This week I stumbled across the World Health Organisation’s latest guidelines via a bbc news article with their recommendations for the amount of screen time, sleep, physical activity for children, as well as how long children should be restrained for in a car seat or pushchair. My first impression was oh great! When we are already facing numerous pressures as parents, the WHO has to release its latest unobtainable guidelines for parents.
The new guidelines suggest that children aged one and under should have no sedentary screen time and those aged two should have less than an hour. When James was a baby in Lithuania we often put Baby TV on because he seemed to enjoy it and it was the only way I was able to do simple things such as go to the toilet, or cook. James was a baby that would cry when I left the room, and on some occasions still does now, but if he was distracted by the TV I was able to escape. By no means was it on all day and we would get out of the house as well, but it definitely helped me to nip to the toilet or make the tea.
As a two year old he most definitely has more than one hour of screen time a day, whether this is YouTube or TV programs. I don’t think he is ever sedentary though! He runs around while watching programmes he likes, he interacts with what is happening on the screen, often repeating the words being used and then looking at me to check he has pronounced them correctly. He has learnt the alphabet, numbers, shapes and colours from programmes he has watched on YouTube, and I reinforce these things with him myself. We live in an age of digital technology so I also think it is important for James to be familiar with iPads, phones and TV. I know when I was small my parents must have found ways of entertaining me and my sister without all of the technology we have now, and I often wonder how they did it.
For one to two year olds it is recommended that they have at least 3 hours physical activity a day. For me this is frequently obtainable when the weather is dry and I can take James to different places for him to run around, but for many parents this just isn’t possible. If you can’t drive, or if you haven’t got a garden, or if you work full time it is not always going to be easy to achieve these recommendations. Also, what is classed as physical activity because James frequently runs around our lounge, throwing himself on the furniture while watching TV, would this be classed as physical activity? Often life gets in the way and it is difficult to make the time for 3 hours physical activity.
Then there is the recommended number of hours babies and children should sleep for, including naps. With the lack of sleep we had when James was a baby I am pretty sure he wasn’t getting 14 – 17 hours a day. I think most parents wish their children had as much sleep as recommended but you can’t force your children to sleep. Luckily, for us things got better and James probably now does have the recommended amount of sleep for his age group, but as a baby I could only wish he would have slept that much. Many parents often panic that they can’t get their baby to sleep or their baby won’t nap and these guidelines will only add to their worry.
They recommend that children up to 4 years old shouldn’t be restrained for more than an hour at a time. How are you meant to travel anywhere over an hour? How are you meant to go on a flight? How are you meant to go around the shops if you can’t put your child in a pushchair for more than an hour? Or do they expect you to get your child out of their car seat every hour to stretch their legs, or out of their pushchair? For us it’s a battle to get James back in his pushchair if we get him out. We often go on car journeys that are over an hour long and he actually sits really well in his car seat, he really enjoys watching the lorries go past. We do however make sure that wherever we are going he will get the opportunity to run around. Some children also nap in their pushchairs, does that mean you have to wake them up after an hour? No parent is going to want to wake their child up just because the WHO has said they shouldn’t be restrained for longer than an hour.
I think these latest guidelines are generally unobtainable and put a lot of pressure on parents. Even if they are intended as targets rather than what is expected every day, we all worry about whether we are doing our best for our children and guidelines like these just make you feel like you aren’t doing a good job or living up to the recommended standards. Long car trips or time in the pushchair can be fine every so often but probably not great every day. Three hours physical exercise can be fine to achieve on some days but other days can be impossible. Some days children will have more screen time than other days, because sometimes that’s just what happens. I am sure we would all like our children to sleep the recommended number of hours, but we all know we have pretty much no control over how long our children sleep for.
Sometimes I think these organisations just need to think about the pressure parents are already under, and be more sympathetic. It seems like the WHO expects every child to be running around all day, not watching any TV or going on car journeys. It is not practical when most people don’t have acres of fields just on their doorsteps and endless time to just watch their children exercise. I get the point that it is to help combat obesity but at the same time guidelines need to be more realistic and I don’t think you need to do all of those things to prevent your child from becoming obese. I think it is important that children don’t spend all day watching screens and some form of exercise everyday is a good idea but it needs to be practical and achievable at the same time, taking into account what may be achievable for one parent, may not be for another.