The DVDs — part of a series called "Sesame Beginnings" — are intended to be watched by parents along with their small children. Sesame Workshop developed the shows with help of experts from Zero to Three, a well-regarded nonprofit advocacy group.
Despite that prestigious partnership, the project has drawn fire from other experts who note that the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against TV viewing for children under 2. They fear the Sesame brand and Zero to Three's endorsement will convince many parents their infants would benefit from watching videos.
"There is no evidence that screen media is beneficial for babies and growing evidence it may be harmful," said the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "'Sesame Beginnings' will encourage babies' devotion to TV characters that have been licensed to promote hundreds of other products."
There already is a huge U.S. market for videos aimed at infants: "Teletubbies" has been on the air for nearly a decade, sometimes drawing similar criticism, and The Walt Disney Co.'s Baby Einstein products are very lucrative.
Sesame Workshop had stayed out of this field, but says it now has found an effective way to promote interaction between parents and children under 2 — something its executives say other shows do not do well.
"We didn't go into this in an impulsive way," said Rosemarie Truglio, Sesame Workshop's vice president of education and research. "We wanted to invite the parent into the viewing situation, to give the adult information about child development."
Working toward that goal, the videos show characters such as Baby Elmo and Baby Big Bird with their parents or caregivers, going through daily routines like feeding and bedtime.
Truglio contends there is no scientific research justifying the "extreme recommendation" from the pediatrics academy to keep the youngest children away from TV.
"We're not advocating just plopping kids in front of a TV screen," she said.
Dr. Kyle Pruett, a child development expert at Yale University and member of Zero to Three's board, initially was skeptical of the new videos but said his views changed as he thought of how to improve options for parents who already had decided to expose their small children to videos.
"These are the absolute antithesis of park-your-baby-in-front-of-the-TV kind of videos," he said. "They are thoughtful, informative — it's not a corporate campaign trying to draw kids into TV life."