Durable Human (2 book series)

Travel with Baby: To Screen or Not to Screen?

Shannon at car door and Cooper in carseat get ready for a trip

Successful travel with a baby is possible without using a device for distraction. Child development experts explain why tech-free travel is a boost to a baby’s brain, psyche, and relationship with you.   

My daughter Shannon, her 5-month-old son, and I had just finished a successful 8-hour car trip south and back. It wasn’t always easy, but we cajoled Cooper with chatter, songs, books and toysnone of which had a cord or battery.

The best moment was on our ride back home.

It was pitch dark when Cooper began to howl. We’d been driving for hours and I thought we were out of ideas, but Shannon had one more. She began to “read” The Very Hungry Caterpillar—completely from memory. Softly and gently, like so many times before, she recited every page.

Coop soon quieted down and was asleep before the caterpillar became a butterfly.

A few days later, Shannon clicked on a YouTube video claiming to have the inside scoop on how to travel with a baby. As she recalls:  

“First, the mom-fluencer, who was sitting in the back seat, showed her husband up front behind the wheel. Then the mom panned a little bit further to reveal an iPad, already playing a video, secured by a plastic case fastened to the back seat about a foot in front of the baby’s face. I had to laugh. Ohhh. That’s the big secret?”

Why Parents Turn to Tablets

Although our trip was sans tech, Shannon considered the alternative. 

“I completely understand the allure of having a tablet or smartphone on autoplay for the duration,” she mused. 

“Screens are literally mesmerizing to kids, which will almost certainly keep them zoned in or lull them to sleep within moments. Plus, there’s more enticing entertainment out there than ever, and a lot of it seems to be educational. Pressing play on the iPad is a no brainer for you and frees you up to do other things.”

What Babies Really Need

What is best for baby when it comes to travel? I consulted two experts.

Alice Hanscam lives in Alaska. Her passion for kids extends for 40 years as a preschool teacher, parent coach, and author of multiple books and articles.  

Photo of parent coach and author Alice Hanscam

Alice Hanscam

Alyssa Loberti is a Rhode Island speech-language pathologist who works with very young pre- or minimally-verbal children. In her work, she uses a “total communication, family-centered” approach.

Photo of Speech Language Specialist Alyssa Loberti

Alyssa Loberti

Both experts remind us that we grownups are used to travel, but everything is new to a baby. 

Alice ticks through the list: “the natural gazing out of the window, watching the reflection of lights and colors go by, the sounds.” All are lost when a device is on. 

“Now a child is staring at only the screen, is less tuned into their current experience, losing out on all the natural and essential learning it offers, and is being ‘told’ what to look at and think about,” she explains.  

The Isolated Child

Alyssa understands that drivers need to watch the road, but worries about “the isolated child.” 

“Rather than allowing the child to be in the experience with everyone else in the car, you have created an isolated experience where the child is doing something else. That means the baby is not in sync with the rest of the people in the car and not in tune with any talk and conversation.”

She thinks back to what babies did before iPads. “They played with their feet…made noises so the parents in the front seat could talk back…they mouthed things…they blew raspberries….they looked at a sibling sitting in the back seat.”

Babies still need those simple, full-sensory activitieseven in a car. 

Devices “interrupt crucial interactions babies require for growing well, with a responsive, tuned in parent, talking, singing, answering baby’s needs,” adds Alice. 

Screens Stress Babies

Images on a screen really do mesmerize babies. Research shows they literally can’t look away. Falling asleep is one of their very few ways to avoid the non-stop high-intensity content.  

“How frustrating that must be as they feel done with the constant input yet unable to control it,” Alice sympathizes.  

You’re also not “there” for them when they’re upset. 

“Think of the now-overwhelmed baby in their car seat with a screen on in front of them,” says Alice. “All their initial cues of ‘too much!’ were not responded to. Now baby feels more stress, which interrupts their feeling the deep connection with us that is necessary for healthy growth—emotionally and physically.”

Embracing Boredom

Distraction with a screen interferes with a baby’s chance to learn the vital skill of “doing nothing.”   

“Having a device on does not allow the child a chance to get bored and do things that we may have done back in the day before devices, such as look at cars, street signs, people walking, and the lights change,” says Alyssa. 

Our job as parents is to grow confident travelers who are in tune with what’s going on around them.

“The gift you are giving is building a foundation for successful (and screen-free) future trips as you have a toddler, preschooler, or older child happily engaged with the books, treats, little games you bring with you,” adds Alice. 

Birth of a Bad Habit

Once you start handing over a device, it becomes very easy. The experts both agree that using technology to quiet down infants can work in the moment, but set both of you up for problems later.

A parent who relies on a device to pacify a baby, says Alyssa, “tends to feed into having and needing it for them as they grow, rather than having them experience the travel and all it offers; having them learn how to self-soothe, to be okay thinking their own thoughts.

When the child then gets out of the car, I suspect the parent is then giving it to them in the stroller… at the restaurant… at the doctor’s office waiting room… EVERYWHERE.”

“Use of screens really is saying, ‘You need this in order to be okay,’” adds Alice, “and tends to undermine a child’s ability to live and act from the inside-out—in charge of themselves, feeling capable and competent.”

Shannon also makes the point that “it may hurt their staying power when it comes to sitting through something that they can’t virtually check out of, like class, church, or even dinner with the family.”

Babies who get in the habit of watching screens several hours a day are also at risk for the newly-identified developmental disorder known as Virtual Autism, described in detail here

Mom holds up toy for baby in carseat to play with

Preparing for Travel with Baby

Like anything worthwhile, travel with a baby takes some forethought and preparation. Basics from the experts to keep in mind: 

Keep it Fresh

Pack a go-bag bag with non-screen-based toys that only goes with you in the car, to a restaurant, etc. That way, says Alyssa, “the items remain novel. You can go to the dollar store and make a whole bag of things for five to ten dollars!”

Take care of baby’s needs before you leave

Be sure to change, feed, and otherwise attend to your baby’s needs before you go, says Alice. “It can be easier to hear your baby fuss or even cry as you attend to travel needs that require your full attention.”  

Use your words to transition from home to travel with baby

As you prepare for the trip and head for the car, tell the baby what you’re doing. “Say something like ‘I’m going to buckle you into your seat now so we can drive to the store! Are you ready?’ suggests Alice.

“The more familiar they are with a calm and predictable process, the more comfortable they become.”

Give baby a seat partner

Have someone sit in the back near the baby, if possible. “When babies are rear-facing, especially, you are set up perfectly face-to-face with your baby,” Shannon recalls.

“All you have to do is stare at each other and smile. You can mirror their babbling, sing them songs or tell stories, and major bonding occurs, which doesn’t happen if both of you are tuned into screens instead of each other.”

Build in time for stops

While you’re on the road your baby’s little body will remain on the same schedule as usual. Know from the get-go your trip will take longer because of stops for diaper changes, feedings, or simply to give them a break from the carseat.

Keep in mind that the World Health Organization recommends that children under age one in ordinary circumstances should not be restrained for more than an hour at a time.  WHO guidance also recommends babies should not be around screens at all except for the occasional video call when you are present.

Know baby’s gonna cry

Babies cry as a way to communicate since they don’t have words. Therefore, says Alice: “Know that it is okay if baby fusses!”

In fact, she says, it’s a growthful experience for you and your baby. “Calming yourself and growing your ability to be okay even when your little one is not is an essential skill needed all along our parenting journey! It actually provides our upset little one with a safe space in which to BE upset. 

Trust your Intuition 

We are used to relying on devices, but in this case, a tablet can’t substitute for you.

“Talking and singing to baby is very soothing and comforting,” says Alice. “Trust this.

Hearing a parent’s comforting voice at these times is far more impactful and essential than distraction by a screen—and far more supportive of growing a healthy brain.”

Alyssa agrees. “You’re helping the baby realize they are still safe and can check in with a caregiver, even from a distance (when you’re behind the wheel).”

Sometimes you just gotta vamp

Shannon discovered that gentle gusts of wind could bring Cooper out of a funk.

One time, he calmed down when she directed a hand-held electric fan (set on low) toward his face. Another time, she lowered the car window a bit and he stopped crying and listened to the sound of the rushing air.

And when all else fails, sing! Coop was at the end of his rope and a spirited round of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” got us all to the next rest stop.

Essential Items for Travel with Baby

This list comes from my daughter’s and my experience and the experts’ ideas. Try to bring along: 

  • Unbreakable Travel Mirror – attaches to rear seat headrest so driver can see baby
  • Window shade (in case of sun directly in baby’s eyes)
  • Familiar object like a cuddly blanket or stuffed animal
  • Variety of toys, such as those that:

Are soft and easy to hold (with multiple surfaces to feel, if possible!)




plush toy soccer ballRattle or crinkle when baby squeezes




Baby chew toy octopusCan be sucked and chewed, such as a teether or pacifier




Baby teether toy with loop to attach to carseatAttach to the car seat (so they’re harder to drop out of reach)




  • Baby board books
  • Change of clothes
  • Gear for colder weather, such as outerwear and blanket
  • Formula and bottles (for emergencies, even if you breastfeed)
  • Items for you, including snacks, water, other self-care objects

Your Precious Wild Human

Keep in mind you’re carrying precious and rarified cargo: a Wild Human.

As I write in The Durable Human Manifesto:

Today’s newborns are just like those who came before them— they’re as wild and untethered as the squirrels in the trees.

Early childhood is a once-in-lifetime opportunity. It’s the only time in life a person can focus full time on getting to know his or her own onboard operating system (read: their body and mind). They have the rest of their lives to plug into the digital world.    

DOWNLOAD FREE FACT SHEET “BE TECH WISE WITH BABY” by the American Speech-Language Hearing Association and the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood

In the end, Shannon says she’ll continue to travel with Coop sans tech: “Even if you don’t have two drivers, you still might want to consider giving your baby a chance to allow her senses to actively take in everything about the trip, rather than just numbing out.”

Her thoughts apply to parenting in general. 

“A road trip is an opportunity to learn about your baby through problem-solving, and trial and error. What are their nuances and quirks when they are feeling fussy? What works and what doesn’t? You aren’t really forced to tune into these clues or use the extent of your creativity if you’re just vacillating from iPad to feeding to dirty diaper and back to iPad again.

Yes, sometimes I feel like a one-woman circus and it’s exhausting, but for me—and for my baby’s developing brain—it’s worth it!”

About the author:

Jenifer Joy Madden is a Syracuse University adjunct professor of digital journalism, a certified digital wellness instructor, the founder of DurableHuman.com, and proud parent of three practicing durable humans. 




Video Feedback Shown to Parents May Help Preempt Autism in Their Babies

Photo of hands on a video camera trained at a child and mother playing on the floor. Photo courtesy Australia Infant Communication and Engagement Study

Can autism be stopped once it appears to be started? Yes, according to an Australian study, if parents are taught through video feedback how to best engage with their babies. 

“We are helping parents fine-tune their parenting to the unique abilities of their baby,” says the study’s lead researcher, Andrew Whitehouse.  

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control defines Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as “a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.” 

Autism rates have jumped dramatically in recent years. According to CDC data, 1 in 54 American children are now identified with ASD, while the number in 1975 was 1 in 5,000.

Typically, a child receives an autism diagnosis at about age 3 or 4. Until that time, babies are monitored for changes in behavior and receive usual care.  

Researchers at the University of Western Australia wanted to try a different approach: to preempt the condition.

Autism Diagnoses Reduced by 2/3 in Intervention Group

The study identified a group of one-year-old babies who Whitehouse says “were developing a little bit differently.” They displayed autistic-like tendencies, such as difficulty with eye contact or not responding when their name is called.  

For half the babies in the study group, the typical wait-and-see approach was used. Parents of the second group of babies underwent “preemptive” video feedback.

Mother receiving feedback from the videotaping of her interaction with her child University of Western Australia

“We video parents interacting with their child and go back over the video with the parents frame by frame to help them understand all the beautiful ways their babies communicate,” as Whitehouse explains about the Australian Infant Communication and Engagement Study (AICES).

“We took the approach that babies who are developing a bit differently aren’t getting the social enrichment around them that they require because they process the world in a different way.”

The results of the study: by the time babies whose parents received the preemptive intervention turned age 3, “We had reduced autism diagnoses by two-thirds in that group,” reports Whitehouse. 

“We’re helping babies develop a feeling of being perceived and understood and so that they have a greater feeling of back and forth interactions…which are really the foundational building blocks of brain development.”

Some are Simply “Late Bloomers”

In some cases, Whitehouse says, babies in the study were simply “late bloomers.” “They were always going to be on a typical path. They’re just a little bit delayed at the moment so we have to have an intervention that is ethical to deliver to people who may not even need it.”

Increased face-to-face social interaction between babies and caregivers is also corrective for the newly-identified condition known as Virtual Autism.

In that case, toddlers begin to show autistic-like symptoms after months of daily exposure to hours of screen media.  

When the media exposure is replaced with full time face-to-face talking, reading and 3-dimensional full-sensory non-electronic play, the children often return to a normal developmental path.

Parallels with Virtual Autism

As for the two conditions, “there is converging evidence, without a doubt,” Whitehouse says. “Babies require social enrichment to develop. This is not a good to have, this is a must have.”

The communication strategies taught during video feedback sessions could be useful to any parent, he adds.  

“We’ve got a whole lot of whopping distractions that constantly compete for our attention. One of great things of this intervention is that is helps parents to slow down and to understand the wonder that they can experience when they see children through their own eyes.”

Watch the interview with Andrew Whitehouse: 

Now that their findings have been replicated, Whitehouse and his team plan to share their techniques with early interventionists around the world.    

To learn more about everyday brain enrichment for babies, read this and check out the Durable U parenting course, “Supercharge the Brain and Language Power of Your Baby or Toddler.”

About the author:

Jenifer Joy Madden is the founder of DurableHuman.com. She is a Syracuse University adjunct professor of broadcast and digital media, a certified digital wellness instructor, and proud parent of three grownup practicing durable humans.

Kids Can Have Better Eyesight if Parents Know What To Do

Mom and child in park look at plants

Just like teaching them to brush their teeth, parents can help their children take better care of their eyes. That is, if the parents themselves know good vision habits. A new study shows that when parents are taught eyecare basics, they pass them on to their kids. A new parenting course helps them to learn. 

Myopia Rising

Many studies, including this new one in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology, reveal the eye condition Myopia is rampant among school-aged children.

Myopia is the technical term for being near-sighted or short-sighted. The condition changes the shape of the eye and causes things in the distance to look blurry.

Covid has made the worldwide trend worse by leading to much more screen viewing and an indoor-based lifestyle. At this rate, the Brian Holden Vision Institute predicts, by 2050 every other person will be nearsighted.

The fact that half of all humans will wear glasses may not seem like a big deal until you consider Myopia makes it easier to develop vision-destroying diseases. In the words of JAMA Ophthalmology, “One in 3 persons with high myopia will eventually become visually impaired or even blind.”

The journal authors point out another fact parents may not know: “Many ophthalmic diseases are caused by unhealthy behavior.”

In other words, eye problems can be PREVENTED.

Thankfully, another study in the same AMA journal shows Myopia rates drop among kids if parents teach them healthy eyecare habits.

In the study, teachers in China sent some of the parents of their students weekly eyecare tips via WeChat. Other parents received no special instruction. The result: “the 2-year cumulative incidence rate of myopia in the intervention group was significantly lower than that in the control group.”

Toward Better Children’s Eye Care

Exactly how do kids maintain good vision? Science is learning more.

“Both electronic screen use and outdoor activity have recently been reported as key factors influencing the onset and progression of Myopia in school-aged children,” say the JAMA journal authors.

Messages from the Chinese teachers boiled down to 3 simple habits (which The Durable Human previously detailed here): Continue reading

Durable is the New Resilient

To explain concept of a durable human being, image is of woman in business attire standing in front of a shadow of a superwoman

As the pandemic drags on, you need to be a durable human. Simply being resilient doesn’t cut it anymore. New findings point to why.  

White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci wants our response to the COVID vaccine to be as durable as possible.

Arizona Senator Krysten Sinema says only laws with bipartisan backing will be durable.  

On Joe Rogan’s podcast, New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt spoke of how “parents and teachers should be helping kids develop their innate abilities to grow and learn.” He used “antifragile.”

Lebanese-American essayist Nassim Nicholas says he coined that term because “there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile.”

But, actually—there is.

Durable: The Word We are Searching For

Endure and durable share the Latin root durare, which means to last. Meriam-Webster defines durable as “staying strong and in good condition over a long period of time.”

Resilience is “the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.”

To be a durable human is not merely to bounce back from adversity, but to have the inner shock absorbers to withstand the constant bumps on the road of life. 

“When we think about being durable,” I told host Hillary Wilkinson on her Healthy Screen Habits podcast, “we have to think about what are we. What is our edge as a human being.”

That is, the powers we have as human beings that our “smart” devices don’t. Phones and sensors may be able to “see” and “hear” as they try to emulate our famous five senses. But it’s all the other senses that machines lack.

“They don’t have intuition. They don’t have compassion. They don’t have curiosity.” Those are only a few that I named for Hillary.

Our job is to keep our human senses durable and our human selves different.

If kids spend too much time caught up in others’ creations (video games and social media, especially), they can’t follow their own curiosity. They won’t come up with their own ideas. Eventually, humanity could become more like a herd of sheep. 

As I write in The Durable Human Manifesto,

“The danger is that when individuals are no longer diverse in outlook and action, they will contribute less as a group. With little to differentiate them or to offer society, humans could actually become irrelevant. At that point, it will be easier and cheaper to replace them with robots.”

Positives of the Pandemic

Parents used their human intuition to help their kids be more durable during the pandemic.

The American Academy of Pediatrics surveyed thousands of its members and learned that many families managed to create a loving, safe-feeling, and even hopeful home as the pandemic raged around them. Pediatricians dub that a “positive childhood experience.”

Other adults also played a big role in kids’ COVID-era lifestyle. According to the May 2021 report in the journal Pediatrics, “Children have felt the caring of grandparents, teachers, health providers, home visitors, and others who persistently connected by phone, text, and/or video chat.”

A PCE is the opposite of an ACE, or an “adverse childhood experience.” While an ACE damages a child’s mental or physical health, a PCE builds kids’ self-esteem and emotional durability.

Adversity pushes us to dig deep into our inner resources. As I write in The Manifesto

It’s often when we’re forced from the familiar that our durability will shine.  

The Pinch of Generosity

But even with so much human-to-human support both online and off, many kids have drifted into not-so-healthy digital habits that are interfering with their human assets.

Surveys show the way they used technology during the pandemic has damaged their social skills, confidence, attention spans, and vision.

Kids need their parents and other loving adults to help them get back on track. To do that, we need to fully see and hear them so we can help sort out their hurt and confusion. 

The term “continuous partial attention” means always having an eye (and most likely a hand) on your phone, even when you’re talking with someone face-to-face.

“It’s very damaging for children’s self esteem,” I said to Hillary. “It forces them away and, in fact, can force them into relying on their devices.” Instead of on you.

Admittedly, it’s hard not to always be In The Know. It can hurt to set aside your phone so you can give your child your full attention. But when you feel that pinch of generosity, know you’re laying another brick in the foundation of your child’s life success.

The Road to Durable

Book Cover How to Be a Durable HumanBook cover of How To Be a Durable Human Book cover of How To Be a Durable Human

How To Be a Durable Human is filled with easy, no-cost ways to create secure attachment with your child as you build their (and your) durability.  

You can also listen to the Healthy Screen Habits podcast.

Health Screen Habits Podcast photo Jenifer Joy Madden

About the author:

Jenifer Joy Madden is a certified digital wellness specialist, a Syracuse University broadcast and digital journalism adjunct professor, and founder of DurableHuman.com.


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