Alright, a confession.
When my daughter Hypatia was a baby, she would go nocturnal on me for a few days in a row. She would just stay awake all night long. It wasn't that she was unhappy, just that she was totally, 100% awake.
I tried getting her back to sleep, I tried nursing her, I tried cuddling her, I tried playing music for her. And I was a mess - I was getting really angry with her and the sleep deprivation made it almost impossible for me to deal with the daytime demands of a house full of 6 as I did home daycare. So, I did something that at the time felt like it saved my life - I moved her port-a-crib into the living room and put a Baby Einstein DVD on "repeat play" so that it just kept going all night long. She was happy, and just sat in the pen watching it, and I got some sleep.
Now, it is recommended by pediatricians that you don't let your under 2 year old watch any TV. And if you are going to let them watch it, keep it to under 1 hour a day. I was breaking that rule, in a really big way. I can't be "preachy" about this; believe me I am not "holier than thou" when it comes to unplugging our families. But media has such an influence on our lives that we cannot ignore how our children interact with it either.
I'm reading Unplug Your Kids by David Dutwin, Ph.D., and I appreciate that he doesn't have an extreme or holier-than-thou tone either. In his easy-to-read review of the current research on media and kids, he discusses each age-group and what we know about how each media affect them.
The bad news for me: research indicates that TV for babies and toddlers may stunt the ability to focus, may delay language development, and it is not recommended at all for the first 24 months of life.
The good news for me: the links found are mostly unclear, and mainly we still don't know how TV affects babies.
If I could go back, I would try not to expose my kids to TV at those young ages. But, I would also try to be a perfectly calm and loving mother despite sleep-deprivation and having to work, and I know how hard that is. Bottom-line, do the best you can. I don't think TV is good for babies and toddlers, so avoiding having it on for them would be good. Avoiding having it on adult shows while they are in the room is also good.
Some coping strategies to cut back on TV use:
Playing music for them is good, so try that if the house feels empty while you are home alone with your baby.
Keep a busy box in your kitchen for when you need to prepare a meal. It can be pots and pans and wooden spoons or tupperware, or just anything that your toddler will be distracted by while you need both hands free.
Keep a rainy day box on hand for days you can't go outside. I used to have one that I kept stocked with new puzzles and books and tubs of play dough.
If you need a break, paradoxically it can work out to spend a bit of time playing with your child, setting up a game. For instance, I would sit down and build a wooden train track for the kids, and then get up and leave them to play with it. It was also always a big hit for me to build a fort or a puppet theater out of sheets and the dining room chairs. Once they are set, you can leave to do what you need to do.
Rotate your child's toys, putting some of them away in the garage or a closet for awhile. Then when you need to introduce a distraction in your day, switch out the toys. Those that have been gone for awhile will seem all new to the kids for a bit.