Escalating an already heated national debate, a first-of-its-kind TV channel premieres Thursday designed specifically for babies — an age group that the American Academy of Pediatrics says should be kept away from television altogether.

The new, round-the-clock channel is called BabyFirstTV. For $9.99 a month, it will be available initially by satellite through DirecTV and later through cable TV providers as well.

TV offerings already abound for older toddlers, and a lucrative — though controversial — market has developed for baby-oriented videos, attracting the Walt Disney Co. and the makers of Sesame Street, among others. But until now there had been no ongoing TV programming aimed at infants.

"This is the first channel dedicated to babies and their parents — transforming TV from its original purpose into a way for them to interact," said Sharon Rechter, BabyFirstTV's executive vice president for business development and marketing.

"The fact of life is that babies are already watching TV," she said. "That's why having BabyFirstTV is so important — what we want to offer is completely safe, commercial-free and appropriate content."

A 2003 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 68 percent of children under 2 watch TV or videos daily and 26 percent have a TV in their bedroom. Nonetheless, the pediatrics academy recommends that children of that age not be exposed to TV or videos, saying that learning to talk and play with others is much more important.

The academy's guidelines were cited last week in a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission, challenging claims by leading makers of videos for babies that their products were educational.

Seattle-area pediatrician Donald Shifrin, chairman of the academy committee that studies television and children, urged parents to exercise prudence and to view the new TV options skeptically.

"Sesame Street has opened a Pandora's box by legitimizing the idea that TV needs to be developed for this demographic," Shifrin said. "We're not the nation's nanny, but we do want to provide a little balance — we don't want to make TV the default entertainer for children."

Critics of TV for infants also are skeptical of assertions by BabyFirstTV and other companies that their products are designed to be watched by babies and parents together in an interactive manner.

"Experience tells anyone that it's not going to be used that way," said Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston. "Parents use it to park their kids in front of the TV so they can get things done."

Rich said the companies "are basically letting parents off the hook from their guilt by saying, 'This is educational,' so parents can justify it to themselves."

Rechter said BabyFirstTV is not claiming that its programs — designed for viewers from 6 months to 3 years old — will make babies smarter. "But having babies and parents interact helps children's development, and we give them that opportunity," she said.

Asked about the possibility that parents might simply use the new channel as a baby sitter, Rechter replied, "We could speculate as much as we like about what parents should do."

"If a baby is watching TV, let's put them in front of appropriate content," she said. "At the end of the day, parents make the decisions."

BabyFirstTV's advisory board includes Dr. Edward McCabe, a pediatrician who is physician-in-chief at UCLA's Mattel Children's Hospital.

"I was skeptical when I first heard about it," McCabe said. "But I became convinced that this is a major evolution in media for kids."

Rechter said BabyFirstTV will start with 250 hours of content, 80 percent of it original. Some of its programs will come from baby DVD companies, including Brainy Baby and First Impressions, and it has an agreement with Sterling Publishing, a Barnes & Noble subsidiary, to use children's books in a "Story Time" program.

By the end of 2006, Rechter said, BabyFirstTV also will be available in Spanish.

The three companies behind BabyFirstTV are Regency Enterprises, a film and TV production company that is a partner of Fox Entertainment; Kardan N.V, an investment group based in the Netherlands and Israel; and Bellco Capital, a private Los Angeles-based investment fund.

Fox Entertainment is a division of News Corp., the parent company of FOX News Channel. DirecTV is partly owned by News Corp.