I Let my Toddler have Screen Time. Now I’m Letting Go of my Guilt.

A year ago, I was well into the third trimester of pregnancy and cringed as I heard the Paw Patrol intro for the umpteenth time.

It wasn’t so much my disdain for the weirdly catchy tune, but rather an intense frustration and anger at myself. How many hours have I let this go on? Am I rotting my 2-year-old’s brain? What would my other mama friends say about this? The guilty thoughts swirled around my head as my daughter danced to the music.

As technology evolves at exponential rates, researchers have tried to assess how our fascination with screens affects young generations and to predict potential consequences. So far, evidence from various studies reports that excessive digital media consumption alters sleep patterns, contributes substantially to the risk of childhood obesity, and, as one study concludes, “appears as a major factor which may hamper the formation of sound psychophysiological resilience.” Reading these studies, especially as a mother, can be incredibly overwhelming!

You know what else is overwhelming? Being pregnant while parenting a toddler.

Toddler girl crying on pregnant woman's lap

There were days last summer when I was so exhausted I literally could not keep my eyes open! What’s a mother to do when her physical (and mental) resources are limited, the sun is too bright and hot for outdoor excursions, and her toddler needs lots of stimulation?

Sorry, researchers. I gave my daughter more screen time.

Was it a perfect solution? No. Will I win Mom of the Year for this admission? Highly doubtful. But instead of wallowing in self-imposed guilt, I’m owning it. And I’m here to tell other mamas out there that we can — and should! — give ourselves some grace when it comes to screen time.

Last summer, from the comfort of my couch in my air-conditioned home, I watched my daughter explore new shows, learning apps, and (mostly) educational games while I rested my exhausted, pregnant body. Guilty feelings aside, I was grateful she could entertain herself without us having to endure too many sweaty and draining outdoor excursions.

Young child sitting at a table using a tablet.

Something unexpected occurred; despite my worries that all this screen time was rotting her brain, I instead noticed her imagination play expanded. Suddenly, her friends (as we call her toys) began to go on sea explorations to rescue giant squids and baby dolphins, thanks to her love of Octonauts on Netflix. After playing a doctor app on the tablet, she would carry it around to perform x-rays on her stuffed animals and record digital medical notes on the blank screen. She asked me to read e-books to her about subjects I may not have otherwise considered — who knew my daughter would take such an interest in spooky ghost stories?

Over time, the shame I felt for leaving my daughter largely to her own devices (quite literally!) slowly evolved into a strange sense of awe. Her ability to navigate and understand how to use current technology progressed quickly; now I watch her and am astonished she knows intuitively what to do when presented with a phone or tablet.

Screen-based technologies are central to everyday functions — and that isn’t going to change. It’s fair to consider, on a purely practical level, that giving young children screen time early on may improve their skill sets to be successful in the future.

Screens can also be a gateway to stimulating imagination and ingenuity. Not only are there apps that foster creativity through art — drawing, coloring, creating models are examples that barely scratch the surface — but there are also plenty of role-play apps that mimic real-life scenarios, such as cooking meals and following recipes, or applying first aid to characters’ injuries. Others offer fantastical missions, such as being the tooth fairy for a night or traveling through space to discover new galaxies, planets, and lifeforms!

Not all screen-based content is created equal, of course. For every gem of an educational TV show, or app that teaches your kid how to write the alphabet, there are hundreds of others that are completely mindless. I once scoffed at the idea that I’d ever let my future children watch “non-educational” programming or have access to tablets for apps and games. I wanted to be what I considered an ideal mother (I laugh at this half-baked notion now).

But here’s what I wish I knew before becoming a mom, and what I want to share with others like me: Screen time is okay. Your kid will be okay. You are not a bad parent.

It often feels as though there’s the expectation we must be engaging in Pinterest-worthy activities with our children at all times — getting our hands splattered with finger paints and creating a messy masterpiece, building a pillow fort on a rainy day, or reading a real book with pages (gasp!) for little fingers to flip and various textures and interactive flaps to discover. But let’s be honest: Whether it’s a lack of time, energy, or money, we can’t always be #momgoals. Sometimes, we have to make do with what’s possible in a given moment, with whatever resources we have available.

Certainly, screens are no substitute for that kind of quality time. Parents can, and should, determine what they deem appropriate for their own kids. But the reality of motherhood is our own brains need a break. We’re battling sleep-deprivation, physical exhaustion, the emotional and psychological effects of parenting (and the very real, very important topics of postpartum depression and maternal mortality). If getting that mental respite means the kids watch every iteration of Baby Shark or dabble around on Nick Jr. while we take an all-too-brief shower or scroll Facebook with lukewarm coffee in hand — it’s okay.

As with any parental advice, all things should be practiced in moderation. Knowing my daughter isn’t glued to the tablet constantly and wants to play with toys and run around outside tells me that she doesn’t require it for her own happiness or entertainment. Instead of berating myself for the screen time I do allow, I am trying to let go of unrealistic expectations that perpetuate the mom-shaming culture and embrace my own intuition and judiciousness.