I’m a millennial mom, which means I’ve been led to believe that everything is going to destroy my child’s brain and stunt his development forever. Bottle-feeding, breastfeeding, babywearing too much, not babywearing enough, baby-led weaning, finger-feeding, spoon-feeding, not enough stimulation, too much stimulation. We’re all doomed. Let’s move on. Today I’m going to share some hacks for reducing screen time for your kids, even if you work from home. (Wait, don’t all parents work like hell at home?)

Like proper terrified millennial parents, we tried to keep our minion away from screens until the prescribed age of two. We did not succeed. By the time he was about eighteen months, my offspring loved the robot videos from Boston Dynamics (which I hope will inspire an illustrious career in engineering) and anything from FailArmy (which I hope will not inspire anything). And honestly? I think he will be fine. I watched E.T. when I was three years old (admittedly probably not the best idea ever), and my brother watched an hour of the Simpsons every day starting in kindergarten, and both of us are productive members of society. So I’m not here to preach about ripping out the Internet and cable to reduce our children’s media consumption.

But I also trust the American Academy of Pediatrics because their job is to keep children safe. So for those of us who are interested in reducing screen time for our kids, you do have to limit access and usage. (Including your own! Womp womp.) More importantly, you need to provide alternatives for the roles that TV, tablets, and phone fills in your life. I’m not ashamed to admit that we sometimes use videos to fulfill one or more of these needs (for us AND the kiddo):

  • Containment
  • Entertainment
  • Novelty

When you think about what needs you are trying to meet by giving your child a video to watch, you may be better able to find alternatives for reducing screen time. Here are some of my favorite toddler-age hacks:

When you need containment:

Our kid enjoys being active, which is a good thing. When he was younger practically the only time he would sit still was when he was being read to or watching a video. With videos, he was so still that he would often forget to blink. Maybe you give your kids a video when what you really need is (temporary) containment. We used a play yard on top of a thick foam mat as our baby containment zone from the time he was old enough to crawl until he was responsible enough to not constantly get into everything. (About 18 months for us.)

When you need entertainment:

Perhaps because both of his parents are introverts, my child seems to have been born with at least rudimentary ability to entertain himself. (Don’t hate me, please.) I do think some of this is temperament, but I believe that self-contained play can also be taught and facilitated. (I’m not an early childhood expert, though, so this could be total nonsense.) Now, swapping an endless pile of toys for screen time is probably not a sustainable fix. But we’ve gotten a lot of mileage from modular toys like Legos, our play kitchen, and a particular set of books that are really quite magical.

Me Reader books are great for reducing screen time. Kids can "read" stories to themselves without staring at a video screen.

Behold the Me Reader! My parents gave us our first set of these featuring Star Wars. (Naturally.) We have since bought two more: Marvel Superheroes and Encyclopedia Britannica Kids. Each book has a matching icon on the Me Reader. Each page in that book has one of the ten colored icons. You push the book icon you want to read and then the page icon of the page you’re on. Obviously, these are way above the reading level of the average two-year-old. But our minion was able to learn which buttons to push to have the story read to him when he was 18 months old. It’s not the same as having a person read to him, but it’s also not a video screen. Our minion loves these and will easily sit with a pile of them for at least half an hour at the time. Needing absolutely nothing from me. (Angels sing!)

Me Reader books are great for reducing screen time. Kids can "read" stories to themselves without staring at a video screen.

When you need novelty:

Videos provide a huge shot of stimulation that can be hard to replicate. Novelty is one easy way to get kids excited. Like I said above, buying an endless stream of toys as a way of reducing screen time is probably a zero sum game at best. But rotating toys might be a good alternative. We rarely buy new toys. Not because we are minimalist saints (HAH) but because 1) we get so much mileage out of our existing toys; and 2) we have the only grandchild among three grandparents so we really don’t have to buy much in general. Even so, I get tired of [picking up] the sea of plastic in our living space. So I periodically hide things in my office closet to bring out on particularly hairy days. It sounds silly, but it honestly works for us. Again, your own child’s temperament will come into play here. Our offspring is fairly low on the novelty-seeking scale, which is great for rotating toys in and out and absolutely god-awful for eating. (That’s another story.)

When you need a break:

Most of the time when I find myself reaching for the phone or tablet, it’s because I need something else to fulfill my child’s needs for entertainment or supervision. Just for a few minutes. Or an hour. And you know what? There is nothing wrong with that. Parenting is tiring. And we are sincerely blessed with (JUST ONE) easygoing kid who is pretty good at entertaining himself. We’re lucky.

Wanna know our biggest hack for reducing screen time for our kid?

A babysitter.

But for the days you can’t get one, I recommend Legos, train tables, play kitchens, Me Reader books…and sure, the occasional Paw Patrol video as needed.