Do you ever find yourself gazing at your cherubic, dimple-chinned baby lolling about in her crib and thinking to yourself: when is this little slob going to stop all this drooling and goo-goo-ga-ga nonsense and start getting serious about her future?
Let's face it, it's a competitive world out there. On international standardized tests, American students are getting their bums whipped by their counterparts in Shanghai and Singapore and Finland. Harvard's accepting just six percent of its applicants. And there's your toddler, mindlessly gumming her sippy cup without a care in the world.
Perhaps you thought you'd found the antidote to your baby's shameful academic apathy: for a couple hundred bucks, you could get your kid started on the road to success with Your Baby Can Read!, an "early language development system" of DVDs, books and flash cards based on the notion that waiting until a child is school aged to teach reading is too late. To quote from the company's website: "When children develop reading skills during their natural window of opportunity, from about birth to age four, they read better and are more likely to enjoy it."
It continues: "A baby's brain thrives on stimulation and develops at a phenomenal pace... nearly 90% during the first five years of life! The best and easiest time to learn a language is during the infant and toddler years... when the brain is creating thousands of synapses, or connections, allowing a child to learn both the written word and spoken word simultaneously."
Not so fast, says the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, a Boston-based child advocacy group. Last month, the non-profit CCFC filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against Your Baby Can Read! and Robert Titzer, the doctor who developed the product, arguing that the program is falsely marketed as educational for babies.
"Your Baby Can Read! exploits parents' natural tendency to want what's best for their children," CCFC Director Susan Linn said in announcing the complaint. "There is no evidence that babies learn anything—let alone a complex skill like reading—from videos." CCFC points to child-development experts' assertions that babies' brains simply aren't developed enough for them to be able to read.
In a 2010 report on the product, the Today show interviewed 10 experts who all agreed that babies might be able to memorize words on a flash card, but are not actually reading. "I think it's misleading. I think it's false, and I think it raises false expectations," Karen Hopkins, a developmental pediatrician at New York University, said of Your Baby Can Read!
The program, CCFC contends, can also be dangerous to kids. "[I]n addition to conning parents out of $200, Your Baby Can's false and deceptive marketing may be putting babies at risk," says CCFC. The group cites a recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics that recommends children under the age of two have no exposure to television, as well as research linking early screen exposure to problems including sleep disturbances and later academic deficiencies and childhood obesity. The Your Baby Can Read! program calls for children to log more than 200 hours of screen time by the age of nine months, CFFC says.
Guilherme Roschke, a Georgetown University lawyer who filed the complaint for CCFC, contends: "Your Baby Can Read! makes numerous unsubstantiated and deceptive claims in pitching its product to concerned parents, in violation of the FTC Act. The Commission should stop these practices and correct for past harms by seeking restitution for consumers and disgorgement of Your Baby Can's ill-gotten gains."
In response to the complaint, Your Baby Can Read! told NBC News: "We are proud of our accomplishments. ... Thousands of parents have shared the success stories of their children with us, and hundreds have sent us videos of their children's progress."
This isn't the first time CCFC has gone after a company for pitching products that claim educational benefits for babies. In 2006, the group filed a similar complaint with the FTC against the Baby Einstein line of products, which is owned by Disney. While the FTC didn't take any enforcement action in that case, Disney did tone down the educational claims in its marketing and offered refunds to parents who wanted them.
"These so-called educational videos don't work," Linn says. "And they're no substitute for what babies really need in order to learn and thrive—love, time with caring adults, and the opportunity to play and explore their surroundings."