute checklist performed in a doctor’s office.

      1. I strongly believe that, no matter how good the animation, kids learn more about reality (and thus are better trained for it) by looking out a window rather than looking into a TV.

        a cat is better than NatGeo Cats Network. Trees are better than any PBS special.

  18. The marketing for these videos may have been a little pretentious, but the videos themselves are amazing. They are like living mobiles, or living art. Classical music performed with dancing toys and spinning objects reflecting light, beautiful imagery of animals in nature, poems read in simple clear warm tones. Funny little puppets acting out humorous and heartwarming situations. There was one scene where the pig puppets slide off the barn into a puddle of mud and my little one would practically double over with laughter.

    You hear that awful phrase “electronic babysitter” and it wasn’t that so much as a low-key way to be together and relax. Times when either one of us was freaking out we could put on a video and regain our equilibrium. It did an excellent job of easing the stressful chemical reactions and inducing calm and happy feelings. There are other ways of helping children calm down, (holding, bathing, singing, driving, baby-wearing) but media like this series and many other programs, like the NickJr lineup for older kids really help kids chill out when they’re nerves are getting frazzled. As children grow up you can talk to them a lot more about their feelings and help them navigate bad moods. But little babies need immediate soothing (in my opinion) and quality audio/video production works well toward that end.

    My own reading of educational theory and research is that we learn best when we are calm and happy. Anything that helps to bring the brain into that state could be seen then as a learning aid. But I have no desire to go out on a limb and get chopped off, so I’ll leave it there.

    It would be great if the adults could calm down and let people parent their children according to their own perceptions of what is good and bad for them. Believe it or not, not every parent wants to raise their kids along the exact lines that contemporary research indicates they should. Frankly, I think it would be great if parents could sort of put a lot of this chatter out of their heads, and parent from the heart. At least when the kids come back and say how much you screwed them up, you can say you did what you thought was best, instead of pointing to some out of date book on the shelf and say well that it was the research indicated at the time, dear.

    Well, to each his or her own. Personally, I want to see more quality media for babies/kids. More music, videos, CD-ROMS, games. There is crap out there, but Baby Einstein isn’t crap, and calling it that could, I’m afraid, discourage educators/media artists from creating the next generation of quality programs that I think we really need.

    1. Great post Wolfiesma, really well said. After going on about how my wife and I had cut down our working hours to focus on family, I was a little hesitant to chime in and add that we watch quite a bit more TV than is generally recommended. But it is something we do together, and the reasons you list for watching TV resonate strongly with what we do.

      To be honest, I sometimes think screen based activity gets a bad rap from people who are a little frightened of the future. Screens are part of our lives, and will be more so. Its not an intrinsically bad thing.

  19. My son watched these daily because he loved them. He would chill at the end of the day OR just listen while he was playing or we were playing with him(didn’t have the research then, didn’t know I was a bad parent). We used the corresponding flash cards, pointing things out in real life etc. He talked on schedule(his sign language worked until he needed more words), read VERY early and gained a LOVE of classical music. He actually knew songs from different composers because of what he heard on these videos and would hum entire tunes in preschool to the shock of his teachers.
    We loved them. I didn’t buy them to make him Einstien. I bought them because he was interested and every interest can open an opportunity for learning.
    If all you do all day is leave the TV on and never do anything else, this would cause issues no matter the video. I’m glad we saw pretty colors(which he learned to name early) happy puppets, heard different language sounds and had a simple exposure to classical music.

  20. I watched hours of these videos with my infant son, not because I believed the hype, but because they were captivating and well done. Though they may not have increased his language skills, he does have an amazing grasp of the classical “hits” that they used as a background. His fascination with Mozart, Bach and Pachelbel started at 3 and is directly related to the videos and CDs.
    The important part of allowing your child access to any form of media is that it can not replace your role as a parent and participant. You must be actively a teacher and student.
    We began exploring the composers and more traditional arrangements together, and I have learned more by actively allowing my son to teach me than I ever will passively from any media.

  21. I know people have said this before, but just to add on – babies are babies for a long time. You can’t hold on to them every moment of every day for two years. Sometimes you’ve just got to take a shower. Or eat a sandwich.

    I’m not saying that DVD’s are good for babies. But all the people here who are acting like it’s tantamount to child abuse to put your kid down in front of the TV for half an hour once or twice a day need a reality check.

  22. I didn’t think these DVDs would be any good, and had been avoiding such things until one arrived as a gift for my son. It was the one with a water theme, and featured a 20-ish minute long static shot of a man in scuba gear feeding fish in an aquarium, set to “Clair de Lune”. My son was fully into it, and I had absolutely no problem letting him chill out to aquarium footage. It’s relaxing, it’s peaceful– I don’t see the harm. A lot of the shots were actually very nice, too.

  23. thank heavens for these later posts (e.g. wolfiesma, robulus, et al). i almost thought i’d have to quit reading BB b/c it had gotten too elitist. i grew up in a house w/ VERY limited TV time….i have a masters degree… i should be “above it”…but, you know what? my 2-yr old and i absolutely love watching Dora together at the end of the day! nothing like shouting “swiper, no swiping” to get any last vestiges of tension out… some of you should try it sometime.

  24. Thanks Robulus. :) MDH, looking out windows is a great way to learn about reality, I totally agree. ^-^ We are right now watching the DVD of animations that goes with TMBG Here Comes Science. Fantastic! A million thanks to all the artists creating such beautiful educational material! You people rock!!

  25. Well opposite to many of you, my baby learned many words by watching one of the videos… she knows now what is a table by name and she also learned the sign language. I think everything what can show the kids something is good for them. As somebody said, at this age they are like sponges and if is true that you shouldn’t leave them all day in front of the TV is better for them to watch a woman making a sign language, saying the name of the thing and showing the picture than leaving the kid watching ie, TELETUBIES or Mikey or any other of this shows that they have now on tv.

    My baby is 15 months and I think that for her to be saying words, pointing the things and learning also the sign language even when she can talk and hear perfectly tells me that the universities sometimes generalize a little…

    All this plus learning to hear classical music which is great!!

  26. At least recently, and it may still be the case, Disney had one person heading a company that ran Baby Einstein and Muppet Studios. That fact doesn’t speak well of Disney’s regard for either product: Baby Einstein involving child development something that should simply NOT be screwed up and the Muppets which until Jim Henson died was highest integrity force in American culture.

  27. I never bought this product but just stream it from time to time off the internet. I hated teletubbies and many of these inane children’s shows whenever I would come across them before I had a child. But now when I need to cook my daughter dinner or as someone else said take a “dump” there is nothing better to hold her attention for a short period of time. For those brief moments of peace I thank this woman. Its intuitive to anyone, Plonking an infant for prolonged period of time in front of any media device without human interaction is going to be. There many other products out there making the same claims without the supporting science, it just happens that they made some overreaching claims and they’re Disney and they have lots of money so they’re taking it in the shorts.

  28. Disney’s decision to refund money for Baby Einstein videos is a victory for parents who have been wondering if the marketing claims were for real.

    I am a speech language pathologist and also contacted Aigner-Clark asking for research to back her claims. I never heard back.

    Maybe now we will get back to the basics of talking, reading and playing with our infants which is what research says builds language!

    Sherry Artemenko

  29. Although in general I would say the products don’t enhance intellect, some children can learn some things from them. My Autistic 8 year old son (who still watches these videos, although in a play/pause/fforward/rewind remix of his own design) learned a lot of sight words from the series and was able to generalize them to the same items/concepts in the real world. He also thoroughly loves our local classical radio station (KBPS 89.9FM Portland, OR) thanks to the exposure to various pieces that are played in the videos.

  30. Sorry, those 2 last comments were from me!

    I honestly believe that you need to balance the activities of you kids. And if Disney has a refund on these products is because anybody like you could be holding them accountable of their child being stupid.

    Really, there are a lot of stupid kids here in America, and everybody is trying to find our why! And you guys know, it is a combination of things, not only Disney.

    I apologise to all prius owners. Your car is really doing a great impact to the environment.

  31. Although this comment is a little late coming, I just wanted to weigh in on the whole debate.

    I have twin girls who are 8 months old and we own several Baby Einstein DVDs. My mom has given me all of them – the first two we received when the babies were 3 months old (December 2009). I had heard about the controversy by that point and was reluctant to take them out of their wrapping. My husband was also inclined to deride them because of what he had heard about their potential effects on language development. He also happened to have been brought up in a household without TV (I on the other hand watched quite a lot of TV in my youth). Both of us are (and always have been) avid readers and have what I would consider to be strong writing skills and a decent vocabulary. It may be anecdotal evidence but it is interesting to note that despite our radically different upbringings with respect to exposure to TV, both of us love to read and write and developed these skills early on in childhood. Although I think it is vitally important to expose your children to books and other learning activities early on in their development, I also believe that there will be some children who have a natural aptitude for different intellectual/physical/musical pursuits despite being raised in the same household or environment. But I digress.

    I think I finally gave the DVDs a test run when the babes were about 6 months old and were particularly cranky and not in the mood to nap for longer than 20 minutes at a time. I, on the other hand, had a raging cold and was desperate to get half an hour of sleep. So I set up the portable DVD player next to their crib, supplied them with various toys, and went back to bed (at this time they shared a crib and it was beside my bed). It was incredible how quickly it quieted them and how long it held their attention. I actually felt guilty about that (I’ve since gotten over that). I woke up 30 minutes later feeling much more alert and prepared to interact with and take care of my two babies. Does that make me a bad parent? I think not. Since then I have used the DVDs up to several times a week when I need half an hour of time to throw in a load of laundry, cook a meal, use the bathroom, etc. And only if I am unable to entertain them by conventional methods (try singing or reading a book with two writhing, squirming, screaming babies on your lap). The majority of our day is spent playing, singing and reading together or going for a walk outside. Like so many others have already said, DVDs or other media cannot replace one-on-one human interaction when it comes to learning basic skills like speaking. That’s just silly. You also can’t expect parents to have the inhuman energy required to constantly interact with their children all day long. Nor should you really because I happen to think that it is beneficial for children to learn how to play quietly by themselves without their play being directed or narrated by a parent. Half an hour of time spent watching toys/puppets on a screen and listening to classical music without Mommy or Daddy right there pointing out things and talking to the child won’t result in developmental delays. What it does result in is two calm and entertained babies and a parent who is a little less stressed out and burnt out. Doesn’t that make for a good parent? So personally I am all for Baby Einstein DVDs, in moderation of course (conceivably couldn’t almost anything be construed as harmful when done in excess)? My husband is still convinced that they are bad for the babies but I think a lot of that stems from his mother’s militant stance on TV watching during his youth (and may I add he watches a fair amount of TV/movies now). My position is that there is nothing wrong with watching them occasionally so long as it doesn’t replace other more interactive activities. A little common sense goes a long way, people. Common sense should tell you that geniuses and child prodigies are born, not made by watching DVDs.

  32. Short and sweet. It was fun for me and my daughter to learn to count and recite alphabet and simple nouns in 7 languages, She read at 3 or 3 and a half. We do not attribute her mind to the DVD but nor did it raise her. Kids who hear other languages early in life are often better able to detect nuances and accents. Fact. Glad they made their money. the other DVDs in the series did nothing for us but I enjoyed Einstein. – dad of 2

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